SPOILER WARNING: The following article contains major spoilers for “Sing Me a Song,” tonight’s episode of AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” as well as the Image Comics series.
It might be a lazy criticism to say that AMC’s “The Walking Dead” (mostly) works best when it stays faithful to the comic. Lazy, but true nonetheless. Maybe it’s due to the stark and cinematic nature of Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard’s panels, or maybe it’s simply because there’s already enough on the page. With so many characters, subplots, and communities in the source material, “The Walking Dead” doesn’t always need unnecessary expansion, like we saw last week in “Swear.”
Whatever the case, “Sing Me a Song” works, and it does so by adhering to the blueprint already drawn up by Kirkman and co. Just like in the comic, Carl tries to kill Negan, fails (but not before taking out two of his men), and soon finds himself under the dark mentorship of The Saviors’ leader. It’s an important plot development, not because Carl will ever actually go over to The Saviors’ side (he’s too loyal for that), but because, through his eyes, it finally provides the audience with some of Negan’s more sympathetic traits. In that way, it’s the exact opposite of the overlong bullying session seen in “Service.”
Is Negan a better person than we’re initially led to believe? Hell no. But he at least shows that he’s capable of empathy. And that’s important if the audience is going to start taking him seriously both as a threat and a flesh-and-blood human being. When he moves from teasing Carl about his empty eye socket to regretting doing so, it proves that he’s at least a little more complex than we initially thought. There’s even somewhat of a mutual attraction between him and at least one of his “wives.”
As I said, that doesn’t excuse his more heinous behavior. For all his physical affection with the one wife, he’s still put a system in place where expected sexual favors and companionship trump the lower-class alternative. No, he’s not forcing these women to join his harem. But he is creating a world where it feels like the only way for them to advance is to get with him. Simply put, Negan gets off on control.
He also gets off on psychological (and physical) torture. When he finds out that one of his wives, Amber, has been reconnecting with her ex-lover, Mark (a big no-no if you’re “married” to Negan), he makes an example of them both by branding Mark’s face with a hot iron — the same fate that befell Dwight off camera. The grueling sequence — which involves screaming, convincing burn makeup, and string-cheese-flesh effects — serves as a reminder of just how horrible Negan is after all the sympathetic bonding with Carl. Once again, it’s telling that the scene comes straight from the comic, almost shot for shot.
The only thing “Sing Me a Song” has going against it is its padded runtime. I’m not sure why AMC is adding length to random installments of the show, but both of the extra-long episodes this season have used most of the bonus time to show Negan tormenting the people of Alexandria. It gets old. It’s not quite as bad here as in “Service”, but did we really need yet another montage of Negan playing his I’m-gonna-kill-you-but-not-really game with the community’s terrified citizens?
The episode’s other semi-boring stretch comes with Spencer off obtaining a bow and arrow from a walker in a tree (and possibly plotting against Rick). But that’s just because Spencer kind of sucks as a character; nothing more than vexed and brooding at this point. All in all, this is still one of the season’s stronger episodes of “The Walking Dead”, thanks to the writers keeping the comic’s skeleton in place, rather than let it run away from them.