Last week’s episode of The Walking Dead provided us with a look at Carol and Daryl that was both painfully redundant and poorly executed. To be honest, though, nearly all of these bridge episodes have been pretty dull (with “One More” being the obvious exception). Character focused bottle episodes can certainly be exciting/interesting, but that normally requires them to have something new to say about their subject.
This week, we might be in luck. At long last, the episode exploring Negan’s backstory that we’ve all been waiting for has finally arrived.
As always, this recap will contain plenty of spoilers.
Ain’t No Sunshine
The episode opens with Maggie and Hershel walking through Alexandria. When Maggie asks if her son remembers a song he used to sing to her, he begins belting out “You Are My Sunshine” (which also happens to be the song Carl sang for Negan back when he was his prisoner).
Speaking of Negan, he’s across the street restoring a house and on the receiving end of Maggie’s death glare.
Carol observes this wordless interaction and asks Negan to join her for a rabbit hunt in the woods. Considering what happens when Carol makes cookies or tells you to check out some flowers, I would have declined, but Negan accepts.
As Carol rounds up her quarry, Negan laments how tense things with Maggie are and how hard it is to avoid her now that they live in the same community. He then asks Carol if she can help him smooth things over about that time he bashed her husband’s skull in with a baseball bat. Instead of answering, she leads him to a cabin that’s been set up so Negan can live far away from Maggie and pretty much everyone else.
She also reveals that the decision to move him to Alexandria’s most remote suburb was voted on and approved by the council. He responds by asking if this was truly an “official” decision or yet another instance of Carol making executive decisions for everyone else.
*Side Note: I already like this episode so much more than the last five.
Instead of giving Negan an answer, Carol smiles and leaves him with the rabbit she caught before departing from his lonely new home.
Man in the Mirror
That night, Negan drinks alone in front of the fire. His existential crisis, isolation, and the alcohol combine to create a hallucination in the form of how he looked/acted back when he was leading the Saviors.
Past Negan taunts his current self over how the community he attempted to join will never see him as anything more than the monster he truly is. When Negan attempts to brush him off, Past Negan digs the knife in further, explaining that things will never be as good as they were before…and that he’s nothing without “her.”
Past Negan smugly taps his barb-wired baseball bat (Lucille) on the ground, causing the real Negan to throw his drink at the empty chair where his leather jacket is.
The next day, Negan visits the location where Rick Grimes had him dead to rights, but decided not to kill him. (It even has the same stain glass window hanging from the tree after all these years). He recalls Michonne saying that Lucille was “still out there” somewhere and begins digging.
After multiple holes and enough hours that a formerly distant walker has lumbered to within a few feet away, Negan finally uncovers Lucille, which means much more to him than just being a cool weapon.
*Side Note: I realize that it needed to be there for the story to happen, but I still don’t get why Rick & Co. went to the trouble of burying the same baseball bat that was used to murder their friends instead of just destroying it.
We then flash back to twelve years earlier, where a younger and much less gray Negan has been beaten and bound by a couple of bikers. They’ve also taken two bags of chemotherapy cocktails from him.
Negan pleads with his captors to let him go, explaining that his wife has cancer. Biker Thug #1 explains that he does feel some sympathy for him, but is a little miffed that Negan gave them a false location for the doctor who provided the medicine. If he doesn’t give them the real location this time, they’ll pour his wife’s cancer treatments down the toilet and make him watch.
Negan agrees and says he got the medicine from a traveling doctor and his daughter. He’d been tracking them for weeks in the hopes of locating their stockpile and finally found them a few days ago.
This leads to another flashback with Negan holding up the doctor, who’s name is Franklin. He’s also malnourished, dehydrated, and exhausted, allowing Laura to sneak up and knock him out with a baseball bat. This might have saved him even further embarrassment since his gun didn’t have any bullets.
When Negan awakens, he finds himself hooked up to an IV inside Franklin’s RV and handcuffed to a chair. Franklin is also there microwaving him some soup. After assuring his benevolent warden that he won’t cause any problems, Negan explains that he was attempting to find chemotherapy cocktails for his wife.
When Franklin asks if Negan is a doctor or knows how to administer chemotherapy, he tells him that he was a gym teacher, but was still able to figure it out. Unfortunately, something went wrong before his wife could receive her last treatment.
Arms of Love
We then flash back six more weeks. Negan is giving his wife Lucille her chemo treatment while a zombie claws and growls outside their home. Lucille suggests that they kill it, but Negan opts to do what they’ve always done and turn off their portable generator until the walker loses interest. To make sure the remaining chemotherapy cocktails remain cold, he puts them in the freezer with some ice.
