By Geoffrey Bunting
The Walking Dead is one of those shows that has trouble keeping its quality consistent. It has its good moments, certainly – the battle for the prison, that first shot of Atlanta, the whole CDC arc – but it’s also had a lot of bad – the whole of Season 2, for instance.
One thing The Walking Dead has been good at is culling its characters when they become too numerous to handle, or when certain characters get too annoying. Andrea overstayed her welcome but was gotten rid of, The baffling “we shouldn’t kill zombies” philosophy sealed Dale’s fate, and Jessie’s ridiculous children bit it – pun intended – along with their stupid bowl-cuts. It knows how to keep the cast fresh only removing fan-favourites when they’ve overstayed their welcome – yet somehow, Carl still lives.
Generally, it achieves these culls by introducing a villain who, for varying reasons, wants to kill a lot of people. However, this is where The Walking Dead has fallen short. Throughout the series, the chief antagonists – be they obvious (Governor) or subtle (Jenner) – have ended up being something of a disappointment; none more so than the current batch: Negan and his Saviors.
The show tries hard to make us care about its villains. It’s devoted whole episodes to Dwight, who is about as interesting as a bag of onions, in an effort to have us empathise with him. But we can’t. Just as we can’t care about any of The Saviors we’re introduced to. These are not interesting characters, they are not complex characters, they are characters who represent the extreme of the brutality that has been rendered a default in the zombie wasteland.
As much as we can appreciate Jeffrey Dean Morgan getting work, Negan is not remotely interesting or enjoyable. I mean, we can only watch a man lean backwards so many times before we begin to get bored of him – or he falls over. Of course, we’ve got a little way to go in season 7, so redeeming motivations may become clear at some point. But the chances of them completely changing the character are slim.
The fault isn’t in the characters though. The problem is, when we examine our plucky group of survivors we see that they aren’t much better than the people they come up against. Rick and his friends are not survivors, they are conquerors. We can be shocked by Negan’s level of evil, but the things Rick and his group have done are just as bad. They are only stopped, momentarily, when they meet other large bands of survivors; survivors with the same attitude – i.e. the competition. Their reaction is to then remove said competition.
The show goes to immense lengths to make sure we know that the most dangerous thing in a zombie wasteland is the people. Yet, at no point do we see Rick’s group doing anything to alter this perception. They never conceal themselves or move on, they always fight and conquer. The show tries to show this in a sympathetic light, but just as with its villains, it fails to touch our empathy.
We have seen other groups adopt different and successful tactics; we’ve seen two of them in this current season. The female-only camp that Tara encounters early on and the dump-dwelling survivors that Rick tries to bring into his failing empire – both of these groups have seemingly survived without murder being their driving force.
The argument is, of course, that this is what is necessary in the new world. And this is true, to a point. When resources are scarce and apocalypse makes a murderer out of everyone, it is natural that a certain brutality will reign. But at many points in the show this violence seems wilful, not out of desperation. It’s even got to the point that they have had to derail Carol’s narrative because she was getting so good at killing and would have provided too much of a mirror for the current string of bad guys.
The problem is, when your protagonists; the people we have no choice but to root for, are essentially evil, your villains have to be worse. But, one can be too evil to be believable, and that is what is happening. In order to come off as worse than Rick, The Saviors have to be so high on the villainy scale that it beggars belief.
In Season 3, we had two main villains: Merle and The Governor. Merle had an arc that allowed him to be slightly redeemed and thus provided an interesting narrative, yet the Governor descended further and further on the scale of unreality. At first, he had motivations – a dead daughter and a creepy obsession with zombies – and he had a community that kept him on the level. Yet, once Rick and his group began to invade and conquer his land; after Rick begins to more or less wantonly kill in order to keep his own land, The Governor had to become more and more unbelievably wicked.
By the end of his run, The Governor had become a kind of caricature of evil. He is there simply to provide a vehicle for shock. This results in Herschel’s death, him gunning down a group of his own people, and him sporting a wicked eye-patch – to leave you in no doubt that this guy is full-on bad news.
Negan, however, does not have this descent. He starts off this way and he does not have the luxury of a group of normal people around him, rather he has a group of similarly awful followers with only a few outliers. So when we see his particular brand of ultra-violence, we don’t engage with it in a visceral way, instead we find it boring.
Character hasn’t been The Walking Dead’s strong point, but that is exactly what it needs in its villains. Slapping their antagonists with a single trait, i.e. evil, is the typical uninteresting trap that many writers fall into. But when we cannot connect with our villains in some way; when we can’t empathise with their point of view, we cannot engage properly with what they do.
In turning Rick into a dictator with control issues who, even when he has lost his empire, is intent on being in charge of everything, the writers have backed themselves into a corner over their villains. This is exacerbated by their apparent refusal to kill him or his son off, or – as may be more interesting – turn him into the show’s villain. There’s no doubt that Rick and his band of merry murderers are going to triumph over Negan, but there’s also no sign that future villains will be anything but just as boring as the others.