Sunday's supersized The Walking Dead took us deeper into the how of vile villain Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), if not the why. We saw how Negan rules over the Sanctuary by enforcing his rules through intimidation. But why he's doing it? His motivation, other than having a lot of sex and being a jerk? We're still not 100% sure.
Because of this, it was a relentlessly grim hour, heavy on psychological and physical torture, and set up a Negan/Rick (Andrew Lincoln) standoff for the midseason finale when Rick comes home to Alexandria and finds Uncle Negan babysitting his kids.
"Sing Me A Song" is also the first episode of Season 7 so far that hasn't opened with a character waking up, which indicates that everybody finally understands how things are now, and will start preparing for whatever comes next. Instead it opens a little while after Michonne (Danai Gurira) found the burning mattresses in "Service." She's whistling "Farmer In the Dell" as she uses walkers to set some kind of trap, in what's surely a nod to The Wire, since that was the song stickup artist/cheese who stood alone Omar Little (Michael K. Williams) would whistle when he was up to no good (The Walking Dead has/has had a few actors from The Wire in its cast — previously Chad Coleman and Larry Gilliard and currently Seth Gilliam, who plays Father Gabriel and played Sgt. Ellis Carver on the classic HBO crime drama). It's a pretty weird, out-of-nowhere reference, but I guess Michonne is pretty Omar-like in this episode.
There is an awakening in the next scene, as Rick and Aaron (Ross Marquand) wake up to continue on their supply run, and they see something. Later in the episode we learn that it's some kind of abandoned place that might have supplies that apparently the Saviors don't know about. Okay!
After an extraneous scene (this episode really didn't have to be an hour and two minutes long without commercials) where the two Saviors driving the truck on which Carl (Chandler Riggs) and Jesus (Tom Payne) are stowed away talk about Fat Joey (Joshua Hoover) while one of them eats a cucumber, we finally get to the main plot of "Sing Me A Song": Carl's experience in the Sanctuary. Jesus makes a breadcrumb trail out of maple syrup and tells Carl that they should get out of the truck now before anyone finds them. Carl lies and says he wants Jesus to demonstrate how to jump out first, but then he stays in the truck. He has a goal: kill Negan in retaliation for what Negan did to Glenn (Steven Yeun) and Abraham (Michael Cudlitz).
The truck arrives and Carl opens fire with a machine gun, killing a Savior.
"I only want Negan. He killed my friends. No one else needs to die," Carl says in a tone much too soft for the situation at hand (Chandler Riggs' performance in this episode is... Not great. I'm not going to pile on him more than this, but his flat affect undermines what should be a Psycho Carl showcase and makes his iconic comics moments acted out in this episode less impactful than they should be).
Negan shows up, whistling and smiling, and tells Carl he's "adorable."
"Did you pick that gun cuz it looks cool?" he teases. He tells Carl that he scares the s--- out of him, which, coming from Negan, is a compliment. Dwight (Austin Amelio) tackles Carl, but not before the boy guns down another one of Negan's men. Negan calls Carl his new guest and offers him a hand up. Carl accepts.
Daryl, who's on security walker maintenance duty or something, sees the whole thing. Negan instructs Dwight to take Daryl to the kitchen for some "grub prep," which is gross, because Daryl is greasy and filthy and surely does not have a food handler's license. Negan taunts Dwight about screwing Dwight's ex-wife for no reason other than to be the worst, which is a recurring theme in this episode.
Negan takes Carl inside and shows off his power by showing how people kneel in his presence and how grateful they are to be blessed by him with fresh vegetables. In the zombie apocalypse, it's the little things that count.
Meanwhile, back at Alexandria, Rosita (Christian Serratos) is moving along with her plan to get Eugene (Josh McDermitt) to make her a bullet. They're going out when Spencer (Austin Nichols) rolls up and says they should find stuff for the Saviors *because that's what Rick wants them to do* (to be read in a "nyah nyah" voice). Spencer thinks he should be in charge, and Rosita's like "yeah, sure" to her former friend with benefits. A little later, Spencer tells Gabriel that he hates Rick, because things were fine in Alexandria before Rick showed up and now they're fubar.
Gabriel is Team Rick, though, and tells the last Monroe that he's a "tremendous s---," which hurts extra-hard coming from a priest. After separating from Father Gabriel, Spencer goes into the woods and finds a walker who was a hunter who killed himself in a tree stand. The walker has a crossbow, and when Spencer gets them down, he finds a note written in Latin that leads him to the hunter's survival stash of canned food, medical supplies, water purifiers, flares, etc. And he's going to give it all to Negan, because that's what Rick wants.
Negan introduces Carl to his harem and gives him gross permission to ogle. Negan confronts Sherry (Christine Evangelista), Dwight's ex-wife who's now one of Negan's wives, and makes her tell him about what happened with Amber, another of Negan's wives, and Mark, who skipped out on some job he was supposed to do to secretly rendezvous with Amber. Sherry, who seems to be the only person in the Sanctuary willing to openly show distaste with Negan, says to go easy on Amber.
"Did I ever hit one of you?" he says, like that excuses the psychological torment he inflicts on poor Amber a moment later. "No," says Sherry, "but I know you. There's worse."
