Man, does Negan talk a lot. Seven episodes in and that might be my biggest takeaway: Negan never shuts the fuck up. And his dialogue is familiar stuff—maybe not familiar for this specific show, but it’s standard “I’m reckless and crazy and evil but in this kind of funny, goofy way that makes it almost charming if you forget that part about me beating people to death with baseball bats” patter. Which is fine, really. It’s a solid villain archetype, the laughing sadist, and it’s one I doubt we’ll ever entirely get away from.

And honestly, “Sing Me A Song” wasn’t half-bad. It’s the closest I think the show’s come to making the Saviors and their home more than just a scary place where bad things happen in dark rooms—for the once Sanctuary feels like an actual location, with rules and systems that might actually develop in the wake of an apocalyptic event. Which sounds like small praise, but while the episode didn’t try and blow our minds, it did do the careful, and necessary, work of setting up just what kind of threat Negan is, and how he’s managed to keep a hold on people for so long. We get that he’s scary, but he needs to be more than just scary—he needs to be a monster people willingly believe in. This entry puts in some effort getting that across.

It’s also good to see a cliffhanger from a couple weeks back pay off relatively quickly: Carl makes his misguided attempt on Negan’s life and immediately fails, despite getting the drop on everyone with a machine gun. It’s a clumsily staged sequence, although I can’t quite decide if that’s intentional or just lazy scripting—obviously Carl wasn’t going to succeed, but his ineptitude here is either a way to showcase that he’s not quite the cold-blooded killer that he pretends to be, or else it’s just everyone shrugging their shoulders and not bothering to come up with a more clever way for him to lose. Either way, he ends up in Negan’s clutches for the duration, because Negan has taken a shine to the kid, and what Negan wants, well, I’m pretty sure we’re all on the same page about that.

The core of the episode is Negan’s attempt to seduce Carl to the Dark Side. There are some problems with this idea, the biggest one being that Carl just isn’t an interesting enough character to justify anyone’s interest in him, let alone Mr. Big Bad himself. Chandler Riggs does his best, but he’s let down by a combination of goofy writing and his own—ah dammit, I don’t want to be mean or anything, so let’s just say he’s not the strongest actor in the cast? His flat delivery of Carl’s supposed “badass” threats kills tension as thoroughly as Lucille killed Glenn, and it puts Jeffrey Dean Morgan in the position of having to work extra hard to justify his character’s apparent fascination with a bland teenager in bad need of a haircut.

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Negan is surprisingly effective here; the character still doesn’t make a lick of sense (we’re supposed to view him as a threat so potent that he throws everything into chaos, but he’s still doing the James Bond villain shtick of never killing the real threat), but the episode’s structure was sound enough that it was easier to overlook his defects. It could be I’m a sucker for “baddie tries to tempt the goodie” arcs, and Carl is such a blank slate that there was no balancing impression that he was being legitimately tempted by what he was seeing. But we’re at a point where the show desperately needs to start telling a story, rather than just killing time until the finale when things actually happen, and “Sing Me A Song” at least offered the illusion of forward motion in building a relationship between its main villain and its protagonist’s dopey son.

That’s not all that happened in the episode, though, and the supplementary material is yet another example of the series using its ability to release overly long entries for no goddamn good reason. (Is this a marketing thing? Does AMC like longer episodes because it can sell more ad time? That would at least be an excuse, if not an artistically sound one.) Rosita finally gets her bullet; Rick and Aaron find a possible source of supplies; Spencer finds a bow in a tree; and Michonne takes a hostage and sets her sights on Negan.

Of the lot, Spencer’s story is the most actively pointless. He’s a flat, uninteresting character who exists largely to say bad things about Rick so that other people can dismiss those bad things. None of what Spencer says is wrong, really, but because he’s an asshole, we’re encouraged to associate his criticisms with assholery and go back to pretending that Rick really is wonderful. The extra running time isn’t as awful as it has been in the past, but it still makes for a flabby, clumsily structured episode in which every so often, we cut away from what’s clearly the main story for a quick sketch to fill in some exposition that will presumably be useful later.

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The important take away here is seeing how Negan keeps people in line—both carrot and stick are demonstrated—and while this arguably serves to finally rob the character of whatever mystique he had left, that’s necessary. If he’s going to be an ongoing threat, he needs to be more than just a plot device. We’ve seen what happens when the show tries to humanize its villains in the past, and I’m fairly sure that Negan will end up just as muddled and dreary as the Governor by the end, but at least there’s clearer sense of him now, and why he’s so dangerous.

Take the Iron scene. This is a far cry from the twin murders at the start of the season; those were shocking (at least conceptually) because they featured two people we knew and liked, and because even after a seemingly endless build-up, there was still a sense of real danger and uncertainty in Negan’s behavior. Here, by physically disfiguring one of his own men who “broke the rules,” Negan is back into much more predictable bad guy territory. Mark isn’t someone we have much investment in, and as gooey as the effects work is, there’s no deep emotional connection to what happens. It’s the kind of violence that actually serves a purpose and doesn’t threaten to break the show like previous events have—and while that means robbing Negan of some of his chaos, it’s an odd sort of relief to be back on solid ground.

What I’m trying say here, in my usual meandering fashion, is that “Sing Me A Song” presented a version of Negan who could plausibly be on the show long term; someone who needs to be stopped, but who also has just enough nuance to be more than a cartoon. Seeing him take a shine to Carl is hard to justify at first, but if you can go along with it, it offers some potential story material that’s more interesting than just “hey, when’s the next guy getting his head caved in?” The downside is that, intentionally or not, it betrays something unintentional but horrifying in the show’s moral code. There have been plenty of articles written about the “bad fans” of Breaking Bad who thought Walter White was a cheer-worthy protagonist to the end, but this is the first time I’ve seen a series so willingly surrender itself to the predations of its supposed villain. We’re supposed to hate Negan, but he’s also very, very good at the only thing The Walking Dead has ever really celebrated: surviving. It’s hard to shake the feeling that deep down, no matter how many times people talk about Rick’s greatness, we’ve got a new leading man now.

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Stray observations

  • Is being praised without deserving it some sort of genetic trait? Did Rick pass down his gift for inspiring hero-worship for no good reason to his son? Maybe it’s a subtle condemnation of white privilege, I dunno. (Note: It is not a subtle condemnation of white privilege.)
  • Negan has a lot of wives, but despite talking about sex from time to time, he doesn’t seem like a guy who ever actually fucks anyone. Which actually makes sense: he uses the threat of sexual violence just like everything else, as a way to destabilize people around him.
  • Daryl shows up a couple of times, and he get gets another chance to escape at the end. Fingers crossed!
  • You could do a drinking game for this show based solely on the word “stuff.”
  • “I hate Rick.” -Spencer, just in case we missed it.
  • I wanted to be moved by Carl’s obvious horror at having to remove his eye bandage in front of Negan, but it just doesn’t play at all. Not sure if that’s Riggs’s acting, or just the fact, on a show that makes sure to offer some fresh and gory horror every week, the sight of a scarred and empty eye socket just isn’t all that shocking anymore.
  • The title of the episode comes from a brief scene when Negan orders Carl to sing for him. It’s, again, pretty standard psycho bad guy stuff, but watching Negan swing Lucille around while Carl stumbles through “You Are My Sunshine” was one of the few moments of legitimate tension in the hour.
  • “I’d like to take it back to awkward silence now.” -Eugene, speaking for us all.
  • Negan’s taken a shine to Judith. That’s probably not great.

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