Warning: Spoilers are ahead for the season eight of The Walking Dead. Keep reading at your own risk.
This week’s episode, “The Lost and the Plunderers,” gives us a glimpse of life after Carl Grimes, and it seems pretty bleak. Carl represented a potential hope for the future, and while not every character in “Plunderers” cares that he’s gone, the episode still revolves around a feeling of inertia and hopelessness. It’s broken up into several short vignettes, with each focusing, in turn, on Michonne, Enid, Jadis, Rick, Simon, and Negan.
These shorts vary in effectiveness and emotional pull, but three in particular stand out. In one, we finally see Jadis break “character,” as Ezekiel did, after Simon and the Saviors suddenly massacre her people. Will Jadis grow as a character or is she doomed to die atop that trash compactor? Another segment features Rick calling Negan to tell him Carl is dead; Negan seems genuinely mournful at first, but the two fail to come to any sort of reconciliation. Finally, with all of Negan’s lieutenants dead or missing, and Alexandria and the Hilltop still openly rebelling, Simon confronts Negan about his methods: why even “save” people? Why is Negan so adamant that his system of government is the right way?
We see in “Plunderers” that Simon doesn’t have any better solution for establishing order than Negan does, but it’s worth exploring Negan’s belief system. How is Negan’s society supposed to work? Why does he think it works? And why does he even feel there needs to be a unified order?
In season seven we got a glimpse inside of Negan’s Sanctuary, a community that exists within a dusty old factory. It’s clear that the Sanctuary has a rigid hierarchy in place. There are the captured prisoners, whose job seems to be to “maintain” the walker yard outside; the workers, who live on the ground floor (literally, on the floor) of the factory and provide menial labor; the Saviors, who serve as both the military force and a sort of ruling class, being given their own rooms and special amenities; Negan’s harem of unwilling wives, who can move more freely within the Sanctuary than the workers, but who are indentured in their own way; and Negan himself, the despotic king.
We’re also told the Sanctuary functions under a point system. The prisoners and workers aim to gain Negan’s favor, and he gives them points that allow them to barter for goods and food. Laura tells Eugene in “Hostiles and Calamities” that the Saviors and wives are exempt from this and are given carte blanche. While ComicBook theorizes this makes Negan’s society a communist one, it’s more accurate to say it’s closer to an absolute monarchy, with his kingdom made up of the people he’s conquered. While the Saviors’ “I am Negan” slogan would imply a Communist-like structure, Negan was certainly not elected by the workers (and even some of the Saviors, in Dwight’s case); the distribution of goods is incredibly unequal and based on Negan’s whims; and Negan holds ultimate power to do what he likes, as we see when he throws their incredibly valuable doctor into the smelter.
The society is also intensely stratified; the workers sleep on cots in refugee-like conditions while Eugene plays video games up in his own room. It’s a system practically built to breed dissent. Negan doesn’t allow his “subjects” to thrive. Many of them are confined to live in a dark, dank warehouse (which is confusing, considering the apocalypse has opened up a considerable amount of free land). Trapped in a warehouse he overlooks, he can easily control the minutiae of their lives. How is that any better than just making a go for it out in the open?
Negan’s methodology looks increasingly more medieval when you look at how he deals with other towns like the Kingdom and Hilltop. Here the relationship mirrors more of a feudal system, with Negan demanding resources in exchange for what he claims is protection. This trade-off is incredibly unequal and baffling though, as we don’t see any Saviors stationed within the Kingdom or Hilltop’s walls. How is Negan supposed to protect them if they’re suddenly overrun? In season seven’s “Go Getters,” the Saviors show up at Hilltop to reiterate that they provide zombie-killing services, but this is after they themselves unleashed walkers into the town at night, and Maggie and Sasha had to deal with it. With their metal gates, Alexandria and the Kingdom also seemed unlikely to have to deal with random walkers getting in, so this system was only ever built to benefit Negan and his most fanatical Saviors. Negan is trying to impose a ruling class on people who quite literally don’t need or want it.
And then of course, on top of all that, Negan beats to death members of each group, and separates husbands from wives, as a way of keeping everyone in line. It’s a fantastically bad system, and Simon is right in questioning its merits (even though his conclusion is wrong).
Negan is, at the end the day, a colonizer and a conqueror, a despot and a tyrant. His entire system breeds insurgency, not loyalty; fear is a powerful motivator, but so is revenge. It’s perhaps unsurprising that finally realizing his system is terrible is what causes Rick to get the drop on him in the comics. We’ll have to see how it plays out between Rick and Negan in the show, but suffice to say, Negan is in the wrong here, and it’s only a matter of time.