This was everything I guessed it would be- the kind of deep human drama that attracted me to The Walking Dead in the first place.
‘The Big U’ was a throwback to the earlier seasons of the show in more ways than one. There were echoes of Rick and Shane during Rick and Daryl’s squabble over the bag of dynamite; guts were back in fashion for Father Gabriel and Negan, and the latter’s demagogic reception back in Sanctuary hearkened back to The Governor, duping the whole of Woodbury and presenting himself as their father-protector, when, in fact, he was half-blind leading the blind and terrified into a war over nothing.
Season eight has been plagued with problems, from latent cinematography to a needlessly abstruse plot. I’m more than happy to admit that because I love this show, and I want it to succeed; what that means today is telling hard truths, and the reality is that the show hasn’t been hitting the mark for quite a while. However, ‘The Big U’ was a mahussive stride in the right direction.
Episode five was a return to the kind of prying dialogue that character dramas thrive on- and make no mistake: that is what TWD is and always has been. Maybe it’s veered a little too far into character worship over the last few years (real obsessives, Caryls and Richonnes and Carzekiels, probably helped make the writers feel infallible, like they couldn’t whiff so late in the game), but at its core, TWD is about well-drawn, multi-dimensional characters interacting and fighting and struggling to survive. In the Kirkmanverse, a kind of perverted mortality- the dead-alive- catalysed a global evolution, terraforming (at the very least) the greater US overnight. The first wave weeded out the weak that both goodies and baddies on the show are oh so keen to diatribe on (Negan in his early days, separating the wheat from the chaff, sounds uncannily like Rick arriving at Alexandria and redefining the rules for survival- what happened, what’s happening, and what needs to happen). But where the apocalypse was the death knoll for people who couldn’t put up, so shut up forever, it sharpened the holdouts into human daggers like Carol and Daryl, whose sightlines could slice you in two. Regardless, whichever way you fall, inevitably you’ll always reflect; on who you were before ‘this all started’, and who you became because of it.
Everybody in this episode was stellar- from Jayson Smith to the delectably ferocious Steven Ogg- but Jeffrey Dean Morgan was exceptional. JDM did a wonderful job bringing Negan back into the fold with a *crack!* and a *thwack!*, and of stripping Negan down to his component parts- anger, more anger, frustration, even more anger, sarcasm, gross axioms, dicks and pussies, and something desperately sad, rotting away underneath the veneer of his shiny leather jacket, his white white tee and his even whiter teeth, almost always on gleeful display; and not just Lucille, no- because she’s his weapon of choice and the person/memory/thing that literally ‘gives (him) strength’. There’s more to Negan, and the prospect of there actually being more to someone or something in this show is indescribably refreshing for a jaded fan like me who misses the rich psychosomaticism of the show’s early days, and prays every Monday for the terrible gunplay to go the way of the dinosaurs. The idea that this horrible man might have some depth to him is much more enticing to me than however else they plan to adapt ‘All Out War’.
Everything is this episode just worked, and resonated with me in a way that started to feel unfamiliar after season seven. This is how you make a show like this work: give it some oomph and put the characters we’ve gone the whole hog with in peril- not a series of nameless faceless extras. No more pratfalls- give me a convincing prat, flesh them out, and then document the blow by blow of their obliteration. It worked with Shane, it worked with The Governor- it worked with The Claimers, The Termites, Grady and The Wolves. And if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. AMC don’t need to engineer anything new- they just need to go to what worked in the first place.
It was, honest to Gabriel’s lazy god, unbelievably satisfying to see Negan, someone the show has dedicated hours and hours to developing, flummoxed, and stuck, with an equal. It was so great to see him have a normal conversation without his goons, without the pretext of who he supposedly is- just a simple one-on-one, unburdened by cojones.
(N.B. So Negan didn’t get to do his helicopter line from the comics, but he does get an actual bloody helicopter. So that’s something. Good trade I would say- for him; maybe not so much for anyone else.)