This review contains spoilers.
Negan isn’t the sort of person who would make a good addition to just about any group on The Walking Dead.
He’s abrasive, he’s loud, he has a huge ego, and he’s not exactly the hardest worker or the strongest worker. These are all things that Beta points out to both Alpha and Negan when Negan comes sauntering into the Whisperers camp with his hands tied up. Beta wants to kill him outright, but Alpha seems to have a sixth sense of when people might be useful, so she tells Beta that she wants him to be tested. And if he’s found wanting, or if he’s found useful, he’ll be staying around with the group. One way or another, Negan isn’t going back to Alexandria.
The Whisperer camp is the main focus of interest for the bulk of the episode, with both Negan and the Carol/Daryl subplots revolving around just what’s going on across the border between two worlds. Negan from the inside, and Carol and Daryl from the outside. Both are pretty interesting bits of television, surrounded by a couple of intriguing things happening within the walls of Hilltop and Alexandria, respectively. Across the board, all segments of Bonds are marked by very solid performances from the usual suspects, and none of the plots seem to lag behind the others. Everything is interesting after a fashion, and all of it seems designed to spark something further down the line.
The credit for the strength of this episode is Kevin Dieboldt’s script. It’s solid writing that has a good handle on a lot of wildly different characters. Negan and Beta’s buddy act, with Beta the straight man to Negan’s swaggering, talkative con artist type, feels like a twisted version of the chemistry between John Candy and Steve Martin in Planes, Trains, And Automobiles.
Throughout the episode, you can feel Negan pushing Beta’s boundaries, and Beta’s growing inability to restrain himself until, at the end of their particular part of the story, Beta finally shows a little bit of life and breaks character with a joke shortly before abandoning Negan to be eaten by the walkers they’ve been travelling with. Negan’s line about being too pissed to be proud of Beta’s joke is brilliant writing, and definitely one of the most Negan statements imaginable.
That chemistry is anchored further by the solid writing around Daryl and Carol’s trip into Whisperer territory to figure out just what they’re doing and just where they keep their rumoured horde of thousands upon thousands of walkers. Whereas Negan and Beta are testing one another, literally, Daryl and Carol have an easier kinship where they both know that the other is there for reasons other than stated. Daryl knows Carol has some kind of stupid plan, and Carol knows that Daryl is tagging along just to keep her out of trouble, so when they play their power games, it’s friendlier than Negan and Beta, but no less important for the two of them. They need to be on the same page, and while they seem to find some common ground, it may prove out that Carol successfully outsmarted the tracker and survivalist simply by being more savvy about human nature.
I can’t help but feel someone is doing the same thing to Eugene via the radio. Leave it to Eugene to be catfished in the post-apocalypse thanks to his profound loneliness. Josh McDermitt puts in a brilliant performance, with most of the acting coming through his facial expressions more than anything else. When Eugene feels lonely, or hopeful, or morose, or excited, it comes through McDermitt’s face and body language, and his work opposite a radio of all things is brilliant performance.
It’s easier for someone like Jeffrey Dean Morgan to have an impressive night of putting the swagger back into Negan. He’s got multiple people to work off in his big triumphant march through the Whisperer camp, and a solid scene partner in Ryan Hurst to give him energy back. But working solely off a voice? That’s tough, and there’s nothing in those scenes to hold them together save McDermitt.
The credit should also go to Dan Liu, whose job this week is primarily to control the actors and get them giving the performances he wants out of them. Carol and Daryl have a lived-in feel, and a chemistry even when they’re working at odds with one another. Negan and Beta are feeling things out, with Negan willing to talk his way into or out of any situation while surreptitiously pumping Beta and anyone else around for information as to just how this Whisperers thing works.
When Negan returns from the test, covered in walker blood and balancing a tree limb over one shoulder like a club, it’s a triumphant moment; Negan isn’t likeable, but Negan will be the first to admit that killing walkers is kind of what he’s good at, and the crowd of masked Whisperers parts for this loud outsider like the Red Sea parting for Moses, if Moses wore a leather jacket and leaned a lot.
Everyone seems surprised by his emergence, but Negan, because he’s been finding out more about Alpha and Beta by paying attention, knows how to play the situation. He announces his intentions, loudly, displays leadership potential by letting everyone around him know that he’s much tougher than he looks, and then bends the knee to Alpha because he’s not here to take her place—yet. Beta, on the other hand, might be on less secure territory, as his clashes with Alpha over her decision making seem to be getting more frequent and he displays as much nervousness as he can regarding Negan’s place in the pack.
I doubt either of the two in charge of the Whisperers trusts Negan, but from the way the crowd parts for him to the way that some of the other Whisperers share food with him when Beta denies him his share of the pig he killed and cooked alongside them, he’s not so much looking to get in good with the leaders as much as he is looking to make an impression on the followers. Negan is used to having followers, and he’s used to being in charge and not taking orders. Sure, he’ll bend the knee and say the right things with a smirk on his face, but simply being all in with the group doesn’t seem to be Negan’s style.
Using the group for his own purposes is more a Negan play, because he’s got the oft-discussed huge balls to pull something like that off right under the masked noses of Alpha and Beta. Between Negan on the inside and Carol and Daryl kidnapping one of the Whisperers, someone’s going to crack the group eventually, but will Hilltop and Alexandria be strong enough to survive until that happens? With walkers assaulting the walls and disease spreading, that might not be the case.
Read Ron’s recommendations for the best horror TV shows around right now, here.