Having come down with a nasty cold the last few days, I did what I always do when I feel like total shit, and tucked into the biggest, thickest, most difficult books that I could reach without having to get out of my chair. In this case they were Susanna Clarke's magnificent Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell and Alan Moore's almost appallingly excellent From Hell.Read More
So. We need to talk about a moment in recent American pop culture. It's so graphic its hard to watch, but it's more than that too. Spoilers you've already heard about or seen directly ahead.
Maybe you've already seen it, and can't face it again, or you don't want to. Don’t worry, I'll summarize. The scene is spectacularly horrific, at least partially because it is so vividly realized. A man has his head beaten to literal pulp in front of his crying wife. After a heavy blow, Negan pauses so that the man can attempt to speak. He mutters incomprehensibly, eye bulging out of the socket. Finally, he is able to assemble a phrase we can understand: "I will find you." Then he takes blow after blow until there is nothing left of his head except a pile of mush with, improbably, an intact eye goggling up from the gore.
I don't know about you, but I was livid when I saw this.
It's not the gore, but the storytelling that pisses me off. Its the utter, wanton disregard for the viewer that the character of Negan and the scene epitomize, as well as how lazily mean it is for no particular reason other than to satisfy the expectation that The Walking Dead has to be continually outdoing itself with ever more cruel and repulsive bad guys.
To assure you that it is not the gore, lets watch together one of the best moments of horror cinema ever, from director David Cronenberg's Scanners. Cronenberg is one of the genre's greatest practitioners of story-driven gore. I think that is is hard to argue that this moment isn't just as gory, if not gorier. It's definitely more satisfying either way.
Terrific, isn't it?
I love gore, and I love villains. I am sometimes tempted to see things their way. Every kid who comes of age with Star Wars will sometimes watch it secretly hoping that Darth Vader will win this time. As a first or second grader, I thought that Scar was the hero of The Lion King. While the upstart prince was off sitting atop a living tower of African animals and belting out songs about how soon he would have power, Scar was off belting out songs full of good advice like "be prepared." And I always felt a little bad for Jafar, who, despite the best laid plans of parrots and viziers, is denied the throne by a kid with a monkey only because they're the ones that happened to weaponize a quipping genie.
You ought to be able to sympathize, at least a little, with the villain. Sometimes the villain is motivated by something elemental that you can understand, like revenge or ancient love, or in order to regain something they lost long ago. This category would therefore include great villains like Dracula, Khan Noonien Singh, Voldemort, even Freddy Krueger. I am not saying that these guys are likable, but you can see, with a little effort, what the world might look like to them. They demonstrate human traits, however pitiful or unpleasant. Other villains are motivated by the sheer joy of doing their jobs, like Emperor Palpatine or Anthony Hopkins's Hannibal Lecter. Palpatine is so joyfully evil that you kind of imagine that even signing Empire paperwork reduces him to cackling shambles. Lecter, at least in The Silence of the Lambs, is having no less fun. He grins and mugs, gleefully dissembling the solution to the case in order to manipulate Clarice Starling. And as you know if you've read the Thomas Harris novels the films are based on, Starling finds Hannibal interesting and empathetic enough to run off with him at the end of the novels.
Negan, however, is the end of villainy and the beginning of something else, something altogether dumber. The Negan/Glenn/Lucille scene goes beyond mere sadism. It’s a character who is so impossibly evil that he lacks anything interesting or compelling about him. Why wouldn't one of his followers just blow him away when he turns around?
A large part of the problem is that as a villain follows the Governor, who was a far more successful bad guy. We understood through him how an ordinary guy, one who had perhaps always harbored violent and secret fantasies but who would never act on them in daily life, could become a monster of exceptional sadism and cruelty. In the name of order and control, he sacrificed any remnant of his humanity, symbolized in the comic by his regularly losing limbs and eyes.
The Governor is the perfect villain for The Walking Dead, a show which is obsessed with the relentless and joylessly grim. Again and again, Rick and his band of survivors are made to do terrible dehumanizing things in order to keep living. It was thrilling once, or twice, but it grows repetitive – but we understand that if Rick is not careful, the Governor is what he could become in five, maybe ten more years of continuing to meet bad people and finding himself obliged to do bad things in order to escape them.
