The Walking Dead Villain Watch season 8, episode 16: Wrath

The Walking Dead is back and careening toward the conclusion of the “All Out War” saga. That means the end of the feud between Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) and his archnemesis Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) — and perhaps that’s a good thing. Overall, the show’s big bet on Negan has been a bit of a misfire, with ratings hitting staggering lows last year, and Negan himself largely absent from the first half of the show’s eighth season.

But a season-ending climax is an opportunity to bring all the threads together. I’ll be analyzing the season’s final episode through its presentation of Negan: how he acts, how he delivers his jokes and threats, and most importantly, how his character develops in contrast to our supposedly virtuous heroes. We’ll look at all the traits a villain is supposed to excel at — including those we detest — and boil it down into one single score on what we are calling the Negan-o-meter™. A score of 10 means he’s the best, most complex villain we’ve ever seen; a score of 0 means he’s pretty much the same ol’ Negan he’s always been. Hopefully, in these final episodes, The Walking Dead can turn Negan into the big bad audiences have always wanted.

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge
At long last, The Walking Dead has arrived at the conclusion of the Negan saga. Over the past few weeks, the show has displayed a level of unpredictability that would have seemed impossible back at the season 7 premiere. That’s when Glenn was killed off and the show began feeling shackled by its comic book source material. Now, nearly two seasons later, the cheap character deaths and gimmicky cliffhangers have all but disappeared as more momentous world-building, narrative closure, and character explorations have taken center stage. Perhaps not surprisingly, the show’s ratings have responded accordingly.

But last night’s season finale, “Wrath,” fails to build on that creative momentum. The episode may ultimately be a satisfying episode of television, but aside from a few minor curveballs it plays things safe, and it takes almost all of its cues from writer Robert Kirkman’s comics storyline. In that sense, the TV show’s version of the Negan saga ends the same way that it began: resigning itself to mediocrity by focusing on telling someone else’s story.

SETTING THE STAGE FOR BATTLE
Following last week’s last-minute surprise, in which Dwight’s turncoat tactics came to light and Negan plotted an ambush against Rick, it seemed like TV viewers might get a radically different conclusion to the “All the War” storyline than the one that the comic book delivered. But “Wrath” throws the entire Dwight subplot overboard in the first 15 minutes of the episode, wasting the immense emotional investment the show has encouraged viewers to make in his character.

While Rick and the others felt they were going to be able to get the drop on Negan, they quickly discover that they were being set up when they take out a group of Saviors that just happen to be carrying a map of Negan’s actual location. Thinking they’ve kept the advantage, they arm themselves and head out to take him down. But first, the show takes a breath with an emotional moment Rick finally asks Siddiq to tell him how Carl had become infected.

Meanwhile, the show cuts back to the Saviors, where a conversation between Negan and Gabriel reveals that map Rick has just found is also a fake, a backup decoy just in case the original plan to use Dwight to spread disinformation didn’t take. It completely sidelines Dwight for what feels like a completely unnecessary (and convoluted) reason, right when the show had the opportunity to do something unique and original. Instead, it pivots right back to the comics.

EUGENE’S REDEMPTION
Rick, Maggie, Daryl, and nearly every other high-level character on the show walk into a giant field, thinking they’re about to turn the tables on the Saviors when they suddenly hear Negan’s voice on a loudspeaker. Thanks to Eugene’s bullet-making operation, the Saviors are prepared to wipe every single one of them out. Negan holds Gabriel hostage and announces his intentions, echoing the moment when Negan first introduced himself and bludgeoned Glenn to death.

But this time, things go a bit differently. As the Saviors open fire, every single one of their guns backfires, blowing off hands or otherwise severely injuring every single member of Negan’s army. It becomes clear that boobytrapped bullets are to blame, and in one fell swoop, Eugene has apparently come to everyone’s rescue. Rick and the others seize the opportunity to charge. Gabriel and Dwight, both of whom were dead men walking just a few moments prior, try to take Negan down themselves, but he escapes with Lucille, Rick close behind.