Later, Negan is reading a book to Lucille when she finally convinces him to go take care of the walker. He nervously agrees, heads outside, and nearly gets himself killed before Lucille shows up with a gun (and her IV) and uses their last bullet to blow the zombie’s head off.
The next day, Negan goes out looking for gasoline. He’s unsuccessful, but does find someone’s abandoned stash of pot in a glove compartment, which he brings home to help his wife with her nausea. Despite being thankful for his efforts, Lucille is worried that her husband has to keep going further and further out to find gas for their generator. She also thinks it would be good to have other people around them instead of being so isolated, but Negan believes their isolation helps keep them safe. He then reminds her that they only have three chemotherapy treatments left. Once those are done, he promises to take her wherever she wants to go.
That night, as the couple struggles to keep warm together, Negan thinks back to how happy they’ve been together despite both the world and his wife being eaten away by force that can’t be stopped.
The next evening, Lucille notices Negan fretting about a walker wandering near their home and tells him he shouldn’t feel bad about killing something that isn’t human anymore. He understands her point, but also fears that he might get used to doing it.
*Side Note: This is an extremely stark/obvious contrast from the Negan we know now. It could have also been worthy of a massive eye roll, but Jeffrey Dean Morgan totally sells us on pre-Saviors Negan’s genuine and gentle nature.
During a candlelight dinner of heavily seasoned dog food, Lucille presents her husband with a gift: His now iconic leather jacket. As she watches her husband joyfully hold it up, she admits that she’d had the jacket hidden in the house’s crawlspace and lied to him about returning it to the store (which wouldn’t take it back). She then apologizes to her husband, saying that if she knew back then what would happen to the world, she never would have gotten mad over a “stupid credit card bill.”
Negan counters by saying that he’s the one who needs to apologize for the type of man he was and all the pain he put her through. He also admits to lying awake at night wondering how he got so lucky to have an amazing woman like her decide to stick with him.
Lucille tells her husband that she stayed because she could always see the man he truly was, even at his lowest.
Out of Ashes
The next morning, after a night of smoking pot and making love, the couple awakens to find that they forgot to turn the generator back on, leaving Lucille’s last few chemotherapy cocktails spoiled.
Negan immediately begins laying out a plan to intercept a traveling medical clinic that once came through their neighborhood (and that we saw a few flashbacks ago). Lucille tries to point out that the the clinic’s staff might be dead or too far away to find — and even if he does manage to locate them, he has nothing to barter with.
Negan is undeterred, insisting that he’ll figure something out along the way. Before he can leave, however, Lucille says that there’s something she needs to tell him.
We then flash back seven more months, which also happens to be right before the zombie apocalypse began. Negan is playing video games in the basement when Lucille walks in and demands to know why her husband thought it was okay to spend $600 on a leather jacket (the same one she eventually hid in the crawlspace) when he’s unemployed and can’t go back to teaching gym due to an assault charge.
Negan claims he has a lead on two jobs, but Lucille quickly sniffs out that her husband is lying. She then informs him that the jacket is getting returned. Negan responds by telling her that he threw away the receipt, hence making a return impossible.
Having reached her breaking point, Lucille calls a friend named Janine who knew both of them as teenagers. She reminds Lucille that Negan’s boorish/selfish behavior isn’t anything new and wasn’t going to change just because they got married. Lucille admits that Janine is right, but doesn’t feel it would be “fair” to give up on him after he lost his job, which he loved.
When Janine tries to imply Negan deserved what happened because he put a man in the hospital, Lucille responds that the man her husband beat up “had it coming.”
That night at dinner, Lucille reminds Negan than she needs him take her to an MRI appointment tomorrow afternoon so he can drive her home. He tells her that he can’t due to a meeting with his probation officer. That would be bad enough, but he also says that the appointment is likely to be a pointless anyway waste of time, anwyway.
Turns out the appointment is where Lucille has to find out alone that she has cancer.
After leaving the doctor’s office, she goes to her car and calls Negan for support (or at least a ride home), but gets his voicemail. A call to Janine has the same result. She then calls Negan’s probation officer, who reveals that her husband doesn’t have a meeting scheduled for another two weeks. Lucille looks back down at her phone, realizes why both Janine and Negan are unavailable at the same time, and angrily peels out of the parking lot.
*Side Note: It was a really cool effect hearing the brief snippet of a radio news broadcast about the beginnings of the zombie apocalypse.
That night, Lucille waits for Negan to come home with a gun in one hand and cancer treatment brochures in the other. When he walks through the door, she opts to reveal her diagnoses without ever telling him that she knew about his affair.