But how do you come up with a new villain after you've already dispatched with your ultimate villain? It’s a problem that plagues TV shows, comic books, and many other indefinitely extended pieces of speculative fiction. For those of you who watch Sherlock, you recognize the same thing at work in the fourth season finale with the reveal of the season's overarching villain: an EVEN smarter and EVEN more evil shade of Moriarty, but less interesting.
Negan is obviously the Governor only way more so. His sadism and abuse of power, though, are out of proportion to reality. As a character utterly devoid of anything humane, compelling, or interesting, he is a complete cipher. Certainly Jeffrey Dean Morgan plays him with something approaching smarmy charm, but even that is alienating in that not even beating a man's head in right in front of his wife and friends gets him worked up. He is able to do this horrible thing without even breaking his "evil Fonz" persona. What is there here to be interested in? He has no discernable character traits aside from sadism, cruelty, and an unflappably unfunny sense of humor.
Rather than think of a new kind of villain, Negan is what happens when an indefinitely sustained narrative tries to continually outdo itself, in this case via shock and horror, until it overruns itself and sacrifices story for cheap stunts. With Negan, you can see the storytelling strings that suspend him. He is so self-evidently a character designed to cash in on and amplify the already proven traits of the Governor that he is not even, really, a character. He is the equivalent of the terror plot in Team America: World Police, described, in a scale which so beggars the mind that it loses any identification, as "9/11 x 1000".
That Glenn's murder is an almost unbearably drawn out scene of violence directed against one of the only likable characters of the show is also worth noting. A lot of the considerable sadism on display is really directed at YOU, since you probably liked the character a lot. I, for one, liked him a lot better than Rick, whose righteous speeches and stalwart unshaven-ness bore me. Glen and Maggie were at least likable because they represent the only chance of civilization ever returning to the world of The Walking Dead. To kill him in front of her, is to affirm that there is no hope, which may be what Kirkman and the show were going for anyway. But to kill him in such a graphic, prolonged, and yet un-heroic way is to say "fuck you" to an audience that is invested in him and what he represents. The Walking Dead, even more so than Game of Thrones, a show that wears its supposed nihilism on its sleeve, is unconcerned with the "good" part of "good vs evil." Instead of being an impediment to good, the character of Negan can only degrade and insult good.
So if the Governor were Captain Hook, Negan would be Captain Sawblade, who, instead of a hook for a hand, has a saw for all four of his limbs and one of his eyes. He's not the villain of a show for regular people who might happen to enjoy some zombie gore, he's the protagonist of a show for maniacs.
And if they ever kill him, what kind of villain could possibly succeed him? If the show can think of a scene which tops the killing of Glenn in sadism and pain, who would possibly want to watch it?
I hate to play the fanboy, but I would like to point out that the oft-reviled Kylo Ren is a more successful kind of new villain. He is reminscent of Darth Vader, clearly the series's best and most memorable villain, in a variety of ways. He dresses similarly. His voice is similarly altered by his costume. But the more we find out about Kylo Ren in The Force Awakens, the more we find that the shades of Darth Vader are Ren's way of covering up for all the ways that he is different than his grandfather. Vader remained pretty cool (at least in the original trilogy) while choking underlings, rarely getting angry or showing much emotion. Ren, however, lashes out like an immature jerk, slashing a console to bits with his lightsaber. He is unable to read Rey's mind, and that makes him angry too. At one point, he prays for the moral turpitude to be as evil as he wants to be. So far at least, Ren is an ironic mirror of Vader, not an amplification.
Instead, Negan is such a clumsily and totally cruel character that the show says nothing about the nature of evil, only wallows in it happily like a pig in bloody mud. Negan the character and the death of Glenn as plot point is the point at which The Walking Dead has refuted its humanity altogether. Its also the point where the show, which has always tended towards boredom, embraces it completely.
You now what might greatly improve the show? Literally renouncing humanity. Imagine it: having dispatched with the violent deaths of Rick, his son, and everyone who's left, the show could finally realize its true potential. What if, instead of bickering humans headed towards inevitable confrontations with increasingly fucked up dictators and assholes, The Walking Dead just showed zombies? What if it were just an hour, every week, of the undead shuffling around: moaning, stumbling, rotting, falling from heights, staring vacantly into the camera? That way it could be just as gory, and it might result in some accidental poignance now and then.