Spoilers ahead for the latest episode of The Walking Dead, so if you aren’t caught up with “Sing Me a Song,” feel free to take care of that now. I’m fine waiting – I can use the time to fire up the furnace.
For the first time in over a month, The Walking Dead has dropped an episode that managed to keep me at least somewhat engaged for its entire run-time, which is absolutely refreshing, especially since tonight’s episode was another “extended” episode that spaced 44 minutes of actual show into an advertisement-rich 90-minute time slot. One of the big reasons this episode worked where other extended episodes failed is because we got to see a lot of different storylines in “Sing Me a Song,” whereas other extended episodes (“Here’s Not Here,” the Morgan-centric episode from last season, and “Service,” this season’s forth installment) focused on just one story, and suffered tremendously as a result. Though the Negan/Carl arc was the main story from tonight’s episode, we also got to see several other smaller arcs, which did wonders for balancing the overall pace and tone.
Another big reason “Sing Me a Song” caught my attention was because of how closely Negan and Carl’s story in the show mirrors the graphic novel source material. As I’ve said elsewhere, the introduction and subsequent conflict between Negan and Rick is, in my humble opinion, the best part of the graphic novels. In both the show and its source material, we don’t begin to see Negan as a three-dimensional character until he spends time with Carl after the younger Grimes blasts some of Negan’s men after sneaking into the Savior compound. I’m glad to see the show following the graphic novel in this respect – not because I’m a source material purist (if I was, I would’ve quit the show many moons ago), but simply because the Negan arc is well-written. That’s it. I’m still largely underwhelmed by this season (which is tanking in the ratings, but still manages to dominate other Sunday shows – including the magnificent Westworld, which is a shame), and I doubt next week’s mid-season finale will do much to impress me.
More than anything else, “Sing Me a Song” does some decent footwork to tell us who Negan is, and how the Saviors operate under his despotic control. In one particularly gross scene, we watch as Negan uses a hot iron to burn the face of a man who slept with one of Negan’s “wives,” and while the scene does little to advance our understanding of Negan’s brutality, we do begin to see how this practice is causing resentment in Negan’s ranks – particularly from his lieutenant Dwight, who suffered the same punishment for running away with his ex (and Negan wife), Sherry. Though Negan seems to think his benevolence is being well-received, it’s clear there’s division within his ranks, and if even his lieutenants are tiring of his shenanigans, Negan may end up having a revolt on his hands. Rick never had it so easy. Aside from the new Dwight development, however, we spent a lot of time in the Savior compound listening to Negan rehash how important his rules are, which has been beaten into our heads (ha!) since the Season 7 premiere.
But Negan’s best scene – and the best scene of the episode – comes when he and Carl have their meeting in Negan’s quarters. Yeah, Negan was a dick for making Carl remove his eye bandage, but there was something very profound in the moment where Negan sees he’s made Carl cry. We’ve seen Negan employ the pregnant pause in other episodes, but those instances were meant to menace or terrify. This pause, however, pulled Negan from his almost caricature-like villainy and back into the realm of believable humanity. As he sits quietly, we get a brief glimpse of the man Negan must have been in the days before the fall of civilization, and juxtaposing that with the man we know now is something truly haunting to behold. By making Negan feel more real to the viewer, The Walking Dead is increasing the stakes of the story, because we’re seeing Negan in human terms, and not just the charismatic crazy dude who uses a baseball bat to turn heads into soup.
And I think we need to give a lot of credit to Carl himself this week. His decision to single-handedly infiltrate the Savior compound to assassinate Negan was definitely ill-conceived, but you have to admire the young man’s gumption. Negan certainly does, and instead of executing Carl the moment they captured him, Negan instead decides to show the boy around. The grand tour of the compound was Negan’s way of trying to impress Carl with his power and the amenities that come with it, but Carl wasn’t having it. Hell, Carl even goes so far as to tell Negan he probably should’ve just killed everyone in Rick’s group because they fight back so hard, and then tells Negan to jump out the window to save him the hassle of having to kill him.
