Who is Negan?
In "The Big Scary U" viewers are shown Negan in a newly intimate way, and what we glean from this episode changes how we understand him. Who is the man behind the bat, and what motivates his way of life? Quite unlike in the past, Negan expresses a wide range of emotions which humanizes him, and he expresses his principles as well as details from his past, which until now have remained vague or simply absent. What does it take to finally draw out some of the secrets of this mysterious character, and does what we learn inform us about the nature and role of someone like Negan in a post-apocalyptic world?
While other characters (Rick. It's mostly Rick.) have been known to get carried away with their confidence and image, Negan's unwavering and brazen cockiness may not be just a self-indulgent shock tactic. Until now, who Negan is and why he is who he is has been a largely unasked and unanswered question. He seems to distract others from such questions through an odd combination of charisma and intimidation. Though Robert Kirkman has written much about him within the canon of the comic, he has maintained a somewhat two-dimensional persona in the television series. Finally, fans of the show are given a chance to understand what fuels Negan's ego.
Throughout his appearance in the series, Negan exudes an alpha masculinity which he uses to disempower other dominant male figures, and he does this by criticizing their manhood, quite literally and graphically. This episode in particular is scattered with phallic references, suggesting that power dynamics are a central theme this week. In fact, it isn't just Negan struggling with his cohorts over who is at the top of the pecking order, so to speak. Even Rick and Daryl get physical when they each try to take charge over the next course of action in their mission. Negan intimidates his lieutenants as well as Gabriel by making these awkward comments as well as swinging around his obviously phallic Lucille. Negan also attempts to dismantle Rick's efforts by belittling it as a simple game of "my-dick-is-bigger-than-yours." When Simon uses similar language while attempting to decide on their next course of action, Negan passionately and angrily shuts him down. Where does Negan's fixation with alpha masculinity come from? His manner of speech, his sexually symbolic weapon, and his harem of wives all attest to the importance of his masculine image. Why does Negan's ego rely so heavily on it? Is this method of asserting dominance and power ultimately effective?
Negan, the Saviors, and Hierarchy
Examining the tense conference among Negan, Gregory, and the Saviors reveals multiple weak spots in Negan's strictly maintained power structure. While Negan usually has no trouble ordering his subordinates around, this is the first time we see other Saviors challenging him with their own opinions and decisions. There are three Saviors in particular who pose a threat to Negan during this war. Viewers are well aware of Dwight's double dealings, and they perhaps still have hope that Eugene will come around to Rick's cause and aid it from within, but what about Simon?
As Negan's proclaimed "right-hand-man" and with his admittedly annoying Negan-esque mannerisms, it would appear that Simon is a devoted and trusted number-two for Negan, but could he be the true snake in the nest at the Sanctuary? Last season, Simon somewhat oddly invites Gregory to the sanctuary to talk about his concerns of an insurrection by Maggie at The Hill Top. The end of this conversation, though, is unheard by the audience as the camera pans back and drops the audio. Could Simon have sewn some kind of plan against the interests of Negan? To make this claim at the time would have been far fetched, but Negan's response to Simon's forwardness in including Gregory and hatching his own plan to simply wipe out The Hill Top is frightening and revealing. When Negan angrily shuts down Simon, he menacingly asks him if he's forgotten who's in charge and whether the two of them are "back-sliding." This power struggle between the leader and his right hand is mirrored by Rick and Daryl's disagreement. Is he referring to a point in the past when Negan and Simon were in a power struggle?
Was Simon the original leader of the Sanctuary, long ago usurped by Negan? Negan states to Gabriel that when he first got to the sanctuary, the man in charge wasn't really in charge, and so he had to take over. Did Negan put him in his place, as he so often does with other domineering figures, and then use Simon to his advantage? It is what Negan tends to do with people he considers strong or useful but doesn't want getting in his way (think back to his attempts to recruit Daryl and Sasha for example). To further this theory, the camera lingers on Simon when Gavin suggests that one of their own is a traitor, providing information to the other side that allows them to "see all and know all." These accusations obviously could be in relation to Dwight, but could both scenarios be true? Could Dwight, (possibly Eugene), and Simon all be working to take down Negan from within (and apparently unbeknownst to each other)? How could such a breach in Negan's power structure occur, and how could it affect the outcome of the war?
So many questions about who Negan is and what motivates him are answered during his confession with Gabriel. While Negan rarely appears shaken or vulnerable (especially emotionally), viewers experience a profoundly humanized Negan as Gabriel gently pulls away at his ego-driven facade. There are two aspects of Negan we become familiar with for the first time: the emotional baggage of his past that he has brought with him into the apocalypse and the personal beliefs and principles since developed which now drive his actions.
Negan is typically portrayed in two moods: virulently angry or flippantly playful. This character has been the least emotionally dynamic of the show until now. When Gabriel coaxes an emotional confession out of him about the mistreatment and death of his wife, a tearful Negan exposes the deep guilt and sorrow he conceals within him. So, Negan is not all show, and he is not merely some marauding psychopath. He is capable of love and grief and regret. Perhaps his brutal survival tactics stem from a place of pain. Considering the emotions behind Negan's actions changes our perception of this character as well as our understanding of his motivations. Not only do we gain some emotional insight into Negan, we also learn about some of his fundamental principles.
Until now, it could have been easy to write Negan off as a shallow megalomaniac, brutally bent on dominating as many people as he can for selfish gains. We now know he has an emotional side, but what about his thoughts and beliefs? Unexpectedly, he admits that he is weak, but goes on to explain the nature of weakness as he understands it. He claims that all people are both weak and strong, but that we can use our weaknesses to build up our strengths. This bit of wisdom is oddly inspiring, and it suggests how much Negan has struggled (and perhaps continues to struggle). He also tells Gabriel that the saviors stuck inside the sanctuary without him will all die because he is not there to save them. He admits this with the heaviness of a man burdened with leadership, not one out conquering for it. This take on Negan's mythos accentuates his similarities with Rick. He also makes clear to the Saviors that people are the foundation of everything, and that they will not indiscriminately wipe out The Hill Top simply to eliminate a problem. So, is Negan some kind of twisted humanitarian? Is this what "saviors" look like in the apocalypse?
Finding purpose in one's life and one's death is thematically central to this episode and this show. Through his interactions with the Saviors and Father Gabriel, it is clear there is much more to Negan than an overblown ego, an anger problem, and vulgar antics. There is deliberate purpose behind his actions, and that purpose has been formed by a trying past, deep emotions, and the wisdom gained from them. The Walking Dead has continued to blur the lines between the hero and the villain, and this episode is proof of that. Negan may not be the leader that people want, but could he actually be the leader that people need? Negan certainly thinks so.
Ciara Cerrato was a projectionist and curator at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival, and she currently is a poet and freelance writer in New York.
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