When The Walking Dead first came to AMC on October 31st, 2010, many of us major zombie fans were excited to be getting a new show with a fresh outlook and new characters to match. Throughout the show, we had the displeasure of witnessing some very disturbing villains that come with the territory of many zombie movies and television shows. With almost all of them, I could see no reasoning, no shame, no pain, and no regard for human life other than their own. There was no actual connection. There was a substantial amount of hate and disregard without explanation or reasoning, however.
Then we were introduced to The Walking Dead’s Negan. The man remained an ethereal mystery until the very end when he had no choice but to step up and take control himself. He did some less than favorable things, and because of that, we all developed deep hate for that character, a feeling I thought was permanent and wouldn’t go away. But now, after watching his character twist and change throughout the series, I have to ask the question: Is Negan a tragic hero or a doomed villain?
I will be the first to admit I was wrong in the beginning. The more the show progressed, the more I noticed that there was much more to Negan than just the foul mouth and unrelenting charisma of Jeffery Dean Morgan. He had to have a reason for what he did. Every word he spoke made me wonder: “In a dog eat dog world, is his way the right way?” Did he do the things he did, not out of enjoyment, but out of balance? Because, let’s face it… Rick Grimes was no better when it came down to killing. If anything, comparing these two deaths to the hundreds killed by Rick, I’d say it’s logical and even understandable. Rick would have done the same thing in that situation, thinking he was doing what he had to do to protect himself and his family. It was so upsetting for us because we knew and loved Abraham and Glenn. But all of those other guys Rick took out might have been decent and just trying to survive.
I won’t get into it all, but let’s just say a lot of things happened and a lot of things changed in The Walking Dead. In many episodes, we see moments—not very dignified or defining moments, of course—where something in Negan changes. We were shown more about him in a deeper and a lot more complex way than any other villain we have come across. We saw suspected betrayal turn into an unrelenting determination to be absolved from a life he chose: kill or be killed.
Then we got the truth; we got to see his story. Not from someone else’s point of view, but from his. We got to see why Negan is who he is without any resolve, excuse, or demonization. The truth about Negan is why I sincerely believe that he is nothing but a tragic villain.
So yes, spoilers ahead. I am going to break down why I believe Negan is not just a through and through villain but a broken man with shattered memories of ill deeds done long before we meet him, and the inability to save and protect the one person he loved more than life itself.
Season 10, episode 22, “Here’s Negan,” was nothing like I expected. I hadn’t read the comic, but I had heard of his story in bits and pieces. I never expected it to hit me like it did. Out of all the episodes of The Walking Dead—and that includes all the deaths and shocking scenarios—this one was, by far, the most devastating to me. I laughed, I cried, and I was blown away. Flashback to a man, Negan Smith, sitting in his basement playing video games without care in the world. When tragedy befell his wife, Lucille, he was away cheating on her. With that aspect, I was disgusted by him. She knew, but she did the only thing she could do as their worlds fell apart: she stayed silent. When her illness got worse, Negan, out of guilt and pain, took it upon himself to reconcile with her. He made it his life’s mission to care for her, and he did. Negan and Lucille created this little heaven for themselves in a world of turmoil. They spent days together doing normal things, surviving in a dismal world of fear and pain, all while her illness got worse.
She forgave his transgressions and wanted to make the most of the time they had left, to just be together. But Negan couldn’t. In an act of vile circumstance, he left the love of his life to save her, only to return to more devastation. With that, there was nothing left. What else did he have to lose? The part of him that was Negan Smith is now dead, and all that is left is Negan, the man who doesn’t care, likes to kill, and despises everyone. But I don’t see him that way anymore. I see a man who made a mistake before a global catastrophe and spent the rest of his life trying his damnedest to make up for it. Even after she forgave him, he couldn’t forgive himself. Every life he took was an ode to her memory, another, “I’m sorry… this is for you, Lucille.” That whole episode makes it so evident that he isn’t just a villain. We were shown his bond throughout the seasons with other characters and even his determination to try to make an incredibly big wrong a right with Maggie, to try anything to fix those mistakes of his past by doing right in the present.
Negan isn’t just a villain. He is a tortured soul who did what he had to do, the only thing he could do. So, what now? What will the future bring for him in the final season? My heart broke with his story and, in the end, he is the only character I feel a true connection to. Do you feel the same?