Spoilers for The Walking Dead are below.
With three episodes left in Season 6 of The Walking Dead, viewers have a lot to think about in terms of what characters are where, and who’s facing what threats. (And why Heath is so criminally underused.) The one thought looming above all others, though, is focused on the impending arrival of Negan, who has a good chance of becoming one of TV’s most memorable villains.
Here are 5 reasons why Negan has already turned The Walking Dead into a better show, even though we still have yet to see his deviously grinning face or hear his expletive-spewing voice. It’s not a distinction that many shows can claim, but that’s abso-fucking-lutely the case here.
He’s Unlike Any Major Villains Before HimIn the almost-six seasons that The Walking Dead has been on the air, Rick & Co. have faced a revolving door of Big Bads and mini-antagonists whose ideas about survival run contradictory to those of the central group. Some of them are largely forgettable (like Hospital Cop Dawn) or underutilized (such as Terminus Gareth), with the most memorable and effective of the bunch being The Governor, and by a long shot. The Governor is also easily the closest point of comparison to Negan, as he too ruled over a community of people in immoral ways, but comic readers know that their emotional impulses couldn’t be more different.
But even if all you know is the TV show, you have a huge inkling of how different Negan’s power and command for respect are, as evidenced by how many of his saviors we’ve seen grouped up and loyally carrying out his thieving wishes, and without his supervision. Negan’s group is bigger than any that came before, and he’s got a stronger grip on them than Gareth had on Bob’s leg meat.
The Foreshadowing Is Better Than EverTwo of the groups that Rick’s squad encountered in recent seasons were the Terminus cannibals and the Wolves, with Terminus getting introduced through signs promising that sanctuary and survival were imminent for arrivals – plus that radio broadcast – and the Wolves being teased through walker foreheads carved with the letter W, as well as the “Wolves Not Far” graffiti. In both cases, the successful foreshadowing seemingly lasted longer than the arguably lackluster villains themselves.
Negan, however, is worth entire seasons of foreshadowing. Starting with the “Your property now belongs to Negan” line spoken in the post-midseason finale scene, everything that has hinted at the psychopath’s influence has been solid. He’s got multiple outposts set up in the areas outside Alexandria, his followers are so devout that they go all Spartacus for him, and those photographs on that one Savior’s wall serve as perfect sub-foreshadowing of Negan’s bat Lucille. This is how you set up a bad guy, people.
His Name Alone Inspires FearWhen Daryl blew up that group of motorcycle-riding Saviors in the midseason premiere, neither he nor Abraham and Sasha were quite sure what to think about the name Negan. Then, when Jesus took some of Rick’s group to the Hilltop Colony, the Alexandrians learned that Negan was extorting goods from the community, and that he’d killed some residents and kidnapped another to set up Gregory’s murder. Understandably, this lit a fire in Rick, who immediately wanted to take down the as-yet-faceless threat, even though he couldn’t be certain that Negan existed as anything other than a boogeyman. And he still doesn’t, technically.
But hearing “Negan” inspires such fear that Rick’s group went to that compound and killed a bunch of people in their sleep, sins unrecognized, crossing a line that some hadn't yet gotten to, similar to Carol's actions inside the slaughterhouse. Speaking of, that's where Molly responds to Carol’s Negan namedrop with the cryptic line “We are all Negan,” a viewpoint mirrored in the last moments of the episode, when Savior Primo claimed he was Negan to Rick, who responded by blowing his head off. Rick & Co. haven’t experienced anything quite like this before, and their nervousness is justified.
He Is The Exception To The Spoilers RuleBy its very nature, The Walking Dead is a show that frequently drops bombshells, usually by killing characters off. So it’s never exactly surprising when it’s learned/spoiled that someone will soon meet their maker, and Negan’s arrival is the granddaddy of this kind of instance, as his comic book addition notoriously signaled the end of Glenn’s life via an incomparably cruel skull-crushing. This is the Walking Dead spoiler that has been impossible to ignore over the years, as even creator Robert Kirkman is comfortably saying it on TV.
But rather than ruining anything, the widespread knowledge of this brutal moment actually makes the anticipation more palpable, and has inspired conversations aplenty about whether Kirkman and showrunner Scott Gimple will stay true to the source material or if they’re putting another character in Glenn’s place, with the latter speculation strengthened by Glenn’s faux death earlier this season. To me, it’s a situation where knowing part of the ending actually adds to the story being told, and makes the season finale all the more eagerly awaited.
We Know He’s Going To Change EverythingThis almost ties into the spoiler bit, especially for comic fans who know just how much Negan’s existence changed The Walking Dead with tons of memorable moments and events. But even without knowledge of the source material, the show’s creative team has been freely touting the narrative weight that Negan is bringing with him, both as a threat to Rick’s crew and as a multi-layered character in his own right.
And just think about it. This is a guy who, with a large army of sorts at his command, knew of the Hilltop Colony and presumably other survivor communities before Rick’s group did. (Not to mention setting up the Saviors’ own settlements.) Negan is not only more aware of the larger world than any of the protagonists, but he’s also partly in charge of it, and he’s been doing that for a decent amount of time. For Alexandria and the Hilltop to challenge Negan’s rule, that means a war is coming that The Walking Dead has never been able to give us before. And it will be glorious.
The Walking Dead airs Sunday nights on AMC.