Then we get to watch Negan's abuse tactics firsthand. He tells Amber, "you know I don't want anybody here who doesn't want to be here, right?" He talks like their sexual relationship is consensual, which it isn't; it's coercive. He'll hurt her mother and her real partner Mark if she leaves him. Negan, in addition to being a murderer, is a rapist. Cool. Cool guy. And he's going to hurt Mark anyway.
Dwight and Daryl arrive with food as Negan and Sherry are making out. "Why do you got him here?" Daryl demands to know, referencing Carl; and in response Negan threatens to stab Carl in his remaining eye with a toothpick. He tells Dwight to go get the iron ready. Uh-oh.
Negan takes Carl to his bedroom for the main event. He espouses his belief that the apocalypse has given him a chance to make his life better, implying that this is what Carl should want and how Carl should be, too. He does the abusive compliment/insult combo — Negan's like a pickup artist — by telling Carl how smart he is, then intimidating him into taking the bandage off his eye and acting over-the-top grossed out by the wound while Carl cries. Then he apologizes for hurting Carl's feelings and tells him how cool it is.
He's trying to break Carl by destabilizing him, making Carl never know if he's going to praise him or insult him. He's trying to be the cool, abusive dad Rick is not. All of this would work better if Carl was a little kid, like he was in the comics, and not the age of a high school senior with a well-documented anti-authoritarian streak. Still, it's pretty unnerving to watch Carl sing "You Are My Sunshine," a song his mother whom he shot in the head used to sing to him, through tears while Negan swings Lucille like a demented Sammy Sosa.
Here I would like to take a moment to acknowledge Fat Joey, who seems to be named in a way that tacitly and purposefully ignores the existence of the rapper Fat Joe. I'm not sure why he had to be named Fat Joseph when there's already a famous Fat Joe. He could have been named Fat Greg or Fat Scott, but the writers went with the name of the man also known as Joe Crack the Don. Anyway, Negan bullying poor Fat Joey was gross and him characterizing it as spirited male bonding is another example of how Negan will delude himself into thinking that his abuses of power are actually consensual. Negan probably grabs them by the p----y.
You know what's even harder to watch? Negan burning some poor guy's face with an iron as punishment for breaking the rules.
On a less physically brutal note, Rosita and Eugene reach the metal shop. Eugene wants Rosita to slow down, because she's acting recklessly in her determination to arm herself to kill Negan, so she bullies him into taking action.
"You don't know anything. You don't do anything. You're a coward and you're weak. The only reason you're alive is because you lied and people feel sorry for you. So for once, do something useful and make me a bullet." The thing is, Eugene has proved himself to be useful many times by this point, so Rosita is pretty much wrong on this one. But she gets what she wants.
Back at the Sanctuary, Carl pushes his luck. When Negan says it'll be fun and productive to break Carl, the kid gets angry and says to Negan, "I think you should jump out the window to save me the trouble of killing you." Carl says that Negan can't kill him and Rick and everyone because he needs them, and Negan says "maybe you're right," and decides to bring Carl back to Alexandria. Their truck has a stowaway — Jesus again, in the second time he's been on top of a box truck in the handful of episodes in which he's appeared. Negan tells Daryl that he's "taking the kid home," and when Daryl says "if you do anything to him..." Negan tells Dwight that Daryl needs a time-out, so put him back in his cell.
The good news about the iron is that it's probably pushed Dwight, who also got the iron, past his breaking point, and he's going to defect. He may have even slipped Daryl the match and key and note that said "go now" (The other possibility is Sherry).
We catch back up with Michonne, who was killing those walkers earlier in the episode in order to make a roadblock out of corpses. When a Savior appears, Michonne takes her hostage and makes her take her to Negan.
Negan and Carl get to Alexandria, where Negan insults Olivia's (Ann Mahoney) weight and then sexually propositions her. She has the good sense to be openly disgusted with him and slaps him in the face. He says he likes her more, then intimidates her into making him some lemonade. Carl shows him around, and he finds baby Judith. At episode's end, Negan, Judith and Carl are all sitting on the porch, waiting for Rick to come back, and Negan says he likes it in Alexandria, so maybe he'll kill them and take it for himself.
It's been the case all season, but this episode really drove it home: Negan is the main character on The Walking Dead. Even when he's not onscreen, everyone is talking about him. Unfortunately, so far, he's not a good enough character to be the star. He's still, almost half a season in, a completely one-sided bad guy with no motivation and no history. He smiles a lot in a way that's supposed to signify devilish charm, but the smiles are just for Negan's benefit. They're not what make the other characters want to do what he says — the intimidation is.
He's no carrot and all stick — literally. For Negan to work, he has to be charismatic, not just handsome, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan is too handsome and not charming enough right now. He just smiles and bounces on his knees to emphasize words as he speaks in a Walken-ian off-kilter cadence. No one likes Negan, they just want him to not kill them, so what's the point of making him cool, with his leather jacket and megawatt smile and perfectly-groomed beard?
Hopefully starting next week Negan will get fleshed out. In the comics, Negan has a sad backstory that helps you understand where he's coming from, and we need to get to that sooner rather than later. Because right now, Negan is the world's meanest cartoon character.
The Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9/8c on AMC.