Back in the Negan/Lucille post-apocalypse present, Negan is gutted to learn that his wife knows yet another thing he did to hurt her. After promising that he never spoke to Janine again after that night, he asks his wife why she’s revealing this to him now. Lucille responds that it’s because the way he’s loved and cared for her since the world ended has made up for it. It may have taken some horrible circumstances, but he’s finally proven to be the man she always knew he was.
Lucille goes on to explain that the best thing Negan can do now is stay by her side during her final days. As hard as he’s fought, this was ultimately her fight and she gave it everything she had. She doesn’t need him to do her fighting for her — she just needs him to be there.
Negan is touched, but refuses, insisting that if the last two treatments have a chance of being what finally sends her cancer into remission (or just giving them more time together), then he’ll do whatever is necessary to find them.
We then flash forward to Negan inside the RV and explaining his plan to Franklin. Despite the fact that he attempted to rob them at gunpoint (without any bullets), Franklin and Laura give him every bit of medicine he needs. After seeing that an unloaded pistol is the only weapon he has to defend himself, Laura gives Negan the baseball bat she used to knock him out.
We then flash forward to Negan being held captive by the biker thugs. While most of us have been thoroughly captivated by Negan’s story, Biker Thug #1 is tired of it. Turns out the heart wrenching tale wasn’t just for his benefit — it was also giving Negan time to twist off a screw beneath his chair. Unfortunately, Biker Thug #1 puts a gun to Negan’s head, forcing him to reveal the clinic’s location and hand over his map. Before heading out, Biker Thug #1 promises that if anything he told him isn’t true, he gets executed and his wife never gets her medicine.
Some time later, the Biker Thug #1 returns and lets Negan go along with his chemotherapy cocktails. His relief is immediately replaced by guilt when he walks outside, sees the RV, and hears Laura screaming inside it. The horrific realization of what he’s done still isn’t enough to keep Negan from getting on his bike and riding as hard as he can back to Lucille.
He arrives home to find a gut wrenching note scrawled across their bedroom:
Negan opens the door and discovers that in his absence, Lucille had killed herself via asphyxiation, leaving her attached to the bed via a zip tie she used to close a plastic bag around her head. Even worse, Negan’s wife was now a walker, growling and snapping at him without a shred of the light and humanity she had before he left.
Judging by the empty pill bottles on Lucille’s nightstand, the pain from her late stage cancer likely became too much to bear, especially by herself. We should also remember that at this point in time, people had no idea that death was just as sure to turn you into a walker as getting bit. Lucille wouldn’t have known what her husband would find when he came home after she passed. I’m fairly sure Negan knew that, too.
Either way, the end result was still more than enough to shatter his heart.
That night, after grieving silently at his undead wife’s bedside, Negan finally forces himself to go outside, clip off the wire from his house’s fencing, and wrap it around his newly acquired bat. Before leaving his home and wife for the last time, he douses the floor in gasoline and drops a match, torching the last and most important parts of his pre-apocalypse self in a blaze of guilt and regret.
As his past burns behind him, the man who used to feel squeamish about killing walkers goes back to the biker bar and awesomely slaughters a bunch of
previously unseen extras Biker Thug henchmen.
Franklin, who was in the middle of getting worked over by Biker Thug #2 (and sitting in the same chair where Negan was held captive), uses the distraction to finish liberating the loose screw Negan was working on before. He then uses it to cut through the ropes tying his hands together before picking up the chair and smacking Biker Thug #1 over the head with it.
Unbeknownst to Franklin, Biker Thug #1’s problems are about to get much, much worse.
Negan walks in, hands the doctor one of the dead henchmen’s guns, and tells him to go make sure his daughter is safe. With that small bit of humanity out of the way, Negan pulls Biker Thug #1 onto his knees before admitting that until tonight, he’d never killed man. He came close once, though — the incident that got him the assault charge back before the world went to hell:
One night when Negan and Lucille went to their favorite bar, an extremely loud/annoying douchebag was talking during their favorite song (Joe Cocker’s “You Are So Beautiful“). When Lucille asked if he could quiet down so she and her husband could hear their song, he rudely brushed her off. As you might imagine, Negan wasn’t too happy about this. He told the man that he owed him 50 cents so his wife could hear her song uninterrupted. Predictably, the man refused. At this point, Negan says his anger caused him to literally “see red.” He then beat the man to within an inch of his life, took a dollar from his pocket and played “You Are So Beautiful” on the jukebox for Lucille. Twice.
Unfortunately, the man he beat up also had children who went to the school where he taught. As you might imagine, this caused even more issues than an assault charge already would. On top of that, the man sued Negan and Lucille, forcing them to pay his medical bills.
