As lousy as last week’s episode was, the much-anticipated Negan origin story is that excellent, living up to its considerably great expectations. I spent a minute looking back at what we already knew of Negan’s history before the apocalypse and learned that in the comics, he was always an asshole. After his first appearance in the season-six finale, Jeffery Dean Morgan said he imagined Negan was the “dick” you knew in high school, and that he “didn’t turn into this in one day.” But being rotten to the core doesn’t make for a sympathetic antihero, especially one who’s married to the saintly Lucille. So instead of a jerk who gets jerkier, the television Negan turns out to be a deeply flawed but essentially good-hearted dude who lost the one thing he cared about, never forgave himself for it, and took out his pain — and his shame — on everyone else.
The setup for Negan’s stroll down nightmare lane comes courtesy of Carol, whose solution for the cut-it-with-a-knife tension between Neegs and Maggie is to ship him out of A-town to a remote cabin (funny how there never seems to be a shortage of horror-movie-ready cabins around here). Such is the thanks Negan gets for aiding Carol in overthrowing the Whisperers. On the one hand, Carol is now so annoying that I’m inclined to dislike any decisions she makes. But I still marvel at the fact that Negan is so sympathetic and likable despite having butchered one of the show’s most beloved characters in one of the most gruesome death scenes in television history. That Negan has escaped cancellation despite Glen’s protruding eyeball is perhaps this devil’s greatest trick.
Alone and feeling introspective, Normcore Negan argues with Old Negan, who says this exiled loser is “nothing without her.” We see the tree where Rick slashed his throat, and his pathetic plea to Michonne in A-town jail hoping to “see her.” Normcore Negan heads to the tree, starts digging, and eventually hits literal pay dirt — it’s “her,” Lucille. Seeing the ol’ girl inspires a loving look, though perhaps for the first time, Negan is thinking more about its namesake than its body count.
Who would have guessed that the first step in Negan’s domino chain toward evil would be a jukebox dispute? Through a series of time-hopping flashbacks, we learn that Negan was actually a devoted gym teacher with a perfectly mundane suburban life and a loving wife in Lucille, who put up with his basement man cave, online video-game sessions with teenagers, Iron Maiden posters, and splurging on a $600 leather jacket despite being unemployed. Everything changed one fateful night when he nearly beat a guy to death for disrespecting both his woman and their favorite song, Joe Cocker’s “You Are So Beautiful.” Negan lost his job, got sued, and left Lucille to pay the tab. His “Happy Days bullshit,” as she accurately called his treat-yo’self purchase, looks pretty bad in that context.
Negan digs himself deeper into a hole that seems impossible to escape. Alone at the doctor’s office, Lucille learns she has cancer and figures out that Negan is off somewhere shtupping her friend. Later that night, she waits for her philandering husband to return home with a pistol in one hand and medical brochures in the other. Lucille decides to give him her diagnosis rather than hot lead, showing impossible strength in the hope that, as she’ll say later, Negan will live up to the potential she sees in him.
Lucille’s gamble pays off. Post-diagnosis, Negan breaks off the affair and devotes himself to her care. When the world collapses, he hunts for chemo drugs, learns how to deliver them to her, and syphons gas for a generator to keep those life-saving bags cold in their fridge. Despite having nearly killed a guy in a barroom brawl, Negan isn’t much of a fighter of the undead — poor Lucille has to drag her meds outside and save him from a zombie dance partner. That leads to a moment that holds subtle significance, as Lucille says it’s easy to kill zombies since they’re not people anymore. Negan isn’t bothered by the killing, he says. He’s afraid of getting used to it.
It’s hard to watch these scenes without thinking about how these two are married in real life. Their chemistry is undeniable: Every time they look at each other — during that candlelight dog-food dinner, goofing with her wigs, Negan’s failed attempt to read Pride & Prejudice — their affection is palpable. One might argue this casting is a distracting stunt; being in love with your acting partner is a bit of a cheat, and it pulls you out of the story a bit. TWD is not high art, however, so kudos to Hilarie Burton for bringing Lucille to life as a once-in-a-lifetime love, and for establishing Negan’s humanity despite the bad shit he’d done before and the truly horrifying shit he’ll do later.
Later begins when Lucille’s out of chemo and begs Negan to go on alone. He swears he won’t give up on her, but six weeks later, he’s still out in the woods trying to find a mobile health clinic. Negan eventually admits he couldn’t stand to watch her die, so he ran away; “I was a coward,” he’ll say to himself in the cabin. That seed of deep shame would eventually turn him into a monster.
Negan’s failed attempt to rob the mobile clinic is most shocking for both his total ineptitude as a criminal and the appearance of Nosering, a.k.a. Laura, as the kind doctor’s kind daughter. Not only will she later become one of Negan’s most trusted lieutenants in the Saviors, but she also gives him a rather significant gift — a baseball bat for protection.
Negan doesn’t exactly pay that forward, though. Desperate to bring Lucille her meds, Negan sells Laura and her dad out when he’s captured by a bunch of bad bikers — were they his inspiration for starting his own motorcycle gang? Laura probably wouldn’t have become such a devoted member of the Saviors if she knew Negan was the reason for that ambush.
Given Lucille’s health when Negan left her nearly two months earlier, he must have expected her to be in bad shape when he returned. But he didn’t anticipate she’d take pills, tie herself to their bed, and cover her head in a plastic bag. It’s a gut-wrenching scene as Negan weeps and what’s left of Lucille squirms and snaps at him (though the Joe Cocker tune was a little too on-the-nose). Lucille’s earlier words have an awful significance now: It’s only easy to kill zombies when you didn’t love them. Negan wraps some barbed wire from their fence around the bat, puts on the leather jacket she eventually gave him, and sets their house — and his walker wife — ablaze. As he watches everything he lived for go up in flames, a new Negan emerges.
Negan returns for revenge against the biker gang and kills a lookout with his new as-of-yet-unnamed weapon. He then admires his bloody handiwork: It’s the first human he’ll kill, and he’s already getting used to it. In another first, Negan delivers one of many more lengthy pre-homicide soliloquies to the gang’s leader, in which he explains how he literally saw red during the bar fight that cost him his job. There was a bad man deep inside, but the world around him — lawyers, the love of his wife — kept that hidden. Now all that’s gone and Negan is seeing red again.
Back at the tree in present day, Negan kills a zombie with Lucille and falls to his knees — the ol’ girl just doesn’t have the same good vibes. When you think about his deep love for his wife, it’s especially sick that the talisman he chose for her memory was a piece of wood he used to butcher other humans. One could argue that stick was his therapy, a release of the self-hatred, and guilt he couldn’t face until this moment. Negan asks the departed Lucille for forgiveness — though he probably should have added “I’m sorry for all the murders, too” — and promises to finally fight for her (hitting people with a Louisville Slugger in her name definitely didn’t count). There’s a poetic parallel as Negan wraps up the bat in a cloth — a funeral shroud of sorts — places it gently in the fire, and watches it burn. It’s the loving good-bye he wasn’t able to give the real Lucille.
Back at A-town, Negan strolls in with more swagger than you’d expect from a guy who’s in need of winning hearts and minds. Carol welcomes him back but makes it clear: Maggie’s gonna straight-up kill your ass. So along with whatever comes of the Army base that Daryl apparently found (thanks to those fatigues-wearing zombies he encountered in the last episode), Negan’s new attitude and delicate co-existence with Maggie will be perhaps the most pivotal storyline in the upcoming season.