Nobody wins anything in this week’s episode of The Walking Dead: Dead City
. Maggie (Lauren Cohan) tries and fails to locate Hershel (Logan Kim), Amaia (Karina Ortiz) and Tommaso (Jonathan Higginbotham) lose a number of their people to walkers because they don’t use an obvious means of escape, Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) saves Perlie Armstrong (Gaius Charles) only to be arrested by him moments later, and the Croat (Željko Ivanek) - like the viewers - finds his old mentor a bewilderingly changed man. The episode positions everyone for how the season will ultimately play out, and there is a lot of movement, including a dramatic fight scene in an arena filling rapidly with walkers. There are explosions and haunting choral numbers, lots of jaw clenching and many charged stares. Children, and parenthood, are central to the episode’s themes.
“Kids,” Simon (Steven Ogg) barks at the Croat during the opening flashback, “is a line we do not cross. We all know that.” I sighed, while also wincing at his grammar. Kids are a line the Saviors crossed at Hillside when they beat a sixteen-year-old to death, a line Simon himself crossed, slaughtering the boys at Oceanside without repercussion, and a line Negan crossed when he tried to crush Carl Grimes (Chandler Riggs)’ skull like an eggshell in the season 7 finale of The Walking Dead
. The opening scene of “Everybody Wins a Prize” is vigorously, determinedly revisionist. To be fair, the franchise has worked hard at Negan’s redemption for years and thrown unfortunates such as his now-abandoned wife Annie (Medhina Senghore) into the mix, purely in the interests of softening his character. Annie’s brutal beating and gang rape were written to allow Negan a sorrowful sigh, a flicker of the lashes that might imply tears as he told Maggie the fate of his wife. If nothing else, The Walking Dead
’s sheer doggedness in their quest for his redemption should be acknowledged.
When AMC cast Jeffrey Dean Morgan in The Walking Dead
’s sixth season, they must have popped open the champagne. Handsome, charming on screen, an actor with impressive range, Morgan made Negan instantly unforgettable in every aspect, from his physicality to his manner of speech. The villain was more terrifying than those who preceded him, because he was such a potent mix of charisma and psychopathy. He could read his audience and perform to their worst fears; he had complete control over his people. And his signature weapon was both gory and, in a deliciously sick touch, named after his late wife.
But villains, in The Walking Dead
as in most fiction, must meet one of two fates: death or redemption. And for Negan, the most openly sadistic of any antagonist in the universe, the powers that be chose redemption. Maybe they fancied a challenge. Maybe they were reluctant to lose an actor of Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s caliber to the outcome that, frankly, made the most sense for his character. Whatever the case, the franchise finds itself, in Dead City
, relying more and more on the goldfish memory of the audience to further its aims. Negan is a murderous psychopath who tried to kill Carl Grimes? No, he isn’t, he didn’t, he clearly loves children. The Walking Dead
keeps putting them in his path because they’re a quick route to absolution: Judith (Cailey Presley Fleming), Lydia (Cassady McClincy), and now Ginny (Mahina Napoleon)—all young women, to counter the uncomfortable knowledge that Negan coerced other
young women into “marrying” him.
Lest you think I harbor an irrational hatred of Negan, let me hasten to say I do not. In his Dead City
era, I simply find him dull and a little cringeworthy, his character development difficult to parse at this stage without it becoming entertaining for all the wrong reasons. The wild, unpredictably evil energy that defined him in his debut season on The Walking Dead
is wholly vanished. Now he is Uncle Neegs, who took early retirement from war crimes so he could foster a poor orphan girl. If there must be a Negan show, I’d like to see Negan wrestle with the reality of what he did - killing people and enjoying it
- instead of pretending he acted out of necessity and hated having to do so. I’d like to see him question his own sanity, his own humanity, and struggle with issues of forgiveness and rehabilitation. That
would make for a more honest show, and one that might cause me to consider meatier subjects while watching than how good the Dead City
soundtrack is (it’s very good). Jeffrey Dean Morgan is eminently capable of performing at that level of emotional complexity, and it would be more worthy of him than what the writers for Dead City
have thus far offered. Alternatively, I’d like to see more of Maggie being anyone except Glenn’s traumatized widow.
Lauren Cohan has her most moving scene thus far in “Everybody Wins a Prize.” Searching for the imprisoned Hershel inside the Croat’s base, she opens a door to find someone slumped in a chair - dark-haired, clearly dead. Frozen with fear, she waits for Negan to lift the corpse’s head. When it is not her son, she cries, a quiet, involuntary sob that is more breath than sound. It is a second of vulnerability that is more affecting than anything else she has done on screen this season. Certainly, Maggie is more recognizable in this moment than she was last week, ready to burn the evidence that Ginny was wandering the Island so that Negan wouldn’t go looking for her - thereby sentencing the girl to almost certain death. (Of course, Ginny, travelling alone with her stuffed toys through a walker-infested metropolis, somehow managed to survive and to locate the group - what luck.)
The opening flashback for Dead City’
s fourth episode is a scene revealing the events, described by Negan in an earlier episode, which led to his attempted murder of the Croat. The Saviors’ torturer kills a teenaged girl during an interrogation, against Negan’s orders, an act so apparently repellent to the leader that he can no longer have the Croat among his people. Fair enough. But disobedience, far more than violence, has always been anathema to Negan, and the plot would have been more convincing if the Croat had been banished for going against explicit orders. That, however, would not serve the same purpose: to draw a distinction between the monstrous child torturer, and Negan. I can’t help but feel that the Saviors’ leader - a specialist in inflicting psychological agony on his enemies and their offspring, ready to smash in skulls at a moment’s notice - perhaps has little right to be so squeamish about the methods the Croat prefers to use.
“Everybody Wins a Prize" is one of the weakest episodes of the series, and a reminder once more that this is not a show about Maggie’s search for Hershel, or about Maggie and Negan’s relationship, or even about the “dead city” itself. It’s a show about how Negan isn’t so bad after all, and never was.