On that day, Negan realized that “seeing red” was a bad thing. It led to consequences. Now, however, there weren’t any police or lawyers to make sure those consequences were enforced. In this new world, Negan “seeing red” is merely a precursor to finding what he’s truly capable of.
In this instance, he proves to be fully capable of bashing Thug #1’s head in.
*Side Note: The framing of those bar lights to make it look like the truck lights in the episode where Negan killed Glenn and Abraham is magnificent.
Back in the actual Walking Dead present, Negan uses the unburied Lucille to take down the approaching walker that’s finally reached him. This also causes the bat to break, which breaks Negan down, as well.
That night, Negan holds the shattered barb-wired bat to the fire and apologizes to his wife. He’s sorry for all the pain he caused her before the cancer diagnosis, for being too scared to stay with her at the end, and for naming a baseball bat after her. He also admits that his attempt to rid himself of all emotion was really just a way to avoid feeling any shame — an effort proven both futile and foolish now that shame is all he feels anymore.
Negan closes his eulogy with a heartfelt, coarse, and defiantly stubborn promise that could only come from him:
I miss you.
I love the s**t out of you.
And I am going to do your fighting for you.
He then wraps the bat in cloth and gently places it in the fire.
The next day, Negan confidently strolls back into Alexandria and tells Carol that he won’t be staying at the cabin. Carol replies that if he stays in Alexandria, Maggie (who is once again shooting him an impressive death glare) will kill him. Now that he’s refused her help, however, his death won’t be on her conscious.
Negan smiles, accepts Carol’s assessment, and continues walking into town, all the while locking eyes with Maggie like a man with nothing left to lose and everything to fight for.
Even when you consider how weak the recent bridge episodes have been, it’s safe to say most of us expected this one to be good. What I did not expect, however, was for it to be one of the best episodes of The Walking Dead ever…perhaps even the best, period.
For starters, the show’s writers took what was already some pretty good source material (the Here’s Negan graphic novel) and made it much, much better. I won’t get into all the differences between the comic and the episode, but trust me when I say that this is one of the very rare times when the screen adaptation was unequivocally better. This version not only tied Lucille more into Negan’s transformation, but also made her a fully realized character rather than a simple plot device.
Another major risk the writers took was telling a story with such an obvious narrative blueprint. Thankfully, the path from redemption to tragedy still had some unexpected turns along the way. An example of this was when Lucille said she had to tell Negan something. Most of us probably thought she was going to reveal an affair she had to get revenge on him. Instead, it leads to us discovering she never told Negan that she knew of his infidelity, which breaks his heart (and ours) all over again.
The production was also top notch all the way around. From the incredible cinematography (like the ‘Negan Lights’ shot in the bar) to the make up team changing the main characters’ appearance between time periods, everyone working behind the scenes was on their A-game. Their work would be worthy of praise no matter what, but the fact they pulled off such a beautiful looking episode while working under strict COVID guidelines makes it even more impressive.
What truly made this one great, however, were the phenomenal performances from Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Hilarie Burton. You never know how a husband and wife team are going to translate on screen, but these two completely knocked it out of the park — and not just when their characters were in happy and in love. The scenes when Negan and Lucille’s relationship was slipping underwater were just as real and powerful.
From an individual standpoint, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Jeffrey Dean Morgan give a better performance. His humanity was tinged with just enough of the Negan we know to make it feel both real and alien. After watching that humanity slip away, we’re completely drawn back in as he eulogizes Lucille in front of the fire — so much so that it makes you mad at Maggie for hating him even though she has every right to.
As for Hilarie Burton, I was completely unfamiliar with her work before, but I’m definitely a fan now. She imbued Lucille’s small moments of pain and resignation with jarring relatability, which made her strength and resilience that much more inspiring. In just one episode, Lucille made a bigger impact than some characters do after multiple seasons. You could say it’s because of her connection to Negan, but that association also came with a much greater distance to fall if the portrayal wasn’t good. Instead, Burton gave us a Lucille who was even better than we were hoping for.
Add in an exciting ticking clock storyline along with some extremely solid side characters (both good and evil), and this is the first episode in years that I’ve actually wanted to watch multiple times. I still believe that the Season 10 bridge episodes were a poorly executed venture, but it was worth it if the end result was getting this one.
So what does this mean for The Walking Dead going forward? It’s not like they can replicate such a unique plotline and setting for twenty-four more episodes. But “Here’s Negan” proved that familiar characters and predictable narratives don’t have to be stale, especially with all the great acting talent on this show. The road to an organic conclusion can still twist through some paths of truly inspired and impactful storytelling.
But whatever happens next season and in the multiple spinoffs that are sure to come, tonight’s episode is one that any television series would be proud to call its best.
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