The Walking Dead capped one of its better episodes in recent memory with one of its best scenes in recent memory. "The Lost and the Plunderers" (OK, not the best title of a Walking Dead episode in recent memory, can't win 'em all) was stylistically very different from other episodes of The Walking Dead; it was told in vignettes that focused on individual characters and their individual struggles. It was an impressive adjustment for a show that isn't known for its character development, and if more episodes were like this, it could be the show we all hoped it could be.
Though Rick and Negan's greatest bond is their mutual hatred for each other, they've mostly been portrayed as opposites. Negan is suave and a showman, Rick is prone to flustered outbursts. Negan rules with fear, Rick runs on justice (most of the time). Negan is practically a cartoon character, where Rick is as flawed and noble as a normal human hero should be.
But there's something new that bonds these men: Carl's death. Of all the reactions to Carl's death, Negan's stands out above the rest. Negan obviously hasn't spent as much time with Carl as Rick has, but in the time he did, he got to know the kid and took a shine to him. So when Rick broke the news to Negan that Carl died, we saw a side of Negan that we haven't seen before: Compassion. As Rick tells Negan that Carl is dead, Negan is clearly bummed out, and fears that Carl's death was a result of the Saviors' attack on Alexandria. It's a rare case of Negan not wanting blood on his hands, and even when he finds out it wasn't his fault, he offers apologies to Rick.
"Goddammit. S***, I am sorry," he tells Rick, voice nearly shaking. "You know I wanted him to be part of things, I had plans. That kid... that kid was the future." It's a hell of a pivot for Morgan, who got to show another side of Negan, if only for a few seconds.
And it's brought even further to the surface thanks to Rick's reaction, which is carnal and vicious. Rick's anger is projected onto Negan. Rick, still rightfully full of rage and sadness over Carl's death, bites back, "The only future is one where you're dead!"
And suddenly that moment of two men almost comforting each other over loss evaporates into the air, as Negan, still carrying the tone of a man who is sympathizing with a father who has lost his child, berates Rick for causing all this death.
"You failed as a leader, and most of all, Rick, you failed as a father," Negan tells him. "Just give up. Give up because you have already lost." And the episode ends.
It's something for Rick to chew on, because in Negan's twisted logic, if Rick had just surrendered like he was supposed to, Carl would still be alive. Glenn would still be alive. Abraham would still be alive. Sasha would still be alive. It's classic Negan — telling people things would be fine if they just did things his way — but dressed up in the tone of someone who is almost sorry for it.
Given that we have a pretty good idea of what happens when the Rick-Negan war ends, the brief humanization of Negan comes at a perfect time. It also empowers Carl's plea for mercy and sets up Rick's journey moving forward. Carl's words are out there. Rick isn't going to act on them immediately. He has to take the steps to get there, and The Walking Dead just assured us that he has further to go than he did in the last episode. Whatever Rick decides, we have to see Rick make that decision for himself in honor of Carl. If Negan behaves more like this, it will be easier to understand Rick's tough decision when the time comes.
Negan is a love-him-or-hate-him kind of guy — and to be honest, I'm mostly on the hate him side of things — a boisterous television character who couldn't possibly exist in real life. But just for a moment, he lived like a real person beyond the screen. And it's probably the best scene we've ever gotten from him.
The Walking Dead airs Sunday nights at 9/8c on AMC.