After all the back and forth, the turn of events feels way too easy — particularly with the Saviors injured, but not killed, from to the stunt, letting Eugene claim the moral high ground. I suppose it’s nice that his role pays off in a big way, unlike what happened to Dwight. But Eugene has become so unlikable over the course of the story that it became an irritant every single time he appeared on-screen. It comes off as punishing the audience, all in service of a cheap trick.

RICK’S PIVOTAL CHOICE
The final showdown between Rick and Negan kicks off in a location we’ve seen before: the tree with strange glass arrangements hanging from its branches, that first appeared in a mysterious flash-forward in the season 8 premiere. Rick gets a shot off, shattering a hole in the glass but just misses Negan’s head. Then, despite having a working firearm, Rick waltzes right into hand-to-hand combat with Negan — and is almost immediately disarmed as Negan pushes him to the ground.

It’s here that Rick evokes the words of Carl to try and reason with his nemesis. Rick asks for 10 seconds before receiving a fatal swing of Lucille to the head, and he uses that precious time to psychologically hammer Negan where he knows it hurts. He explains that Carl wanted to find a peaceful way forward and that things don’t need to end in violence. Negan almost looks convinced, tears welling up in his eyes. But Rick, it turns out, has the upper hand — psychologically and physically. He slashes Negan’s throat with a piece of shattered glass from the ground.

RICK’S DEFEAT OF NEGAN IS ALMOST IDENTICAL IN THE COMICS
As he contemplates killing Negan, Rick turns to see that the remainder of his forces are victorious, and the Saviors surrender. He’s won, and he fights the urge to celebrate by taking Negan’s life, despite vigorous protest from Maggie, who screams that they have to kill Negan to truly end the war. Rick refuses and tells the Saviors that any one of them can join their community so long as they denounce Negan’s worldview and subscribe to a philosophy of peace and fairness. Rick then instructs his people to bandage Negan up.

It should be noted that this is exactly what happens in the comics, and while it would probably have been asking too much for the show to boldly kill off either Negan or Rick, the final outcome still feels painfully predictable. The theme of mercy and forgiveness has been the one genuine emotional thread the show has spent time developing this season, and it makes perfect sense to have it culminate with Rick sparing Negan’s life. But at the very least, the show’s writers could have put their own stamp on it. Instead, the finale defers to Kirkman with an almost religious fealty, and as a result, the episode feels stale when it should be thrilling.

CLOSURE, BUT AT A COST
The final quarter of “Wrath” sets up the future by explaining the whereabouts of all of the show’s many characters. Morgan, still an emotional wreck, goes off on his own. (He’ll become a series regular on Fear the Walking Dead, which had its season 4 premiere last night.) But before that, he makes a pitstop to see Jadis, who reveals to him that her real name is Anna. He informs her that she can join the Hilltop if she chooses, but it’s not clear what plans the show has for her, or whether the unexplained helicopter people will factor into the new season.

Dwight tries to make amends with Daryl by apologizing for killing Tara’s partner, and for all the damage he’s caused since. Daryl lets Dwight live, but he makes it clear he hasn’t forgiven the man. Dwight is effectively banished, but seeing Negan fall wraps his arc up cleanly. He’s shown rereading letter his ex-wife Sherry wrote to him before she fled the Sanctuary, setting up the prospect that he will go search for her next.

IT ALMOST FEELS LIKE A SERIES FINALE, EXCEPT FOR ONE LAST-MINUTE TWIST
Negan, meanwhile, will spend the rest of his life in a jail cell. He’ll act as a witness to the greatness they’ll all accomplish with him out of the picture, Rick says. And as Carl would have wanted, Rick will use the fact that they spared Negan as an object lesson, an example of the kind of civility and justice they’re trying to reestablish.

