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The Walking Dead season 7, episode 4: “Service” shows why TV Negan can’t compete with Negan from the comics

Much of what made the character work in the comics was leaving things to the imagination. You can’t do that on TV.

The Walking Dead
Jeffrey Dean Morgan is either playing Negan with a malevolent glower or indigestion in this still.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

“Service,” the fourth episode of The Walking Dead’s seventh season, plays the same note, at the same volume, in the same rhythm, for 59 minutes and 21 seconds. (Or 85 minutes with ads.)

I said two weeks ago that the series’ greatest strength at this point is that its storytelling style allows it to cut away from certain stories for weeks at a time, then return to them when they get interesting again. But that’s really only true in theory, because “Service” finally circles back to Rick and company in Alexandria, and all the episode is interested in doing is proving, again, that Negan is a bad person.

“Service” largely adapts a single issue of The Walking Dead’s source comic, and mostly does so faithfully. There are a few additions here and there, and the ending is quite different. (I won’t spoil how the comic ends, because I presume the series will get there eventually.) But a mediocre yet serviceable issue of a comic book becomes an unrelenting dirge when expanded into such a long episode of television. It’s decompressed storytelling taken to new, ridiculous lengths.

And the worst thing about this scenario is that “Service” has nothing new or interesting to say. If The Walking Dead wanted to convey that Negan isn’t a very nice guy, well, it’s already aired two entire episodes devoted to exactly that subject. For as little as I liked the season seven premiere, it certainly got the “Negan does awful things” point across.

In the absence of narrative progression, any TV series will be defined by what it chooses to focus on. And The Walking Dead has chosen to focus on cruelty. So let’s talk about it.

Cruelty is hard to rely on as your sole storytelling trick

The Walking Dead
Rick isn’t having a great time anymore.

There’s a famous critical maxim that it’s impossible to make a truly antiwar film, because the depiction of war onscreen makes the pulse race a little bit. Simply making a movie about war makes war look exciting. (I think there are a handful of antiwar films that have disproved this, but let’s move on.)

Depicting cruelty onscreen faces a similar problem. Doing so requires a nimble precision to avoid seeming as if the filmmaker is endorsing cruelty, or reveling in misery, or pouring salt in wounds. And, uh, of all the things I’d say The Walking Dead has, nimble precision is not among them.

So we get “Service,” which endlessly depicts Rick’s dehumanization at the hands of Negan when Negan comes to collect Alexandria’s offering to the Saviors for the first time.

And the episode contains some good moments, particularly for Andrew Lincoln, who gets a nice monologue near the end of the episode about how he loves Judith even though he knows she’s not his biological daughter. (It was kind of weird to hear Shane’s name after all this time, though!)

It’s possible a version of this story could work. The season premiere more than dug into Rick’s quaking peril in the face of Negan’s inhumanity, but it could be interesting to see how Rick adjusts to the new status quo, or how the Alexandrians react to being told they’re now the subjects of such a horrible person. But “Service” only hints at these ideas, choosing instead to concentrate its attention on just how bad Negan is.

While it’s clear that The Walking Dead knows Negan is a tyrant, the series is also a little too interested in making that tyranny alluring. By luxuriating in how Negan makes Rick crawl, by spending so much time on it and focusing on how Negan calls the shots, “Service” more or less invites viewers to identify with Negan and subconsciously take the villain’s side.

There are a bunch of good reasons to do this — from letting viewers examine the darkness in their own lives to simply letting Rick descend to such a low point that his inevitable climb back up feels even more triumphant — but The Walking Dead isn’t deft enough to pull off any of them. “Service,” then, comes off as a near celebration of sadism and cruelty, one that moves at the pace of molasses.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan might be a part of the problem

The Walking Dead
(music note emoji) Open the door for your Mystery Date. (music note emoji)

In a vacuum, I really like Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s performance as Negan. There’s a kind of charismatic sadism to it that’s currently serving to hold the show together. He’s even taking some of Negan’s very worst dialogue from the comic — like that “I just slid my dick down your throat” line — and kinda, sorta making it feel like something a human being might say.

But after watching this episode, I reread the comic it’s based on, and I realized that the problems of TV Negan are similar to the problems of Comic Book Negan — and that it’s possible there was never a way to bring this character to the screen and have him be anything more than a collection of malevolent tics.

The character of Negan is already a little hard to take. Yes, sociopathic tyrants would probably rise to the top in some corners of a post-apocalyptic world. But, again, because The Walking Dead (in show and comic form) already examined that trope with a much stronger character in the Governor, it needs to make Negan the most sociopathic dictator ever.

And at a certain point, you start to wonder exactly how he holds on to his power. In the comic, that can be hand-waved away, because your brain fills in all of the aspects of his terrifying presence that an actor simply can’t portray.

Comic Book Negan becomes, in the imagination, the darkest, most brutal tyrant you can think of, and Charlie Adlard’s art often features him from angles that make him look, literally, like a larger-than-life god, towering over everybody else.

A TV show can’t do that, because it needs to cast an actor in the role. And while I think Morgan’s performance, again, is a good one, I find myself spending a lot of time wondering just how he’s managed to stay on top for so long, especially when his weapon of choice is a baseball bat. He’s handy with it, and it’s not like this corner of the world is teeming with ranged weapons, but as Rosita realizes at the end of “Service,” all it takes is one bullet.

Negan’s true modus operandi is to break the people beneath him. In a comic, again, you can sort of hand-wave that away in your imagination. Onscreen, it all becomes literal, and it’s harder to accept that everybody Negan comes into contact with has been broken by him.

Sure, we get a limited view of his entire operation, but think of a show like Lost, where the also seemingly godlike Ben Linus had human quirks and edges that hinted at his frailty before the show pulled back the curtain and revealed said frailty in full. So far, Negan is just a sadistic bastard, and that’s all we get.

I know this is how stories work — the heroes must be laid low before they can take out the villains — but because Negan is less a character than a wall the characters have to climb over to get to the next part of the story, he crumbles a little more every time you scrutinize him.

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