Finally, finally, the drudgery of putting up with Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s one-note portrayal of Negan has paid off. In Sing Me a Song, we finally see behind the grinning, lanky facade and understand not only that Negan is far more than just a bully, but also why he manages to stay in power despite the fact that those around him clearly despise him. Everything begins to make sense and it’s thanks to another character that’s finally given something meaningful to do, Carl.
If you’ll recall, Carl and Jesus had both stowed away in a truck bound for Negan’s camp. Jesus wisely jumped out so he could approach the compound in a safer and more stealthy manner, but Carl favored a more direct approach and pulled a gun on the Saviors when the truck stopped. He failed to take the crucial shot when Negan appeared, though, and while he managed to kill two Saviors, he still got caught. In previous episodes, this would’ve led to tedious threats or posturing, but in this episode, it led to something far more interesting, as Negan takes Carl on a quick tour of the camp and emphasizing the importance of following the rules.
The rules are simple and clear, as is the punishment for violating them. Break a rule, get a hot iron to the face. It’s awful to see a Savior burned for shirking camp duty in favor of spending time with his wife (now one of Negan’s brides), but at the same time, he knew the rules. He knew what would happened if he was caught breaking them. The rules, as Negan keeps reminding everyone, are what keep them all alive, and he’s not wrong. And now we, the viewers, are conflicted, because Negan is clearly a horrible person, but he’s doing exactly what he promised he would: keeping his people safe and fed. Would they still be alive without his leadership? Quite probably not. And this is when The Walking Dead is at its best, when it makes you wonder how far you’d go to survive. Sure, you’d wade through buckets of blood and slay a thousand walkers, but how much of your humanity would you be willing to abandon if it meant you got to see another day?
It’s when Negan brings Carl to his bedroom for a heart to heart that we truly begin to understand how smart the Savior is when it comes to manipulating people. He forces Carl to remove the bandage covering his missing eye, taunting him about the gaping hole in his face. But then we see him realize that he’s pushed too far, and that Carl is too traumatized by the wound to really absorb what Negan is saying to him. “I forget you’re just a kid,” he says by way of apology, and actually softens his tone. A Savior comes to return Lucille, which Negan left out by the truck when Carl started shooting, which presents an opportunity for Negan to verbally create the kind of frightening uncertainty that keeps his people in check. Maybe he’s seriously angry with you, maybe he’s just yanking your chain - you can never really be sure, and so you’re constantly on the wrong foot with him, and he follows through on his anger just often enough and viciously enough to make you constantly wary of being on his bad side.
Carl figures that out when Negan demands a song. “You took out two of my men, I deserve something in return,” he reasons, and as Carl starts to slowly warble the words to You Are My Sunshine, Negan starts swinging Lucille. Hard. Not at anything, mind you. He doesn’t rage, or break furniture, and Carl is never in any immediate danger. But the threat is very clearly unspoken - do what I say, or there are consequences. Follow the rules, and never forget that I make the rules. We’ve been told over and over again how terrifying Negan is, and now, finally, we begin to actually feel it. And those declarations that he can “do worse” than kill you become very, very clear as Negan brings Carl home to Alexandria, takes a tour of his house, and discovers baby Judith. None of his up-close conversations with Rick come close to conveying the feeling of menace he creates simply by drinking lemonade on the porch, bouncing Judith on his knee.
For me, the most interesting moment of the entire episode was when Negan tells Carl: “Men breaking each other’s balls. This is the stuff your dad’s supposed to be teaching you.” Rick has constantly struggled with the question of how to be the best kind of father to Carl in this new world, and Carl has struggled with the question of what kind of father he needs. It’s difficult to imagine that Carl would suddenly see Negan as a father figure, but he’s certainly shown strength as Rick has shown weakness. What makes a man in the world of walkers? Compassion, cruelty, a mixture of both? How can you protect your own without hurting others? As Dwight sagely puts it, “If you’re still standing, it’s always on someone else’s back.” These are the explorations of character that make The Walking Dead worth watching, and they’ve been far too absent this season. It’s good to have them back.