Negan isn't the only thing ruining season 7 of The Walking Dead, but he's right at the center of all the show's problems.
There's the obvious ways that Negan is the season's biggest failure, and then the many secondary ways that a story centered around this new villain invariably drags the rest of the program down. Let's start with the former.
The more obvious ways Negan is ruining The Walking Dead.
Negan is an obvious problem on two levels. There's the character himself as he relates to and dominates the plot, and then there's the way he's written and acted.
It's very obvious that the writers and showrunners love Negan. They were talking about how awesome he'd be as a villain ever since the season six finale. This has not materialized, but the writers keep assuming that audiences are just naturally resonating with him. Mostly, I just find myself cringing and tuning out during his ridiculously long, drawn-out scenes. Negan is a one-note villain with no discernible motives beyond cruelty who talks endlessly, boastfully, cracking unfunny jokes and generally annoying everyone around him. The showrunners said audiences would love Negan and feel bad about it since he's such a terrible monster. Instead, we dislike him not because he's a bad guy, but because he's so irritating and omnipresent.
His obsession with Carl is weird, since Carl isn't the badass he says he is. He's had two chances to shoot Negan now, and both times he's choked. There's absolutely nothing about Carl's not-plan to go not-kill Negan that rings "badass" to me, and I can't imagine a guy like Negan would think so either.
Beyond the bad writing, Jeffrey Dean Morgan's portrayal of Negan grows more and more irritating each week. It's hard to separate where the bad writing ends and the bad acting begins, to be honest, and it could simply be that Morgan is doing the best he can with an absurdly flat villain. I know very little of Morgan's other roles.
But the fact remains, I find nothing about Negan frightening. At his worst he seems mildly creepy. But I also find very little about him charming or funny or likable. He has neither the fear factor nor the "bad guy you love to hate" factor we were promised. Part of this is the way he's portrayed by Morgan. He just comes off as way too cocky, swaggering around with a stupid grin on his face, not scary and not funny and not interesting beyond his cruelty.
Maybe the character works in the comics and something's simply been lost in the translation. Maybe you need to do more than simply copy what works in a comic book and expect it to work on TV. It seems to me that The Walking Dead TV show has a very different audience and demand than the comics, and it's time to move toward what works on TV and away from what works in a comic if the two don't mesh very well, which seems to be the case.
Negan as the focal point of The Walking Dead sets up an even bigger tyrant than the Governor with even more dire consequences for our group.
Negan is basically the Dark Lord of The Walking Dead now. Sauron, Voldemort, whatever. He's become the Nemesis, and he's sapped the show of whatever other creative energy and creative conflict it had before his entrance.
Instead of having smaller more personal conflicts like we did earlier in the show, now we have Negan.
Instead of each community that the survivors come across having their own set of problems and their own stories, now each community has Negan.
The Kingdom's big problem? King Ezekiel doesn't let everyone in on it, but it's Negan.
Even Oceanside, the land of the shoot-first-ask-questions-later tribe of angry women, shares the Negan problem.
As he likes to remind us, Negan is ubiquitous.
Big antagonists like this are interesting up to a point, but even Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings knew that you can't have the Big Bad in every scene. Sauron doesn't even make an appearance beyond his all-seeing Eye and some backstory. Voldemort is a more active Dark Lord, but even he exists mostly at the periphery as an ominous, amorphous threat. He who shall not be named.
He who shall not half 75% of the lines in half the episodes of a season.
The only time you can really have a Big Bad around all the time and get away with it is if we don't know he or she is the big bad---think season one of The Flash, or the First Law trilogy by Joe Abercrombie. Otherwise, you need to keep these types of villains mostly off-screen, the implication of their villainy doing 90% of the heavy lifting.
The less obvious ways that Negan is ruining The Walking Dead.
This is even more important when you think about how it impacts your feelings about other characters. Rick is always super afraid of Negan now, but that makes Rick look weak, because we're not scared of Negan. If we were truly freaked out by Negan and what he might do, we'd have sympathy. Instead, we just can't figure out why nobody has just a bullet in Negan's brain yet.
Also, the nature of a Big Bad on this epic scale necessitates the expansion of the Known World of Survivors. In order to illustrate how vast Negan's power is, the story needs to incorporate several new communities, all under Negan's thumb. This leads to a bunch of new side characters and the splitting up of our core group, fragmenting it ever further into more and more distant and disjointed storylines. We've barely seen Maggie or Carol or Morgan this season. Some new characters have shown up once and never again.
Negan has also stunted Rick's character development. Rick seemed poised to be the next antagonist, quite frankly. He screwed up badly in Alexandria. He became petty and tyrannical and hot-headed. But now he's just diminished in every way, neither a better hero or a candidate for bad guy anymore. That's disappointing.
So that makes two very big, and much less obvious, ways that Negan is spoiling the season. The world and its cast of characters has been expanded past the tipping point to help illustrate the territory under Negan's domain, and some characters feel weaker because of it.
What we're left with is a show filled with people we have a hard time relating to, and a villain who struts about like a ferocious peacock, clucking at everyone within earshot. A villain more certain to irritate than intimidate, and a season that barely touches on several key characters thanks to a vastly expanded cast and world to keep track of.
There's other ways this Big Bad syndrome impacts a show like The Walking Dead, of course. We had glimmers of this back in Season 3, when the Governor became such a huge antagonist. At least he had some decent backstory and a human side, but we were too busy being annoyed with Andrea to notice.
The Walking Dead is always at its best when it's telling smaller, more personal stories. There's so many ways that the show could focus on this. When Carol and Morgan had such diametrically opposed views on killing, that opened the door for a really interesting conflict of ideals; the necessities of survival versus staying true to your beliefs. But the writers simply dropped that in favor of a radical character shift on Carol's part.
Even the brief encounter with the Wolves felt more personal and frightening than the epic stakes introduced by the Saviors. At least the Wolves were a surprise, attacking out of the blue and then chased away. Terminus and its cannibals were interesting because they presented a hopeless situation that was resolved quickly but incompletely. The setting shifted from Terminus to a conflict on the road, and Rick's brutal ambush of the enemy. There was just a lot of motion to the plot, as things shifted and progressed and surprised us, and we moved from one chapter to the next unshackled from some uber-villain.
Now we're in a slump, and it shows no signs of stopping.
What else is ruining Season 7?
Well, the terrible pacing for sure. Splitting each episode up into one or two characters has been dreadful. Coming back last night with a five-separate-plot episode was an over-correction. We aren't seeing enough of the characters we care about, and we're seeing too much of ones we don't care about.
Along similar lines, all the extended episodes this season should be great news for viewers, but so far they've felt wasted and unnecessary. There's enough filler in some of these episodes to simply cut the long ones down.
Furthermore, Negan is actually only the second biggest problem with The Walking Dead. The number one problem is the direction the show is heading.
In terms of ratings, that would be down. Right off a cliff.
In terms of story and narrative, that would be the direction showrunner Scott Gimple seems to want to take things: More Negan, more gross-outs, more head-fakes like that terrible not-Heath moment last week, and more splintered story arcs. With ratings lower than Season 3, something simply has to change with the direction of the show, its writing, and its chief conflict. Otherwise I predict the ratings slide will simply continue unabated.
I wish I could love, or hate, Negan. As it stands, however, I just want him to go away.
Am I wrong? Because I know I'm not alone here. Negan is the worst. He's got to go. And maybe some of the people who were responsible for making him the worst should go, too. Fresh blood, fresh minds, fresh ideas. That's what The Walking Dead needs.