Can Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) be redeemed? Pretty much since Morgan was cast as The Walking Dead‘s biggest bad, that’s been the question on fans’ minds. Morgan is charming, he’s handsome, he’s magnetic. Negan has also killed some of the most popular characters in the history of the show, and seems relatively remorseless about doing so. And that’s exactly what TWD grapples with on this week’s episode, in a metatextual way that doesn’t offer any easy answers.
Spoilers for The Walking Dead Season 10, Episode 5, “What It Always Is” past this point.
The incredibly smart decision the show makes right off the bat is pairing Negan with a fan named Brandon (Blaine Kern III). The character is somewhat based on a Brandon from the comics, not Brandon Davis, the Walking Dead writer over at Comic Book dot com, so get that thought straight out of your head. But where the source material gives Brandon a bone to pick with Rick Grimes, here he just loves and idolizes Negan.
Brandon knows everything about Negan’s old life, down to the whistle he used to do before killing people. The way Brandon is played and written, it works as both a second generation character who had grown up with tales of Negan’s exploits (we’re about a decade down the road from the Negan/Rick war at this point); and how actual The Walking Dead fans feel about Negan in real life.
It’s the latter that’s most fascinating. Go to any comic convention, and you’ll see dozens of Negans of all sexes dressed up as a merciless killer. Negan, of course, is a fictional character, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan has never bashed in anyone’s head with a baseball bat (to my knowledge), so on the surface it should be safe. It’s also an iconic silhouette, complete with the leather jacket, red handkerchief, and of course Lucille, his barb-wire wrapped baseball bat. It makes sense as a costume… Until you consider that his actions were so monstrous, they sent every character into a depressed funk for nearly an entire season (and arguably began the slow ratings decline for the show).
So what does Negan the character do when presented with one of these fans? He very low-key panics, but tries not to show it, of course. Other than a few trips to the vegetable garden, he’s been living in a tiny cell for years at this point. The people of Alexandria don’t trust him, the only companionship he’s had is characters yelling at him or blaming him for murders, other than a few good conversations with kids. He’s been demonized and beaten down for years, and upon finally escaping is dressed like a prisoner, not the Big Bad Wolf we know and hate to love.
That’s not how Brandon sees him, though, and in order to placate the kid Negan plays along in part. The direction is smart, too, pitting Negan against a walker and framing the shots just how they did years ago, when he bashed in Glenn’s (Steven Yeun) head. It’s just a walker, but after the first real bout of unbridled violence he’s experienced in years, Brandon gives him two presents: a new bat wrapped in barb wire, and his leather jacket, which Brandon stole from storage.
This is the decision that Negan almost silently grapples with this episode… Who is he now? Is he the unstoppable, merciless leader of the Saviors? Is he the better man Carl Grimes (Chandler Riggs) hoped he would be, before he died? Or something new?
He tries to move forward, despite Brandon’s incessant presence, asking him questions extremely reminiscent of what fans ask at conventions (“can you do the whistle?” “when you were at The Sanctuary, why did…” etc.). While traveling, they encounter a mom and her son, running from zombies. Negan banishes Brandon, and bonds with the kid, teaching him the fine art of “nut tapping,” which is exactly how Negan would bond with a kid. It’s also probably the relationship he always wanted with Carl that was complicated with the whole “I’m gonna kill your dad” thing.
…and then Brandon, of course, kills them both. He thinks he’s acting on secret instructions from Negan, which again, apes fan behavior. More often than not, fans will read “coded” messages in character’s behavior, or follow instructions that the writers/directors never intended. In the world of The Walking Dead, this means murder.
It also means that, depending on how you, the viewing audience, want to interpret it, Negan either slips into old behavior, or moves into a new mode. I err towards the latter, as he immediately cracks open Brandon’s head like a melon. He also takes the bat and the jacket (which he rejected earlier), and dresses the part again, traveling to the territory of the Whisperers, villains who wear zombie skin and have repeatedly threatened Alexandria and other communities. There, he repeats his classic “little pig” speech from back when he was the Big Bad, and ultimately enters a showdown with the Whisperer number two in command, Beta (Ryan Hurst). “Alright, you big-ass freak,” Negan says at the end of the episode. “Let’s do this.”
Does this play on the animal part of our brains that wants to see Hurst and Morgan go at it? Hell yeah it does. It’s almost certain to be an epic throwdown. And a lot of what this means for Negan depends on what happens next.
But as for redemption, it’s still a question as we wrap up the episode. Negan tried, he clearly did. He wasn’t ready to head back and face the music at Alexandria, but he did want to help the mom and son he met, and help that community by sending them back there. Ultimately — and we’re skirting potential spoilers from the book here — it seems like he knows he can’t deny his basic nature, to be a killer, to be the man with the barb wire bat, to be the bad boy the fans want to be like, even though they know better. But at the same time, perhaps he can use that for the good of the world, not just the good of himself.
Negan may not be redeemed, or ever be capable of being redeemed; but for now, he’s on the right path. The question is whether fans like Brandon will follow him along the way.
The Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9/8c on AMC.