Before the season began, showrunner Scott Gimple curiously described this fifth episode as “acoustic.” That makes sense: If the first four episodes were a mosh pit of action, this one was Nirvana Unplugged. The return of Negan offers a tantalizing glimpse into his backstory, his organizational philosophy, and the inner workings of the Saviors’ executive board. There’s also a brotherly fistfight between Rick and Daryl that ends with the two knuckleheads losing a precious resource and a major hint regarding the final move in Rick’s master plan.
The opener is an unusually long prelude. We flash back to Father Gabe in his church, expressing his fear of a fruitless death and asking God for purpose. Then we’re reminded of the reason he’s trapped with Negan: Gregory, who’s back at the Sanctuary, sampling Simon’s homemade pancakes (“Fill your belly up with my love,” says Simon in typically gross fashion) and promising he’s still in control of the Hilltop. In the Saviors’ boardroom, Gregory launches into his pitch and sounds like a cross between a used-car salesman and the world’s worst Herbalife rep. His clumsy catchphrase about the “big scary U” — as in “unknown” — falls flatter than Carl’s hair under that sheriff’s hat. “Negan,” Greg says while sweating profusely, “I don’t like killing people anymore than you do.” Read the room, dude! Even Negan can’t stand this double-crossing weasel: “I think you are a thin-dicked politician threading the needle with your thin, thin dick.” I can’t confirm those details, but I agree with the sentiment.
As it turns out, Negan wasn’t kidding when Rick’s caravan rolled up in episode one and he announced, “I was in a meeting.” Simon had just suggested a “thick and veiny show of force” (really, could these guys be any more disgusting?) to keep the Hilltop and the rest in line. Yet the concept of mass murder sets Negan off in a surprising way. “People are a resource. Money on the table. People are the foundation of what we are building here! Who the hell do you think you’re talking to? Are you confused about who we are? Are you confused about who’s in charge? Are we backslidin’, Simon?” (Later, Negan says the Saviors once had a leader who he dethroned. Was it Simon? I doubt it — that guy is probably dead.)
When we finally see Gabe and Negan in their sweatbox, they’re wrestling with that never-ending post-apocalyptic debate: Is anyone really a bad guy, or is it just a matter of perspective? Negan lobbies hard and unconvincingly for the latter: “I killed the widow’s husband and the ginger, but I didn’t get them killed. That was your boy Rick. Big difference.”
But Negan speaks for all of us when he asks Gabe a question that’s been bugging me since the season premiere: Why would he help a “bearded prick” like Gregory? Gabe isn’t really sure. All he knows is that he’s in this jam (or pickle, as Eugene would say) for a reason. Perhaps that’s to give Negan an opportunity for yet another joke that references either a penis or masturbation. Negan insists he’s got a clean conscience, justifying all his misdeeds. All the people he’s killed? No one who didn’t deserve it. The enslavement of his workers? They’re better off now than they were before. His harem of suicidal wives? Those women chose to be with him.
Gabe eventually hits pay dirt and gets Negan to admit his first wife “was a real wife — my only real wife.” Not surprisingly, he lied to her and slept around. When it’s time for confession, Gabe admits his greatest sin was abandoning his congregation; no surprise there. Negan’s only regret wasn’t being a lousy husband, it was when his wife got sick during the apocalypse and he couldn’t put her down. “That is how I was weak.” Negan also reveals he worked with kids in his past life: “If you don’t show them the way, well, they turn out like garbage. Little assholes become great big ones. So you show them the way. Adults, they need it, too. Government, laws, religion, guilt.” That’s cool and all, but what exactly was Negan’s job? Life coach for aspiring biker-gang members? North Korean work-camp supervisor? Little League hitting instructor?
While Negan’s trapped with “Gabey,” there’s quite a bit of palace intrigue in the Saviors’ C-suite. Demotion doesn’t mean a pay cut or a loss of stock options — it’s a death sentence, and Simon aims to flush out the rat he correctly presumes is helping Rick’s crew. Eugene is the obvious mark, so much so that Negan tells him to either find the snitch or it’s curtains, placing him in serious CYA mode. Luckily for him, Dwight is a great wood carver but a shitty painter, and Eugene notices a splotch of red on a stolen knapsack from the armory. That’s a bad sign for Dwight’s future as Rick’s double agent and a living human being.
For all of Negan’s talk about people being the most important resource, it’s clear he’s backing it up when he and Gabe appear just in time to quell a riot by the workers. (C’mon, people, unionize!) One minute, it looks like the gen pop is going to bum-rush Simon and take over the Sanctuary; the next, they’re kneeling before their leader, who describes the sturdy qualities of his nutsack and pledges to get back to the business of saving people (which is a really unique spin on the Saviors’ value proposition). One of them even says, “Thank you, Negan. Thank God for you.” Sounds like they may be more willing to fight for Evil Fonzie than Rick expects.
Oh yeah, Rick and Daryl. So much of their plan focused on stealing heavy artillery, and thanks to Carol and some awful Savior marksmanship, they got the guns. But Daryl finds some boomsticks and decides it’s time to just blow the whole damn Sanctuary up. That doesn’t sit well with Officer Friendly, who’s concerned about the innocent workers. (Hey Rick, if Luke Skywalker worried about the contractors on the Death Star, we’d all be living under Galactic Empire rule, or something like that. I think Kevin Smith would agree.) So Daryl and Rick get into a fistfight while the truck full of guns leaks gas. Rick could toss that sack of dynamite anywhere, so he logically flings it at that gas-leaking ammo truck. The two have a funny and surprisingly nonchalant reaction to their screw-up: Daryl makes Rick hoof it and Rick begins the last stage of his plan — which seems to be to convince Mrs. Spock and her Junkyard Dogs to join him.
The coda with Eugene is a weird one, as he brings pillows for Gabe and acknowledges the Sanctuary’s “prickly heat,” only to find Gabe feverish and delirious. Eugene says the priest needs to see “Dr. Carson 2.0 ASAP” and Gabe has a revelation about his purpose. They say the Lord works in mysterious ways, but I hope that Gabe is meant for more than just recruiting a doctor for Maggie.