The Walking Dead’s Season 6 finale ended with the death of a major character whose identity has finally been revealed, and also, the introduction of a new villain, Negan, who looks to be the show’s most intense and vexing bad guy yet.
Negan is all gore, and instantly perplexing. Last night, we watched as he dragged his spiked murder bat named Lucille around (it’s decorated not just with barbs, but with brain and guts) and spent the majority of the episode taunting Rick and his friends. In a drawn-out sequence meant to maximize our misery, he clobbers Abraham and then, in shocking Finish Him! fashion, bludgeons our beloved Glenn to death. Even the most ruthless villains on The Walking Dead have managed to rationalize their malice with moments of complexity—maybe those moments will come for Negan. But by playing up the persona of the torturer who toys with our emotions instead of an antagonist with a complicated objective to foil the protagonist (and challenge our emotional IQ), The Walking Dead has introduced a bad guy in the shallowest of ways.
What’s instantly frustrating about Negan is precisely what makes him scary. He labors in gratuitousness. He’s the epitome of the unnecessary bad guy monologue in movies at the point when all we want is for the bad guy to get on with it already, whatever it is. While it’s clear that Negan is exacting revenge on Rick for the murder of his men, he expends energy to make it extra horrific. He knows what would cripple Rick is the loss of his people, which is an obvious button to push. Rick’s crew has encountered terrible humans before, but Rick could always handle them. Perhaps the point of Negan is that the final evolutionary form of a villain in an apocalyptic world can exist as nothing but pure evil.
This video essay proposes that a great antagonist is able to exploit the hero’s weakness (i.e. the Joker in The Dark Knight). The story in turn depends on how interesting that weakness is. Over on io9, Rob Bricken writes, “Negan is by far the most interesting villain the show has had, because he still just oozes affability, even while he’s the most murderous of bastards.” Negan has the potential to be interesting. As first impressions go, though, he’s hard to embrace as a villain. (Keep in mind, I have not read the comics.) Right now, he’s simply a killing machine. The best of The Walking Dead’s bad guys, including the Governor, the Cannibal leader Gareth Rick and even Rick, have consistently teetered on the edge of morality and evil, with a purpose to their madness. While Rick has certainly met his match here, the show has to do a lot to make Negan more intriguing than just a sexy bad guy who loves a good kill.