If there's a reason we've all kept watching The Walking Dead after its last two lacklustre seasons, I'd hazard a guess that this week's episode is why. "The Big Scary U" was a reminder that the show can be legitimately excellent TV thanks to its first truly thoughtful and compelling look at Negan - and the reason why he calls his people the Saviors.
The episode begins with what can only be called a managers' meeting, held minutes before Rick's attack in the season premiere. Negan essentially calls Simon, Gavin, recently introduced lieutenant Regina, Dwight and Eugene into his conference room to hear Gregory's pitch about how he's going to take back control of Hilltop and end their participation in Rick's rebel alliance. Gregory, of course, is dissembling and weaselly in the extreme, and Negan is none too pleased with him. But Gregory manages to pull it together for one assertive speech stating that Maggie tricked him and he'll fix the problem, because the one thing Gregory can do is talk big.
Simon backs him up - no doubt because as Negan's emissary to Hilltop, their defection edges him near Negan's blacklist, too - and says if Hilltop doesn't surrender, they should kill them all as an example to the other colonies. The idea angers Negan even more, who growls at Simon, "People are a resource. People are the foundation of what! We! Are! Building here!" His plan - the plan - is to capture Rick, the King and the Widow alive and kill them in a very public, "instructive" way. "We kill the right people in the wrongest way possible, and we make 'em all watch!" And that's when Rick and his army shows up, as seen from their point of view in the season finale.
Smash-cut to Negan and Father Gabriel, stuck in a trailer, surrounded by zombies. There's a brief tussle where Negan takes Gabe's gun from him, but he doesn't bludgeon the priest to death. He just has a conversation with the clearly nervous, yet somehow simultaneously calm Gabriel, defending his actions with total confidence in himself: He may have killed Glenn and Abraham, but Rick is the one who got them killed, as he's the one who attacked the Saviors in the first place. Negan's still a murderous jerk, but he isn't technically wrong here.
And that's when Gabriel realises why God has trapped him here in this trailer with this murderous jerk: To take Negan's confession.
For much of the episode, Negan and Gabriel just talk to each other, and it's fascinating. As I mentioned above, it's more abut giving Negan some much needed depth than Gabriel, but pairing the squirrelly, weird priest with the awful yet charming Negan works perfectly. Gabe hates and fears Negan, but he also genuinely wants to take his confession. And while Negan doesn't think he's done anything wrong - in fact, he truly believes he's saving lives - he is completely open with his trailer-mate in a way that makes him far more compelling than his swagger has.
Negan truly believes he's saving people's lives despite the people he's killed; in fact, it's his "whole thing". Yes, he's keeping people alive though control and fear, but that's still keeping people alive. He tells Gabriel that that thanks to Rick's assault, people inside Sanctuary are going to die, and he doesn't mean because of the zombies. It's because he's "not going to be there to stop it". Negan is the terrifying glue that holds the Saviors and Sanctuary together, and without him, he knows it will fall apart.
Negan explains how when he arrived at Sanctuary, it was a "free-for-all" that he took control of, making it strong because he was strong. Gabriel challenges him, first by mentioning the people Negan forces to work for him. Negan says they aren't slaves, it's just an economy - some win, some lose - and it isn't really any different from how it was before the apocalypse. Gabriel brings up the women he forces to be his wives; Negan counters that it's their choice. It's all a protection racket of course, but again, it is protection. Protection from zombies, protection from others - but what Negan won't admit, or can't see, is that people are submitting to his will for protection from him, too.
While Negan asks the priest to work together to escape, Gabriel tries a surprise attack; while it's unsuccessful - doesn't even come close to working, really - the priest manages to lock himself in the other room of the trailer. Separated by a wall but still talking to each other, the real confession begins (no, it isn't at all subtle, but it's still effective). After Gabriel tells him how he refused to let his parishioners into his church, leaving them outside to die, Negan explains he did have a wife, and explains his weakness. She was sick before and during the zombie apocalypse, but he couldn't put her down (much like Morgan couldn't bring himself to "kill" the shambling corpse of his wife in season one).
Gabriel opens the door and gives Negan absolution. Negan mildly but firmly punches him in the face. And then they work together to escape, using the tried and mostly true method of covering themselves in zombie guts. They exit the trailer, but only make it so far before the zombies notice them. Negan saves Gabriel's life, and it looks like they're both doomed.
While this has been going on, Negan's assertion that things in Sanctuary would fall apart without him is 100 per cent correct. With Negan missing, the dissension in the ranks begins immediately: Regina thinks they should assume Negan is dead and move on, and then sacrifice a bunch of workers to the zombies as a distraction for some Saviors to sneak out and get help from the other outposts. Gavin is sure there's a trailer in their midst. All Eugene can do is point out why Regina's idea won't work - they'd definitely die and the other workers would get further riled up - but can't offer a solution. Dwight, the real traitor in their midst, says he can take a group out without killing some of the workers, while would absolutely rile up the rest. Simon tries to take control, but he's no Negan.
After the power goes out, the workers start getting upset anyway. They come to the upper floors, where they aren't allowed, and start demanding food, water, a plan for taking care of the zombie problem, and Negan. The lieutenants try to intimidate them and pretend that they have things under control, but the workers don't back down. One of them even draws a gun, although they're immediately shot down by Regina.
