“Your property now belongs to Negan.”
No six words could have struck more fear—and excitement—in the hearts of The Walking Dead’s comic book readers, who understand the depths of human depravity soon coming to their screens. In a post-credits sequence after the AMC zombie drama’s sixth midseason finale, Daryl, Sasha, and Abraham are accosted by a menacing group of bikers who demand their weapons, their truck, and everything else they own. When Sasha demands to know why, the chattiest of the bunch utters that terrifying name: “Negan.”
While Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s debut as the psychopathic leader of the Saviors is still probably at least a half-season away, Robert Kirkman’s comics offer hints of what to expect. [Skip this paragraph if you want to remain potentially spoiler-free!] The Saviors—one of the largest, most powerful groups of survivors in the Walking Dead universe—effectively rule a Virginia community called the Hilltop Colony. (Dwight, the character who made off with Daryl’s crossbow two episodes ago in “Always Accountable,” is a member of the Saviors in the comics—and the man who murders at least one beloved character.) Their ruler, Negan, is the gleeful sadist behind one of the most traumatic scenes in Walking Dead history, in which he beats Glenn to death with his barbed wire baseball bat, nicknamed “Lucille.”
Negan, in other words, is a cruel, ruthless, and evil man. He makes The Governor look like a teddy bear by comparison.
But there was more to “Start to Finish,” Sunday night’s episode, than ominous glimpses into an unhappy future.
A weakened watchtower crumbled down onto Alexandria’s walls, unleashing hell in the form of 5,000 walkers lurching into the tiny, unprepared town. The episode leaves most characters’ storylines woefully unresolved—Glenn has yet to reunite with Maggie, even after all that maddening, pointless cliff-hanging, for example—but its best and most important scenes came, of course, from Carol and Morgan.
The tension between these two uneasy allies (the series’ most fascinating characters at present) erupted into an all-out brawl over the fate of an injured Wolf in Morgan’s basement. While Morgan wants to save the murdering madman’s life simply because he is human, Carol sees nothing but a potential threat in him—one that must be eliminated immediately, along with anyone who stands in her way.
The heart of Morgan’s story this season has been his grappling with the value of human life and the nature of evil. While Rick has mostly adopted Carol’s “kill first, ask questions later” style of survival, Morgan still wants to believe that all human life is precious—an admirable position if you’re lucky enough to live alone in a secluded cabin in the woods like Morgan’s martial arts mentor, Eastman.
But the zombie apocalypse is, essentially, a never-ending state of war. Morgan’s resolve not to kill, even while under attack, feels like naivety at best, and straight-out denial at worst. His newfound moral code saved him from losing his mind, true. But in the relentlessly brutal world of The Walking Dead, it won’t ever save him from anything else. (Not realistically, anyway, though there’s always the metaphorical "sliding under the dumpster" trick for when the confines of believable storytelling become too tight! Ugh.)
To Carol, the show’s most hardened survivor, pre-apocalypse questions of morality (Can a killer ever be reformed? Are all people, even murderers, worth saving?) are useless, even dangerous. (Though, in a rare moment of hesitation this season, Carol wavered when Ron asked her about the difference between her and “the monsters.”) Thus, The Walking Dead asks, if used for “good,” which works best: brutality or mercy?
The conflict between Carol and Morgan is like the old Superman storyline in which the man of steel (who adheres to a strict no-kill code) is rendered irrelevant by a team of vigilantes called the Elite. Metropolis and the world fall head over heels for their new “heroes,” who actually kill terrorists and criminals without hesitation—until their wanton violence spins out of control and Superman, in all his moralistic perfection, swoops in to save the day.
Whether Carol will come to some realization about her limits—her watery eyes and trembling hands in this episode betrayed more compassion than she would like—or if she’ll wake up and actually strangle Morgan for knocking her out, losing their weapons, and getting Denise kidnapped, remains to be seen. But so far, the show has seemingly sided with Carol: She was right about the Wolf. He should have died.
Elsewhere in the episode, more proof that the world is a cruel and unfair place came with the fact that Deanna is now dead, but characters like Ron and Father Gabriel are still alive. For what it’s worth, the former congresswoman’s final moments were a welcome rarity for this show in that they were actually satisfying. The sudden dawning of comprehension on Deanna’s face after she saw the bite, coupled with the only appropriate words for that situation—“well, shit”—was the simplest, most human moment the show has pulled off all season. Her feral, soundless scream as she spent her last bullets taking down zombies felt just as sweet.
Team Rick, meanwhile, is pulling the old zombie guts trick, covering bedsheets in zombie blood to sneak past the horde outside Jessie’s house. It’s been done before, but this trick is never not a delight to watch. Or at least, it was until Sam’s mewling threatened to get everyone killed. “Mom? Mom? MOM?” the kid begins to whimper, putting the lives of literally everyone he knows at risk. (At this point it’s a hot competition between both Sam and Ron for the title of Jessie’s Most Annoying Child.)
Whether Sam or Ron (who was equally useless this episode) get their mother killed, whether Denise survives her Wolf encounter, and whether Daryl, Sasha, and Abraham will surrender or strike back at the Saviors will be revealed in February.
Until then, beware: Negan is coming.