We've known The Walking Dead's big bad Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) for over a year since he stepped out of an RV and bashed some people's skulls in, and we've been hearing about him for even longer than that. But we knew almost nothing of substance about him, like who he was before the apocalypse or what his internal life is really like. Until now. "The Big Scary U" revealed some of Negan's backstory and gave us a glimpse into what makes this creature, who's something of a living folk tale, really human.
In the episode, we finally returned to the RV where Negan and Father Gabriel (Seth Gilliam) were waiting out the zombie flood. We underestimated Father Gabriel, who isn't a betrayer at all; he's a brave man seeking purpose in life and redemption for the awful sin he committed. And in that RV he came to believe that part of his vocation is taking Negan's confession.
An early scene in the episode flashed back to the moment right before Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and the gang arrived at the Sanctuary in the premiere. Negan was having a meeting with his lieutenants and Gregory (Xander Berkeley) to discuss what to do about quashing a rebellion at the Hilltop. Negan explained his philosophy: if you kill the right people at the right time, you will save a lot of other lives. That's why they're the Saviors. They save people. That's why he got so mad a few minutes later when Simon (Steven Ogg) suggested massacring Hilltoppers.
"People are a resource!" Negan yelled. "Money on the table! People are the foundation of what we are building here!" Negan cares about people! And weirdly, he was being sincere. Negan honestly believes that what he does is good for people, and maybe he's right. The Sanctuary may not be a fun place to live, but up until now it was safe and there was plenty of food and a sense of order that came entirely from him. As he explained to Gabriel in the RV, he makes people strong. He keeps them alive.
But in that RV, he did mention to Gabriel that there is one way he's weak. Gabriel told Negan that he could offer him forgiveness for however he's been weak, and all he has to do is say the truth out loud. Negan resisted, so Gabriel pressed him about what makes him weak. Is it the people he's killed? The slaves he's taken? The women he's forced to be his "wives?" This last one made Negan uncomfortable, and in the moment he flinched, Gabriel grabbed his gun, fired off some wild shots and went and hid in the bathroom.
Negan told Gabriel that he doesn't want to kill Gabriel, he wants to work with him to get out of this RV. Gabriel answered by confessing his worst sin to Negan, the time he locked his congregation out of his church and left them to die. The priest telling the penitent his sins is not normally how confession works, but sometimes you have to say something egregious about yourself to get someone else to trust you. And it worked on getting Negan to open up.
Negan told Gabriel that his weakness was around his wife. His first wife. His "only real wife." Back then, he cheated on her and lied to her, even when she was sick. She died of her unspecified sickness when the apocalypse was in effect, and his moment of weakness came when he couldn't put her down.
Gabriel came out of the bathroom and said, "you're forgiven," and offered him his gun back. Negan punched him in the face, more out of obligation than anger. Negan has to stick to his sense of justice.
And that's really what this episode was about. Negan is a terrifying and brutal man, but he has a code. Previously it seemed like the moralizing was a justification for sadism, but it's starting to seem like the other way around. The sadism really is in service of what Negan thinks is right. Negan is a lot more reasonable than people give him credit for. Maybe Rick has been the unreasonable one, as the sheriff is starting to realize. He's lost his moral code entirely, and he's starting to get it back by being less nihilistically bloodthirsty. They're more alike than Rick realizes, and they're both changing. It's looking like they might be growing to a point where they'll be able to meet in the middle and recognize each other's humanity. Their mercy will prevail over their wrath.
(For more on Negan's backstory, check out the recently-compiled standalone issue of The Walking Dead comic series called "Here's Negan!" No spoilers, but it goes deep into Negan's tragic relationship with his wife, whose name you might be able to guess.)
The Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9/8c on AMC.