The Walking Dead is not a good show. Maybe it was at some point, but it lost its way. It’s an unwieldy mess full of uninteresting, poorly formed characters who only exist to become zombie fodder. And the stronger characters that make up the backbone of the show have fallen victim to sluggish storylines and stale motivations. The unyielding grimness and repetitive plots have turned the show into a predictable chore that isn’t worth anyone’s time.
However, the character of Negan invalidates all of those arguments. If there’s anything keeping The Walking Dead going at this point, it’s Negan. In fact, he’s the only thing keeping the show compelling.
What Makes Negan Great
To understand why Negan is saving The Walking Dead, we need to take a look at his character and how he relates to the rest of the ensemble. Naturally, an easy go-to is that he’s the villain of the piece. We’ve had other villains before, but Negan offers something really special: He enjoys being the bad guy. There’s a genuine joy to Negan’s cruelty that somehow makes us get into the spirit of his sadism. We love to hate him, but it’s hard not to get sucked into his personality.
Which is the next thing that makes him a powerful antagonist. Unlike the sullen nature of the Governor, Negan has flair and is often brandishing a big grin on his face. There’s something inherently captivating about watching a character have fun, even if what they’re doing is deplorable. But more than just being happy, Negan has dimensions to his character that are big and bold. When he’s angry, it’s like a volcano erupting. When he’s playful, it’s like a little boy taunting a classmate on the playground. When he’s serious, you know to take care because it’s so rare that he becomes straight-faced.
The other characters in The Walking Dead have become so predictable. It doesn’t help that they get swept up into boring plots, but the way a character will react in a certain situation is almost always a given. There’s little that’s surprising about how Rick or Daryl or Michonne treat a particular moment or obstacle. In contrast, Negan is so terrifyingly unpredictable. He’s a welcome dose of chaos in a show that’s become so formulaic.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan
It’s no secret that Jeffrey Dean Morgan was a huge get for the show. He’s an actor with a body of work that speaks for itself. He certainly has nerd cred thanks to his roles in Supernatural and Watchmen, but he’s also proven to be a delight in lesser appreciated fare like The Losers and The Salvation. What Morgan brings to the show is almost immeasurable. Obviously, there’s prestige in getting such a strong talent… but it’s more then that. Mainly, he’s one of the few people on the cast that seems to like being on the show.
Don’t take that as a dig against the ensemble, but it’s hard to stay invested when the main players in your story are so miserable all the time. It’s tough to tell if Norman Reedus or Melissa McBride love their job. But that is never in question with Morgan. Every scene with Negan is refreshing and dynamic. You can visibly see Morgan getting into the body language of Negan, leaning his body into certain lines and projecting like he’s playing to the box seats in an opera house. For a show that’s become synonymous with gloom and doom, there’s a perverse amusement to seeing Morgan brighten the place up in such a vicious way.
The King of the Wasteland
But the idea at the core of Negan that makes him such an enthralling figure is his desire to rule. Not just to govern, but to dominate. We’ve seen would-be rulers before and since, but nothing quite on the scale that Negan desires and seems to have accomplished. It’s always intriguing to see why a character wants to be a king and Negan’s reasons are still a bit mysterious at this point. But it’s the good kind of mysterious. Morgan’s performance hints at more beneath the surface, but it’s clear how much he gets off on being an emperor.
And that’s what it keeps coming back to: Negan loves being Negan. The Walking Dead isn’t a fun show and Negan’s monarchy has brought fun into the format. Yes, the show was never meant to be fun, but that dreariness has finally made the show a slog. Negan has brought life, exciting uncertainty, and a bravura performance to The Walking Dead. If he can maintain those elements, it will still be a show worth tuning in to.