Years from now when television critics and scholars look back on the AMC series' eleven-season run, I hope that that the six episodes making up "Season 10C" of The Walking Dead aren't just recognized for having been made in the face of a still-raging pandemic- though it is more than deserving of that note. No, these chapters should be recognized as exemplifying the very essence of what TWD has been about since its first episode- the survivors. But not in terms of "good guys" and "bad guys" but in realistically complex terms that demonstrate time and time again how just one bad day… one moment of decision or indecision… can make the difference between a Rick Grimes and a Negan. This makes for an appropriate segue into my review of this weekend's (second) tenth season finale, "Here's Negan"- so you know what that means, right? We're throwing on the "MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD!" sign and meeting you on the other side of the following spoiler image buffer- see you in a second.
Director Laura Belsey and writer David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick can proudly add their names to the directors and writers who contributed to levels of storytelling that were bold, daring, and impactful- with heart and meaning. With "Here's Negan" came the extra responsibility of not only telling the backstory of a righteously popular character but also set the tone for the series as it moves into its final chapters beginning this summer. But before I get to the serious stuff, in the interest of full disclosure I do have to admit something I found amusing in an episode that was definitely not a laugh-fest. The way the signs kept coming up to tell us where in the timeline we were going had me laughing at one point because it brought to mind that SpongeBob SquarePants episode where the voiceover kept giving out a time-lapse update before going "Eventually" and the "purge" episode of Rick and Morty when Morty shoves the lighthouse keeper down the steps before yelling, "You like that? You want me to cut to three weeks earlier when you were alive?".
That aside, I need to look at the three key components that made this episode of The Walking Dead work in all the ways it needed to, and that has to start with Jeffrey Dean Morgan. When the episode kicks off, tensions around Alexandria are still running high now that Maggie's (Lauren Cohan) back and she's brought some of her people with her. At first, we think Carol's (Melissa McBride) taking Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) on a mission to calm the waters- only to learn that (according to Carol) the council has decided that Negan is to banished to live outside of and cut off from their community. From there, the ex-Saviors leader revisits his past (with Hilarie Burton-Morgan as his late wife, Lucille) as he finds himself needing to choose between the man Maggie sees him as and the man Lucille always saw in him.
To accomplish this feat, Morgan demonstrates once again what so many of us have known for a while now: the dude's one helluva actor. Sure, some actors can do a deep-dive into a character and own it, while others can play multiple roles convincingly in a series. What Morgan did was show us just how much he knows Negan beyond the sly smiles and witty one-liners. And how did he accomplish that? By playing multiple versions of the same man- each one portrayed with his own charms and faults. The Negan we know now, the Saviors leader, the pre-Saviors caring husband, the pre-walkers high school coach, and the Negan we're left with at the end- smiling in defiance to both Maggie and Carol. Yet the one link they share in common- the single, red thread that connects all of these versions together. That veil of blood each has found themselves looking through- and finding themselves wanting in the face of it. Morgan's performance doesn't ask for forgiveness- that's clearly something he needs to offer himself, first. But it does demand that you at least appreciate and understand Negan's journey before labeling anyone "heroes" and "villains." Just consider how easily this could've been Rick's (Andrew Lincoln) story.
But for Morgan to do his dance, he needed a dance partner who could match him every step of the way- and he more than had that in Burton-Morgan, our second component. It would be easy to say that their real-life marriage made it easier for the two to vibe the chemistry that Negan and Lucille needed to truly tell their story. But it would also be an insult to both actors- especially Burton-Morgan, whose portrayal of Lucille is something that could easily be crafted into a one-woman show. As someone who's faced his own health challenges, Burton-Morgan's Lucille embodied every person I've ever known who's found the strength to carry on even as their own body is fighting them. And the one who found the strength and grace to know when it's time to move on from the fight. Lucille never lost hope, never stopped seeing the decency and grace in the man she loved- and when the end was nearing, she never stopped preparing him for life after her. This is why that scene in the field when current Negan finds "Lucille" and ends up using it to save himself from a walker before it splits for good is so important. It's her final message to him to stop running away from her- to stop running away from being the man that would prove she was right about him all along.
That brings us to the third component that made "Here's Negan" work so well: what it sets up for the final season. I would be lying if I said this episode made me like Carol any better, and I'm curious if Daryl (Norman Reedus) really did help her or if she just name-dropped. Either way, it looks like Negan was right about "seizing reigns." Now with Maggie, it's tough to argue with how she's feeling even after all this time- especially with her little one growing up and asking more questions. But before I go siding with anyone, let's just remember that Rick and the gang did head over to the Saviors for a kill-first-ask-questions-later mission that I'm pretty sure killed some decent people. Then here's the matter of Daryl technically being the reason for Glenn's (Steven Yeun) death (he should've stayed down), and you start to understand once again how things are never clear-cut in The Walking Dead universe. Plus, Maggie's been gone while Negan's been on a redemption run- that has to amount to something. That said, even I was surprised by the smiling confidence that Negan had when he told Carol he was returning to the community and then never broke stare with Maggie until he got his point across. But what point is he trying to make? Ahhh… that's why the ending was so effective. Nothing wrong with a little cliffhanger between friends.