On The Walking Dead, There’s Not Enough Origin in Negan’s Origin Story

On The Walking Dead, There’s Not Enough Origin in Negan’s Origin Story
A mild-manned Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) reads Pride and Prejudice to his wife Lucille (Hilarie Burton Morton) and hates it. (Photo: AMC)

As The Walking Dead’s only villain-turned-protagonist, Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) has always been one of the series’ richest characters. Giving us a look at his life before he led the Saviors, before he wielded his baseball bat, and even before the zombie apocalypse could have made him even more fascinating. Instead, The Walking Dead manages to tell Negan’s origin story without really telling us anything at all.

Here’s what we knew about Negan’s life, primarily thanks to his confession to Gabriel back in season six: he had a wife named Lucille (played here by Hilarie Burton Morgan, Jeffrey’s real-life spouse) who died of cancer after the dead rose from the grave. After she passed, he named his trademark baseball bat after her, which was a strange homage that nevertheless revealed his true affection, given that Negan freaked out when he thought the bat was lost.

Here’s what we learn in “Here’s Negan:” not much else. After Carol takes Negan out to a cabin in the woods where he can stay without getting murdered by Maggie, the specter of his charismatic, murderous past appears to taunt Negan into finding his lost bat (it was pretty much where it fell after Rick slit Negan’s throat back in the season eight finale) and remembering his origin story for the audience’s benefit, which revolves around Lucille (his wife, not his bat). The episode decides to use multiple flashbacks within flashbacks, which are so wildly uneven that they’re much more awkward than compelling.

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First, it’s 12 years earlier, where Negan has been captured by some thugs. Then, it’s two or three days before that, when Negan tries to rob some doctors but also ends up captured. Then, it’s six weeks earlier than that, where we get to see Negan and Lucille living their post-apocalyptic life together…followed by seven months earlier, pre-apocalypse, where Negan is a deadbeat husband cheating on Lucille with her friend Janine right as Lucille gets diagnosed with cancer. The Walking Dead posits Negan as a minor dirtbag who transforms into a wonderful, loving man the minute he learns his wife is sick, but we spend so little time with him in the former mode that there’s no time for it to sink in.

Lucille gets the bad news. (Photo: AMC)Lucille gets the bad news. (Photo: AMC)

Most of the episode is focused on him being the perfect husband, cooking for Lucille, hunting for bags of chemotherapy meds to continue her treatment, and badly crooning Joe Cocker’s “You Are So Beautiful” as they spoon in bed. There’s no edge to this Negan whatsoever — he’s actually meek to the point of nearly being nebbish, which is hammered home by his emotional difficulty with taking out a single zombie, and his eye-rolling concern that he’ll get too “used to it.” There’s no depth to him, either, even when he’s captured by the doctors he fails to steal medicine from (they end up giving it to him) or when he’s giving up the location of those doctors to a group of thugs that also capture him, in order to gain his freedom to bring that medicine home to Lucille.

So when Negan returns home to find Lucille has killed herself — even though he was bringing her last chemotherapy treatment — and become a zombie, there’s no sense of him turning into the villain he’s introduced as back in season six. Hell, it’s not even a sad scene, because “You Are So Beautiful” is playing while Negan gazes into the lifeless eyes of his undead wife, which is clearly supposed to be emotionally impactful but is instead absolutely hilarious. Even when Negan torches the house and leaves to kill the thugs who detained him — the very first people he ever murders — there’s no pathos or panache to it, no nihilism or even anger, really. The closest thing we get to a transformation is when Negan gives a speech to the last remaining thug which becomes smarmier as it goes on.

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Even when the episode gives us answers, they’re not particularly compelling. How’d Negan get his jacket? Well, he bought it. How’d he get his bat? One of the doctors gave it to him for protection, utterly unceremoniously. Why is it covered in barbed wire? He put it on for no discernible reason. What did he do pre-apocalypse? He was a gym teacher before he got fired after getting arrested for beating a dude up (more on that in musings below), neither of which we get to see. Here’s what else we don’t see: any real indication of how this man was corrupted and still managed to cobble together and lead an army, which would have been the most interesting part of his past.

This was actually covered in Negan’s origin comic series. Maybe that was the plan for the TV series as well until, of course, the pandemic forced the show to drastically scale back the story to something that would only require two or three people to be on-screen at a time. If so, it’s our loss.

Look how meek and unassuming Morgan plays pre-Saviors Negan. (Photo: AMC)Look how meek and unassuming Morgan plays pre-Saviors Negan. (Photo: AMC)

All this dunking on it aside, “Here’s Negan” still feels more vital than last week’s “Diverged,” since we are getting to spend time with a different side of a character. Seeing the world before the apocalypse, even briefly, is jarring in a very good way. The Morgans also have great chemistry with each other, which isn’t that surprising, but is still an asset. Plus, the episode ends with Negan symbolically burning his baseball bat and returning to Alexandra, even though he knows Maggie is absolutely going to (try to) kill him eventually, which is way more satisfying than him staying out of sight for a while.

Overall, as weird and awkward as these six bonus episodes of season 10 have been, I think they’ve benefitted the show far more than they’ve detracted from it. It’s been nice having these small, quiet, character-focused stories after the lengthy conflict with the Whisperers, and before their fight with the evil Empire (or whoever the PlayStation 5-looking weirdos who have Eugene, Yumiko, Ezekiel, and Princess are). Maybe they’ve just been a way for the show to film during the pandemic, but it’s been nice having a breather — honestly, it’s made me more excited for the show to return in earnest for its 11th and final season, which is supposed to premiere this summer. Whenever The Walking Dead makes me look forward to seeing the next episode, I know it’s doing something right.

Wig fun! (Photo: AMC)Wig fun! (Photo: AMC)

Assorted Musings:

  • OK, so the story of why Negan beat that dude up is bananas. So he and Lucille are at a bar, listening to “You Are So Beautiful” on the jukebox, but this guy is loudly talking over it. Negan asks him to pipe down, the dude rudely declines, and Negan beats the crap out of him. Even Lucille later says, “The guy had it coming.” Guys? You weren’t at a concert. You were at a bar where people are definitely allowed to talk to each other, even loudly. If you want to listen to your song undisturbed, go the hell home.
  • They did a pretty good job de-ageing Negan for his flashbacks, I think? I wouldn’t think they used CG — I suspect it was just hair dye and make-up to smooth some of Morgan’s wrinkles — but I also wouldn’t bet against it.
  • I really, really liked Lucille, sitting in her car, trying and failing to process her cancer diagnosis so thoroughly she doesn’t even hear the radio announcer say, “The killers seem to be eating the flesh of their victims.”
  • Negan is the first person on The Walking Dead to ever realise both he and the world of the show are innately preposterous: “I regret that I named a stupid baseball bat after you.”