Season 3 of “The Walking Dead” introduced its first big antagonist that Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) and the group would end up facing off against: The Governor. The buzz behind his introduction was huge, reminiscent to that of Negan’s (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) when he first appeared at the beginning of Season 7.
After Season 2 spent too long searching for Sophia and exploring life on Hershel’s (Scott Wilson) farm, Season 3 came with the promise of an edgier story and a new big bad — far worse than any ravenous zombie could be — and David Morrissey’s portrayal of the psychotic, eye-patch wearing Governor began to take shape.
Comic book fans were wary… And excited to witness this villain come to life on the small screen. But, just as the story began heating up in Woodbury, new showrunner Glen Mazzara led the charge in bringing the Governor’s backstory to life as well. Already explored in Kirkman’s epic in the companion novel “The Walking Dead: Rise of the Governor,” the AMC series took a step back to explore the events that built this sinister character, who we remember enjoyed spending his free time staring at aquariums filled with severed zombie heads.
There’s something about getting a peek behind the proverbial curtain to see just how monsters came to be. But it’s a tricky move to make in a show like “The Walking Dead” — where the motif explored time and again is not the evil the undead can do, but the moral quandaries the living find themselves faced with time and again.
It’s a theme consistently explored in Kirkman’s comics but, while the books have presented many engaging stories and character turns, one thing has grown clear: Following the comic book tale is not always the best decision when adapting canon for television.
What ended up transpiring in Season 3 was a long drawn out backstory that exposed the compassionately human side to the Governor, real name Brian Blake. But once we had a clear understanding of exactly who this guy was, and the tragedy that shaped him, the intrigue was completely sucked out of the story causing us to lose any real interest with one eye firmly locked on the clock, awaiting his inevitable death like any other “TWD” character.
Now, in Season 7, the worst villain Rick and his crew have ever faced is here. Hello, Negan.
The buzz leading up to his reveal was the biggest “The Walking Dead” has ever seen and Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s performance hasn’t disappointed since he first stepped out of his trailer and introduced everyone to Lucille.
But much like the Governor, Robert Kirkman has a backstory for Negan — unveiled in the comics in April, 2016 — and in a recent conversation with Yahoo TV, showrunner Scott Gimple discussed plans to feature the tale in future episodes. While diving into his past would add another intriguing layer to “The Walking Dead’s” story, we really have to ask: Is this at all necessary?
Sometimes it’s best leaving a monster’s backstory a mystery. And let’s be clear here, Negan is most definitely a monster. His megalomaniacal menace is exactly what the AMC series needed to bring new life into an oftentimes bleak and dreary series. Showing the viewer what’s underneath the psycho exterior is a tricky proposition.
You could easily look to the way in which the Governor character was explored on the show — but it’s a lesson to be remembered throughout the horror genre: Was it a good idea to give Leatherface a backstory in 2003’s “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” remake? Not if giving an iconic monster a sympathetic human face saps him of his power to frighten us.
Simply put, putting monsters on the same human ground as heroes muddles the gray area of morality in “The Walking Dead” — but it also takes any real threat away. If you relate to the villain, then you end up rooting for them — and as we’ve seen, this isn’t that kind of show.
The audience’s sympathy is the last thing Negan needs — and if they follow through, the “Here’s Negan” backstory could easily kill whatever edgy momentum the show still has to offer. After taking a bat to two fan favorites in Season 7’s highly anticipated premiere — and subsequently shredding Rick’s character down to the nub — it’d be a poor decision to give us a softer, empathetic perspective of the man.
At the end of the day, “The Walking Dead” is a survivalist tale of hope and humanity. If they do peel back the layers that make up Negan, we’re hoping that he’d still be one very unlikeable dude –more Freddy Krueger in his origin story, less Leatherface (or Rob Zombie’s Michael Myers). As long as we don’t suddenly want to be friends with the man, it’s still possible the show can get away with it. But based on history, and the show’s general emphasis on plot twists and carnage over characterization, that seems like a tall order.
“The Walking Dead” Season 7 midseason finale airs Sunday, Dec. 11, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on AMC.