It almost feels like a series finale, except for one last-minute twist. Inside the Hilltop mansion, Maggie plots with two others to secretly kill Negan to avenge Glenn — and to possibly overthrow Rick if necessary. It’s then revealed that her co-conspirators are none other than Jesus and Daryl, which frankly doesn’t make a lot of sense. Jesus has spent the better part of his time on the show trying to convince others that nonviolence is the answer, yet the audience is now supposed to believe that personal loyalty to Maggie trumps that worldview.

The reveal is shocking, and certainly sets up a complicated dynamic for incoming showrunner Angela Kang to play with, but it also feels like The Walking Dead is just looking for motivations to give its sprawling cast of characters, many of whom have outlived their ability to grow and adapt to the changing storylines.

It could also be a way to prep a reduced role or quick exit for actress Lauren Cohen, who is now set to star in ABC’s action drama pilot Whiskey Cavalier. Cohen has also been involved in an ongoing contract dispute with AMC, and currently has no deal in place to return for The Walking Dead’s ninth season, so there are many reasons why the show could have decided to launch this particular story thread. But dragging Daryl into it, particularly after he seemed to abide by Rick’s new worldview, doesn’t feel earned. It could theoretically lead to be a more nuanced, complex portrayal of the character, but given how underdeveloped he’s been for the last few seasons in the moment, it simply comes across as the show’s writers picking the most convenient characters to lump together in a shocking scene.

EVALUATING THE VILLAIN:
Cunning: Negan had the upper hand throughout “Wrath,” no question about it. He was able to outsmart Rick and the others twice, lead them straight into an ambush, and was in a position to wipe his enemies out once and for all. What he couldn’t account for, of course, was Eugene’s betrayal. But Negan played an incredibly strong hand up until that point.

Perseverance: Negan never seems to give up, even when it’s clear the tides have turned against him, as was clear in last night’s finale. Even when facing imminent death, as he did while running from Rick, he always seems ready for a fight, particularly if he has Lucille at his side.

Brutality: Negan’s decision to wipe out Rick and the Hilltop with a mass firing squad was probably one of the more vicious moves he’s plotted in his two seasons on the show. (The killing of Glenn and Abraham and his favorite ritual face-burning exercise come out just ahead.) It didn’t quite go as planned, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that Negan is always willing to go further than almost any of his enemies.

GRADING NEGAN:
After the slow and steady evolution of Negan’s character, and the significant time the show put in to humanize him, it turns out his big downfall was trusting other people to remain loyal. While it still felt like Negan was a puppet of his comic book storyline for far too much of the past two seasons, it did feel rather fitting that his ego was what ultimately did him in, even when it was clear there were plenty of people in his own ranks who wanted him dead. Negan never even contemplated what it might mean to lose, falling right in line with his massive savior complex.

NEGAN STILL FEELS LIKE A WASTED OPPORTUNITY
But it still seems as if Negan was a bit of a wasted opportunity. The comic book version of the character was a true enigma, someone as equally sociopathic as he was capable, empathetic, and likable. Actor Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Negan, on the other hand, almost always felt disjointed. He came close to achieving his counterpart’s combination of qualities in flashes but was never given enough of an opportunity to truly become an all-time great unto himself. Now, he’ll presumably become a mainstay of the show’s cast, and how effectively he can be integrated into storylines moving forward is going to determine just how relevant he’ll be.

Perhaps The Walking Dead would have been better off if the whole series had ended with Negan in a hospital bed, resigned to live out his days in prison, and knowing his way of life faltered in the face of the future Carl wanted. That would have been a much more fitting end for the show’s most nefarious villain, whose biggest victim it seems was actually the show itself. Instead, The Walking Dead will just continue shuffling along with its diminished ratings. There will undoubtedly be no shortage of conflict next season, and the show will do what it does best: manufacture new villains out of thin air as the series hops across its never-ending series of recycled story threads.

But ending it all with Negan’s defeat could have sent a message that there is hope in this world and that Carl’s vision was something that shouldn’t just be aspired to and hoped for, but can actually be created by people with strong enough will. Instead, The Walking Dead will just continue to be a zombie itself — shambling forward as long as ratings allow, without death, but without many purposes, either.