You hate to say this, for several reasons, but it can’t be avoided: Television’s worst big-league villain this year was Negan on The Walking Dead.
Here’s a guy who wraps a baseball bat in barbed wire, names it after B.B. King’s guitar, uses it to terrorize the living world into submission and somehow ends up being tedious and redundant.
It’s harder to explain than a zombie apocalypse.
The Walking Dead needs great villains and despite that zombie apocalypse premise, they aren’t built in. Zombies are useful adversaries, but in the end they’re no more interesting than a swarm of mosquitoes or a plague of locusts.
The show needs human bad guys, and it’s had some good ones, not only including The Governor, but some of the lesser, subtler bad guys inside the survivor cell on which the show focuses.
Negan started out with considerable promise, because he’s played by a terrific actor in Jeffrey Dean Morgan and because he became a fine villain in the comic book on which the TV show is based.
When we met him on TV, fan anticipation was palpable. But the TV show has never pretended or claimed to be the comic book, and just as some minor or dead comic book characters have become central to the TV show, some characters who shine in the comic haven’t transferred well to television.
Negan seems to be one of them. Unfortunately, a big one.
The problem, to oversimplify only a little, is that he’s one-dimensional. He sneers, he struts, he intimidates. He’s the ultimate bully, mocking his victims because he knows he has a mob behind him.
But that’s all he does. As the first half of the season has moved along, he’s never developed a second trick. At the end he was still fondling Lucille, his baseball bat, killing people because he could and swaggering away taunting the survivors.
The point, obviously, is that he represents something close to pure evil, and that in a world without law or rules, sometimes those who manifest the lowest depths of human morality can rise to the top.
But after a while, just being pure evil isn’t enough. If he’s going to dominate the storyline for half a season, plus however long he’ll be around from here, he needs another dimension.
It could be a hint of vulnerability, a whiff of self-awareness, or even a different level of evil. We just need more than what we’re getting, which is that every time Negan shows up we know he’s going to threaten a child or demean a woman or just kill an innocent person with demonic glee.
After a while, it’s numbing. We can’t hate him more, and he gives us no reason to consider any other response.
In an odd way, even though Negan has driven much of the action in the first half of the season, the show stops when he shows up. There will be an extended segment that ends with someone humiliated or dead, and the show can’t move forward until that’s over.
The problem doesn’t lie, it should be stressed, with Morgan. He was great on Grey’s Anatomy, Magic City, The Good Wife and elsewhere, and there’s no reason to doubt that if he had the right material, he could be great here.
He just isn’t given much to work with. A baseball bat and a God complex. It’s a start, but it’s not enough.
The Walking Dead has lost a few fans since the season-opening episode in which we finally learned whose heads Negan smashed with Lucille.
Ratings-wise, that modest slip isn’t enough for anyone at AMC to worry about. But it should give a moment of pause on the creative side, because The Walking Dead can do and has done better.
It may be based on a comic book, but it doesn’t need a traditional comic book villain, someone whose only role is being so evil that we will all stand up and cheer for the good guys finally to vanquish him.
That can be an element and a result, but we need more along the way, and The Walking Dead in the Negan storyline has been giving less.
It’s too bad Negan and Lucille can’t be sent to the minors for a little while to improve their game.