Throughout its seven-year run, The Walking Dead has largely shied away from onscreen depictions of sexual assault.
In a lawless land with virtually no rules except "don't get bit," it's easy to imagine that women, children, and others more physically vulnerable would be forced to grapple with sexual violence in addition to entrail-eating zombies. But The Walking Dead is a show where abused middle-aged housewives can become Imperator Furiosa-like warriors, and skinny pizza boys can become lethal survivalists; so its women have typically fared better than their counterparts on, say, Game of Thrones.
And more often than not, this is a good thing. Sexual assault is far too often used for shock value or background noise on television, and Walking Dead has avoided some of the controversy circling its genre brethren by either handling the issue thoughtfully — like when Maggie (Lauren Cohan) was sexually humiliated by the Governor (David Morrissey), and she and Glenn (Steven Yeun) were shown grappling with their pain and confusion for the rest of the season — or avoiding it altogether. (The show skipped a famous plot line from Robert Kirkman's comics in which Michonne is repeatedly raped by the Governor.)
Still, there have been a couple of notable missteps. And Sasha's (Sonequa Martin-Green) "rape scene" from Sunday night's episode, "Something They Need," was a firm reminder that Walking Dead has a strange, spotty history with these plotlines.
Early on in the episode, one of Negan's (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) previously-nameless goons, David, snuck into Sasha's prison cell. He told the terrified and dehydrated Sasha he'd give her water in exchange for sex, and when she told him to go to hell, he tore off her shirt and unbuckled his belt.
At this point Negan came in, and the audience — at least the segment of the audience not familiar with Kirkman's source material — was likely meant to assume that the series' biggest bad yet would encourage David's assault. Instead, Negan brutally stabbed him in the neck, letting Sasha know that rape was against his rules because, "we're not monsters."
Problem is, Negan is a monster — and a monster who already rapes. He has a harem of wives who only married him in exchange for things like their husband's and mother's lives; virtually all of them have to have sex with him to survive. Virtually all of them despise him. This is rape.
Negan also vaguely threatened Maggie in the episode "Service," telling Rick that widows like her are "empty inside, but usually not for long," and that he'd planned to take her back to the Sanctuary after murdering her husband. His whole spiel this season has been dominating and emasculating his male enemies and making glorified sex dolls out of the pretty women in his orbit, so hearing him decry sexual assault as monstrous felt hollow, and more than a little absurd.
Additionally, since we'd spent zero time with David — sorry, "rapey Davey" — before his murder, the audience had virtually no investment in his fate. So the scene was not about David's crime or Sasha's terror, but about Negan's surprising response to rapes not committed by him. It was about establishing Negan's rape-hate as a quirky, and potentially even endearing, character trait.
The question now is whether showrunner Scott Gimple and the Walking Dead team think they've written a rape-hater... Or a rape-hating rapist. Because if it's the former they're in trouble, and they clearly don't understand the bat-yielding monster they've created.
But if it's the latter — and dear god, hopefully it is — then exploring the intricacies and implications of Negan's relationship with sex could be fascinating, especially if the show gives us more time with his long-suffering trio of wives.
Thing is, Walking Dead hasn't done particularly great work with sexual violence in years. The Maggie-Governor assault was handled with care, but that was back in Season 3 — back when the Grimes Gang were humans instead of warriors, and when Glen Mazzara still served as showrunner. Since then, its two notable brushes with rape have been handled with kid gloves, then forgotten altogether with no real look into their aftermaths.
The first was in the Season 4 finale, "A." A group of scavengers attacked Rick (Andrew Lincoln), Carl (Chander Riggs), and Michonne (Danai Gurira) on the road, and while Rick was held down, one of the men, Dan (Keith Brooks), visibly prepared to sexually assault Carl. Rick quickly sprung into action, slaughtering all of the men — memorably biting one of them in the jugular — before Carl could seriously be harmed.
It looked like a rape scene and it quacked like a rape scene, but in a post mortem interview with The Daily Beast, Gimple shied away from calling it a rape scene.
"Well, he was being held down," Gimple said. "I don't want to say one way or the other what was going on beyond that."
Kirkman was less ambivalent about what was "going on," and in the book the scene was based on, Carl's pants were actually removed. But either way, the show never acknowledged the event, with Daily Beast later writing that "poor Carl is still trudging along as if his assault never happened."
The Season 5 episode "Slabtown" was the next (and last, before Negan) to implicitly deal with rape. Kidnapped and forced to work in an Atlanta hospital, Beth (Emily Kinney) met Officer Gorman (Cullen Moss), a man who used his position of power to sexually abuse women. One of them, Keisha Castle-Hughes' Joan, brutally killed herself after apparently being raped by Gorman repeatedly — and in one of her most heralded moments on the series, Beth herself orchestrated his murder minutes later.
Basically, Walking Dead hasn't committed to a sexual violence story for more than a scene or two since Season 3; rape is either something that is narrowly avoided by leads or happens to minor characters offscreen. Heck, even Beth was killed off after two episodes in the hospital, robbing the audience of the aftermath to her very particular trauma.
So when it comes to what's next after Sasha's attack (assuming that she dies next week, because she's got other, Star Trek-related fish to fry), it's easy to get cynical and assume that Negan's relationship with sexual violence will die with no fanfare just like Dan and Gorman. But since we're not locked in the Sanctuary with a poison pill and therefore still have hope, we're choosing to remain optimistic that the writers won't let Negan's hypocrisy slide.
Because a rapist who murders other rapists isn't charming, he's psychotic — and Negan's relationship with sex is a hell of a lot more worthy of exploration than his relationship with a spiky bat.
The Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9/8c on AMC.