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This review contains spoilers.

10.5 What It Always Is

Mantras return throughout The Walking Dead. Characters all seem to have some sort of life lesson they wish to impart to others, or that they must tell themselves over and over again to keep on surviving. Alpha has her masks, and her willingness to take them off and put them on. Ezekiel has his, “And still I smile.” And of course, Negan has “We are Negan,” which is all well and good when you’re in charge of a whole community of people but not as good when it’s being parroted back to you by a demented, devoted fan boy who only wants to have your approval of his senselessly violent actions undertaken in your name.

Negan, when he was the leader of the Saviors, had to wear a mask. Ezekiel, when he was the leader of the Kingdom, also wore a mask. Alpha and her followers wear masks for much the same reason – survival, for yourself and of the people around you. People believed in King Ezekiel, and now he’s trapped. People believed in Negan, so he kept order. People believe in Alpha, Beta, and their way of life, and thus, the Whisperers continue to survive in a world in which everyone and everything are out to get them. Even people who don’t have reasons to wear masks wear masks, for things as simple as self-preservation or to create an appearance of self-confidence.

Negan hasn’t had to wear his Negan mask in a long time, but when an ally from Alexandria tracks him down in the woods and begins to start hero-worshiping Murder Fonzie, Negan has to slip back into character if only to keep Brandon (Blaine Kern III) cooperative and to stay on the lam. It’s funny to watch Negan respond to the ways his legend grew in the telling, either with amusement at the thought of rating zombies on a hotness scale or horror at Brandon’s erroneous belief that Negan cut off Carl’s arm and then killed him.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan does a good job at showing Negan’s struggle to slip back into character; he’s been allowed to be a real person so long that he’s having difficult slipping back into the larger-than-life persona he used to be, and that leads Brandon to have some doubts about Negan’s truthfulness when he tells him certain things especially when it’s the reality of Negan versus the mental image he has of Negan as the hero in his head. Similarly, Khary Payton does a solid job with his brief moment of letting Ezekiel’s mask down just long enough to connect with Siddiq over their shared weakness and the secrets they’re keeping from the rest of the group.

Negan having an acolyte makes perfect sense, and it’s handled very well by the actors. Director Laura Belsey does a solid job with the Negan segments, making them almost funny when compared to the more serious stuff taking place with Kelly (Angel Theory) and Connie (Lauren Ridloff, who does great work this week with Norman Reedus). Kelly’s sequences, which feature her hunting a wild boar while battling with her slowly-fading hearing, are gut-churning in their tension, and the use of sound in this segment, and indeed throughout the episode, is a testament to technical skill behind the camera in multiple phases of film making.

It’s not the silence in Kelly’s segments that are unsettling, it’s the hollowness, the ringing, and the way the sound moves in weird ways in the character’s ears, and the sheer terror on Angel Theory’s face as her body betrays her and puts her into danger simply by failing to respond in the way she’s used to. That she’s harried on all sides by zombies doesn’t help her much, either.

Unfortunately, no amount of directorial skill can redeem a cliché. Negan’s confrontation with Brandon is solid, and Negan’s bonding moment with Milo is very sweet, but it’s pretty clear from the moment the boy and his mother show up that they won’t live for very long, and they probably won’t live out the episode. Brandon is too intent on killing them, and Negan’s bonding moment with Milo (adorably written by Eli Jorne) is too sweet for any of them to survive the episode. Negan bonding with Milo is one of the finer performance bits Jeffrey Dean Morgan has been allowed to do on The Walking Dead, and it shows just how much Negan has changed since he was the swaggering guy leaning awkwardly in his leather jacket and prancing around with his baseball bat.

Negan dons the outfit again, but it’s because he’s got something that he feels is greater than himself, and his legacy, to defend. Brandon shows Negan something important, and that’s to survive, sometimes you must embrace the thing that gives you strength, even when it’s not particularly likable. Hence, Negan putting the outfit back on, shouldering Lucille Two, and crossing the barrier to provoke the Whisperers to respond to his presence. The Whisperers have been provoking the survivors while maintaining some sense of plausible deniability, so it’s only natural that someone decides to do the same thing back to them, albeit someone who literally can’t go back to Alexandria to reclaim his old life.

Negan embraces Negan the character because he’s ready to die, and he wants to die on his feet, or at least make a good showing of himself in the process. (And, perhaps, to add another layer of deniability to his presence across the wire by showing Alpha that he’s one of the bad guys should any of her people remember the Saviors). Negan is putting on his mask, even if Alpha is advising Gamma to take her literal mask off and be friendly with the “man with the metal arm” who gave her gauze.

If nothing else, Negan showing up in the midst of the Whisperers ought to shake things up for that group, as his leaving shook things up for the Alexandrians. Alpha has dealt with a lot of people in her time, but never someone quite like Negan, who is as polar an opposite to her as one could get while still being one of the baddies. She’s all about blending in, and he’s all about standing out. I can only imagine what sort of conversations they might have when they’re finally brought face to face.

Read Ron’s review of the previous episode, Silence The Whispers, here.

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