We need this kind of character development from Carl. For much of the series, he’s been presented through the lens of being Rick Grimes’ son, and while his presence in this capacity has often served to propel plot points (how can we ever forget the “Carl’s not in the house!” storyline from Season 2), rarely have we seen him stand on his own. He’s one of the few characters we’ve seen on the show (and the only one still alive) who’s lived most of their lives in the zombie apocalypse, a fascinating concept the show has spent far too little time exploring. But now that Carl is a young man with a grim yet pragmatic worldview, I’m excited to see him grow in that respect. And oh man, he will never forget that Negan made him sing “You Are My Sunshine.”
As I said above, it was refreshing to get some other storylines sprinkled into our Negan/Carl main course this week, most of them focusing on the comings and goings at Alexandria. Rosita wants Eugene to make her a bullet which she plans on using on Negan, which is an absolutely stupid idea, even if her intent is pure. Eugene rightly calls her out, telling her that Negan will punish everyone else for her missteps. It was rough to see her dress Eugene down in response, even if a lot of what she said about Eugene is true. True, Eugene may have lied to her and Abraham once upon a time, but we’ve watched him at least attempt to be a better man as he moves forward.
Like Eugene, Father Gabriel is also thinking about the days yet to come. When Spencer opens up to him about wanting to oust Rick from his leadership position, Gabriel tells him “What you’re saying doesn’t make you a sinner, but it does make you a tremendous shit,” which is the greatest thing his character has ever said, managing to add levity where there was once only tedious, hand-wringing epithets. “We’re here, and we can look to the future,” he tells Spencer, and for once The Walking Dead has its characters talking about what tomorrow can be, rather than giving us the umpteenth iteration of the played-out “how can we possibly hold on to our humanity in a world like this” soliloquies that we’ve heard from so many characters over the years.
If we learned nothing else this episode, we know that Michonne is still really pissed about the Saviors burning all their mattresses (and for killing her friends, I suppose). She decided to take matters into her own hands – like nearly every other Alexandrian we see this episode – and fashions a crude zombie roadblock to capture a Savior. Putting aside the mind-boggling logistics of what it would take for one person to make such a daunting zombie-dam, we can see that Michonne has a dedicated, singular resolve to get revenge on Negan.
As we gleaned from Dwight’s behavior tonight, Negan may not have as much control over his flock as he might think. But the same can be said for Rick; virtually every Alexandrian we saw tonight – from Carl, to Michonne, to Rosita, to even Spencer and the Negan-slapping Olivia – is fighting the idea that they are now beholden to Negan and his Saviors. Carl, Michonne, and Rosita all have their own independent plans to kill the man, and Rick has no idea because he’s not around.
For some reason, Rick – the leader of Alexandria and the single person who agreed to Negan’s terms – is off with Aaron, trying to find supplies for their next offering to the Saviors. I’m not saying that finding supplies isn’t important, but it might be a good idea for Rick to stay close to home while they get used to their new situation, and send virtually anybody else out on tedious, time-consuming runs.
He and Aaron stumble upon a threatening sign which promises death to trespassers, but also explains – in great detail – what kinds of weaponry the sign-writer possesses. At the end, the sign says something like “if you made it this far, it means I’m dead,” which makes the entire I-will-kill-you preamble seem like an unnecessary waste of paint, right? At any rate, Rick and Aaron figure out that the weapons stash is on a boat in the middle of a zombie-infested pond, because of course it is. Hopefully Rick can get the supplies and return to Alexandria before Negan shows up… Oh wait. Negan’s already there, holding Rick’s baby daughter and hinting that he might just kill Rick, Carl, and everyone else so he can move out to the suburbs. Hope those supplies are worth it, Rick.
- Daryl seems to be really enjoying his new janitor job. Hopefully Negan sees Daryl’s worth, and at least gets him a newer, cleaner “A” sweater to wear. If Negan sent Dwight out to find such a sweater, would Dwight be a “better letter sweater getter”? I submit that he would.
- The plenitude of low-angle shots on Negan are getting kind of old. It’s a freshman film school technique to symbolically show how large and imposing Negan is, but The Walking Dead should at least try more skilled techniques to establish this, like, say, good writing.
- Zombie kill of the week goes to Michonne for shish-kebobing a walker’s head and letting it slowly slide off the blade.