The Walking Dead season 11 begins by tarnishing the long-running redemption of Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Negan in the premiere episode. Following much hype, Negan arrived in season 6’s finale, immediately establishing himself as The Walking Dead‘s big new villain by smashing the heads of Glenn and Abraham like ripe pumpkins. Rick’s war against Negan last 2 whole seasons, but The Walking Dead‘s hero finally emerged victorious and consigned Negan to a lonely cell in the bowels of Alexandria. Since season 9, however, Negan has been walking a long path toward redemption.
Negan began by apologizing for his crimes, before breaking down emotionally and begging Maggie to kill him. He returned to his cell voluntarily after escaping and even acknowledged how his larger-than-life Savior persona was a pathetic act designed to mask his inner hurt. Negan earned the trust of Alexandria by saving Judith and Dog from a blizzard, then played a vital role in defeating the Whisperers to rubber-stamp his parole. In what looked like the final step on Negan’s road to redemption, The Walking Dead season 10’s bonus episodes saw him confront the past while seeing hallucinations of late wife, Lucille.
It seems The Walking Dead season 11 has other ideas. The premiere episode sends Maggie and Negan on an expedition to the former’s old settlement, but Ms. Rhee’s leadership leaves something to be desired, as she repeatedly puts their group in danger. Negan acts as the voice of reason, but everyone’s too blinded by hatred to hear his logic. At this point, viewers are encouraged to feel sympathy toward Negan – just as they have done for the past 2 seasons. Alas, “Acheron Pt. 1” ends with Maggie hanging from a subway carriage as zombies chomp at her feet. Negan is the only one who can save her… and he chooses not to, leaving Maggie to die.
Negan’s decision takes a big, razor wire baseball bat to 2 seasons worth of character development for Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s character. Mirroring the original Walking Dead comic books, Negan has shown genuine remorse for past actions and fought hard to win the trust of Alexandria. He’s a misunderstood renegade desperate to escape a violent past, and that evolution has been utterly compelling to watch. Transitioning a villain as depraved as Negan into a hero is no mean feat, but The Walking Dead seasons 9 & 10 gradually morphed the character from a neutered bad guy to a tortured antihero to a budding protagonist. That growth has been an undisputed highlight of post-Rick Walking Dead, but leaving Maggie to die proves it was all in vain. Negan is back to his old tricks, and rather than atone for Glenn’s murder, Negan now seems happy to bump off Maggie for the “married couple bonus.”
Admittedly, Negan’s motivations are very different this time. Instead of trying to assert power through bloodshed, Negan knows Maggie wants him dead, so when Lauren Cohan’s character is dangling over a dozen hungry walkers, he spies an opportunity to nip that problem in the bud. But Negan extending his hand would’ve been a far more powerful moment. What better way to complete Negan’s reformation than saving Maggie despite her intention to kill him? How challenging would it be for Maggie to owe her life to the very man who took her husband’s? Moreover, fans would’ve been rewarded for investing in Negan’s long-term redemption. Now, it feels like The Walking Dead was making viewers care, just to pull the rug and re-turn Negan bad for shock value.
There’s plenty of time for The Walking Dead to get Negan back on track (though season 11’s premiere just made that needlessly difficult) but, right now, it’s unclear why this non-comic direction was taken. Perhaps The Walking Dead was trying to keep season 11 unpredictable. Viewers expected Negan to continue mending his ways, so to cruelly leave Maggie for dead comes as a huge surprise. Sometimes, however, a predictable, satisfying story is better than a baffling twist no one saw coming, and Negan’s redemption is a prime example of this principle in action. What with Negan slipping back into Savior mode and zombies suddenly having a bedtime (?!), it seems The Walking Dead season 11 isn’t too focused on what came before.