And that's when Negan, along with Gabriel, shows up whistling. Everyone, workers and middle management alike, knees in obeisance. All he has to do is strut out and make obvious threats to his lieutenants for their incompetence, and all the workers are completely pacified and under his sway again. "Thank god for you!" a woman even yells to him, to Gabriel's shock. He's an arsehole, a murderer, and a monster - but to the people who love and fear him, he's a saviour, too.
We've had looks at Negan and the Saviors before, but usually through the eyes of characters we cared about. Making Negan and his lieutenants the protagonists, forcing us to accept their problems as the story's conflicts, gives them all far more depth than we've gotten to see so far. The show's had a villain problem for ages, in that they have almost always been so obviously, abundantly evil. The cannibals of Terminus, the nihilistic Wolves, and even the Saviors until this point seemed cartoonishly villainous. But now we know for some people in Sanctuary, at least in some ways, consider Negan a hero. And that just raised the drama level in the fight between Rick's rebel alliance and the Saviors considerably.
Speaking of, while Negan's explaining how he's the good guy to Gabriel, Rick continues to step back from the abyss. Picking up right after Rick wrecked the truck with the Gatling gun in it, he and Daryl start to scavenge it, and pull out a box full of dynamite. Daryl wants to use it, immediately, to blow a hole in the Sanctuary compound and let all the zombies inside. Rick says no, because there are still innocent workers in there. For Daryl, they don't matter, as long as they can eliminate the Saviors, and tells Rick he's going to do it himself. Rick says no.
Their philosophical split has obviously been coming for a few weeks now, but it's still shocking to see Daryl punch Rick. Daryl has been his right-hand man for so long. Whatever crazy phase Rick was going through, Daryl supported him. But now Rick is thinking twice about killing everyone and everything that might potentially be a threat in the future, no matter how little danger they pose in the moment… or killing the innocent, even if it would help ensure the safety of his people.
The two fight; while it's clear they aren't going to kill each other, they also aren't pulling any punches. Daryl manages to get Rick in a chokehold, but Rick grabs the bag of dynamite and tosses it at the overturned, petrol-leaking and mildly flaming truck. It's close enough. The fuses light, and Rick and Daryl stop fighting to run. There's an explosion, and then there's no more truck, no dynamite, and, presumably, no more Gatling gun.
Rick's jeep won't start, but even though tempers have cooled somewhat, Daryl isn't about to give him a ride on his motorcycle. Rick is forced to walk back to Alexandria alone.
And that's when he sees a helicopter pass overhead.
I'm not gonna lie; the episode could have been garbage, and it still would have been a thrill for a helicopter to show up finally show up on The Walking Dead. True, it's a pretty standard zombie movie trope, in that they usually signify some form of surviving civilisation, a group that held it together enough to have a helicopter, a pilot, the fuel to fly it, and the wherewithal to go (presumably) looking for survivors. But this is season eight of The Walking Dead. They have waited so, so long to pull this out, that it makes the helicopter's appearance truly shocking - almost baffling. Who's flying it? Where do they come from? What do they want? Why is it only being seen now? Whatever the answers are, it's almost going to have to change Alexandria, Sanctuary, Hilltop, the Kingdom - everything.
But it's a testament to "The Big Scary U" that such a moment still feels secondary to Negan's "confession", his self-appointed mission, and the stunning revelation that he can inspire love as well as fear - as well as what looks to be the end of the zombie apocalypse's best bromance. This is good stuff, and it's the sort of good stuff that should only keep paying off in future episodes. I'm still not going to believe that the show has totally turned it around, but this is the fifth episode of the season, and every episode has been a bit better than the one before it. And honestly? That's probably the most stunning revelation of all.
- The worst part of this otherwise very good episode was Negan's relentless talk about dicks. We get that he's pure machismo, but it's just too many dicks on the metaphorical dance floor.
- After Dwight backs Eugene's plan to lead a group of Saviors outside the compound without killing a bunch of workers, Eugene brings him some cucumbers to thank him for backing him up in the manager's meeting, and as symbol that they're going to get out of their current pickle. He may be a coward, but he's an adorable coward.
- I understand Eugene touched Dwight's chess set, whose red paint was still wet, and then realised the bag of guns stolen from the Saviors also has something wet and red on it, and thus now suspects Dwight is the traitor. What I don't understand is why it appears that Eugene doesn't just have a paint-dab on his thumb from the paint, but also a very large blister. I await your scathing explanation in the comments.
- At the very end of the episode, Eugene also checks on Gabriel, and discovers he's very, very sick. If he'd been bitten by a zombie during his attempt to get in Sanctuary, I believe the show would have shown this because narratively it's a great end-of-the-episode shocker, and wouldn't have nearly as much impact in next week's episode, so I'm assuming he's just sick. Either way, he does manage to tell Eugene that they need to get Dr Carson, the ob/gyn, out of Sanctuary and back to Maggie.
- Line of the episode goes to Negan, of course, deadpanning to Gabriel immediately after Rick has shot the hell out of Sanctuary, flooded it with zombies, and forced him to take shelter in a trailer surrounded by the dead: "Your friend Rick is an arsehole."