In the Dead City
premiere, Maggie (Lauren Cohan) tells Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) that, for her, there is no moving on from Glenn (Steven Yeun)’s death - the horror, one gathers, as well as the loss. The psychological realism of this is, on the one hand, self-evident. Grief and bereavement are not transient states, but permanent ones. There is no “getting over it” for anyone who has lost someone close to them. Neither, however, is grief static: it evolves, becomes familiar and more manageable. The Walking Dead
gave one of Dead City
’s main characters a remarkable redemption arc, a development from one of the flagship show’s worst villains to a repentant family man. But it trapped Dead City
’s other protagonist in a state of unchanging rage and trauma - as difficult to watch as it is, in some moments, to believe - of which her reaction to Hershel (Logan Kim)’s kidnapping is just the most recent iteration.
For that reason, among others, Dead City
is indubitably, by its halfway point, The Negan Show
. Maggie, struggling to cope with misery and fear over her missing son, is so tightly wound as to be robotic at times, even during her most vulnerable moments. By contrast, Negan continues to be sentimental and self-aware - finding a gift for the kidnapped teenager, offering a listening ear to Maggie, and sharing a scene with Ginny (Mahina Napoleon) that will make your teeth ache with its sweetness.
Unfortunately, the revelation of what happened to his wife Annie (Medhina Senghore) and their son Josh undermines this. A few years ago, after Annie was assaulted and Negan killed her attackers, he put his wife and son on a wagon train to Missouri and promised to follow them. Inexplicably, he hasn’t, and he has no idea whether they are still alive. The show has the advantage of Negan’s son never having been seen onscreen - Josh is only a name spoken by his father. But as Negan embraces Ginny, whose safety is his priority during a flashback, one wonders where this fatherly feeling is for his son, and why Negan hasn’t done everything in his power to return to his family. “I think about them every day. I hope to God they’re okay,” he murmurs plaintively, and then asks Maggie, “What else do we have besides hope?.” The answer is obvious: skills, resources, the ability to follow his family to Missouri instead of languishing in the backyard of a federation that wants to execute him. His rhetoric is affecting if it is considered without any reference to logic, but - like much in Dead City -
it cannot withstand further consideration. Dead City
is carefully selective in its callbacks to the flagship show, and that selection reveals one of the problems of The Walking Dead
franchise coordinating multiple spinoffs simultaneously. Maggie carries photos of her parents, a sketch of Glenn, Hershel (Scott Wilson)’s watch, and she tells Negan, “There weren’t a lot of people who meant anything to me in this world, but there were enough.” All that remains of them, she informs him, is in the small tin of memories she carries. Any callback plucks at the heartstrings of the audience - Hershel and Glenn were beloved and missed characters. But what of Maggie’s found family? What of Carol (Melissa McBride), Daryl (Norman Reedus), Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and Michonne (Danai Gurira)? Why does Maggie speak to Negan as though they don’t exist, or as though they never meant anything to her? As Dead City
airs, two other Walking Dead
spinoffs are in post-production. The need to avoid spoiling their storylines and to keep their timelines vague has obliged Keith Staskiewicz to write a Maggie who never mentions her closest friends, and a Negan who is not in the slightest bit curious as to what happened to them.
Callbacks to Negan and his history are, by contrast, plentiful. He speaks of his late wife Lucille (Hilarie Burton Morgan) as well as Annie, and tells the story of the Saviors to Tommaso (Jonathan Higginbotham)’s group as a kind of fable. The episode title is one of Negan’s favorite sayings from his Sanctuary days: “People are a resource.” There is a nasty twist to the Croat (Željko Ivanek)’s use of the same expression. He does not need people for labor. Instead, corpses are a source of methane gas, which he converts to its liquid state and uses as fuel.
Parallels between the Croat and Negan are heavily drawn in this week’s episode, but so are distinctions. The Croat performs for his followers and Perlie Armstrong (Gaius Charles), strutting, monologuing, and - just as Negan did last week - declaring after a kill, “I don’t enjoy such barbarism, but it had to be done.” The pleasure he takes in violence is betrayed, however, after Armstrong is given no choice but to perform a gruesome act for an excited crowd, and the Croat says it is “the best show” he has seen in a long time. Meanwhile, Negan bandages Ginny’s stuffed toy, tries to comfort Maggie, and grows misty-eyed speaking of his family. His self-effacing remarks to both Ginny and Maggie about his tendency to talk too much cannot be accepted without irony. As Maggie observes, he still doesn’t know how to shut up. In Dead City
, however, he rambles like a village elder dispensing folk wisdom rather than the sarcastic smart-mouth he was in The Walking Dead
Ivanek’s character is a cartoonish villain, a pale imitation of Negan, and he has a faintly pathetic quality - deliberately so. His lingering devotion to Negan’s philosophy, despite his former mentor trying to kill him, is pitiable. Where Negan’s charisma has always been undeniable, the Croat is unhinged in a wholly charmless way. He is a foil for the new Negan, just as Maggie is in a different way.
Watching “People are a Resource” for the third or fourth time, I found myself contemplating how much disbelief it is reasonable to ask an audience to suspend. I have no idea how accurate the science of Dead City
is, and I don’t care, because it sounds convincing. The idea of using corpses as an energy source during the apocalypse seems clever to a non-scientist like me, and I will gladly buy into that element of the plot without further investigation. In emotional terms, however, it is harder to pretend that what we see onscreen makes sense, both in the context of psychology, and in the context of the franchise. Unlike science and logic, emotion is a visceral and immediate human function, and there is no time for the viewer to rationalize their response. If the emotional beats are no longer relevant once a scene ends, the viewer cannot be expected to invest themselves in the characters except superficially. Perhaps, however, the show is using this to its advantage, in the hopes that the poignancy of individual scenes will satisfy where the overall emotional arcs - at least for Maggie - stagnate.