The Walking Dead has always handled its brutal, goriest scenes with stony confidence. Limbs fly off, teenage faces are chewed away, and reanimated bodies rot in the sun, reaching for the camera. Violence and mayhem don’t terrify the show’s audience any more; encounter after encounter with cannibals, sadists, and criminal gangs have all but numbed the show’s viewers to the breadth of human cruelty. Straightforward sadism has become the show’s central theme, and Season 7’s Negan has introduced a very specific, sexual sadism — one that frightens the show’s audience, a group of people who fear emasculation more than they fear death.
The show’s villains, all male and all obsessed with taking something from Rick, began with Shane, an okay guy whose primary crime was coveting Rick’s family. Before Negan, the show’s most recent villain, The Walking Dead’s villain was Pete, a soulless jerk who beat his pretty wife and scared the hell out of his own sons, who were also both jerks. All these bad guys make sense to the show’s core demographic.
Introducing Negan to Rick’s largely heteronormative, old school world feels like tossing one of Robert Mapplethorpe’s butt plugs into a sewing circle. It’s not only disturbing for viewers to watch Rick sexually harassed, it’s disorienting. How does a straight, hardened man like Rick win in a battle of wits against a guy like Negan, who admits in the comics to masturbating with his spiked bat Lucille? In Season 7, Episode 4, Negan tells Rick, “In case you haven’t caught on, I just slipped my dick down your throat and you thanked me for it.” That’s a very specific insult added to injury. When they’re apart, and then reunited, Negan tells Rick, “I missed you.”
The viewers who demonstrate fervent dedication to The Walking Dead range between Carl and Rick’s ages, and they share a similar background and worldview with the characters. It bears mentioning that the perverse (one-sided) sexual tension between Rick and Negan hasn’t exactly taken off with (usually liberal) fan fiction writers; searching the archives for Negan/Rick slash reveals 300 or so entries, which is a paltry number in comparison to even the most fucked up fictional pairings, like Kylo Ren and Rey in The Force Awakens (nearly 5,000 fics written) or Will and Hannibal on Hannibal (more than 16,000). That’s because Negan’s hold on Rick is not meant to titillate or tease; it’s meant to get under a specific type of viewer’s skin.
In the world of The Walking Dead pre-Negan, walkers eat people, bad men rape and/or beat women, and bad women and children lose their minds. Good men and women protect each other, engaging in monogamous sex occasionally, and Rick oversees the entire operation. In addition to describing feeling lust or twisted affection for Rick, Negan begins asking where Maggie’s gotten to, telling her friends, “Widows, especially ones that look like that, they are special. I love ‘em. Right after their husbands go, they are just … empty inside. But usually not for long.” His threat is more about skeeving Rick out than actually victimizing the woman in question. Because Rick is effectively in charge of Maggie’s well-being, Negan perceives her as a member of Rick’s harem, possibly because he perceives everyone in his own group as below him.
What Negan did to Rick in Season 7’s premiere episode changed him irrevocably. It wasn’t swinging from a reanimated body that destroyed Rick’s confidence, or even watching Glenn and Abraham get pulverized. It was Negan telling Rick over and over that he now belonged to him. When Rick decided to chop off his own son’s arm simply because Negan ordered him to, Negan’s emasculation tactic was complete. Of course, Rick doesn’t end up slicing Carl’s arm off, but only because Negan stops him, his full mastery of Rick on display.
Negan’s homoerotic scare tactics are designed to scare not only Rick, but The Walking Dead’s core audience, which skews a lot younger than most fans realize. In recent years, demographic data on The Walking Dead has overlapped most notably with Duck Dynasty and Breaking Bad, both shows beloved by young, middle America. The Walking Dead is also consistently watched and beloved by right wing Americans moreso than by liberal Americans, who prefer Game of Thrones.
Negan is a masterful addition to The Walking Dead Season 7, because he is, in many ways, the nightmare a straight, conservative man might conjure: a man who sexually humiliates you while also vying for your wife and kids. He’s not just a sadist; he’s a pervert who flirts with homoeroticism, and to many viewers in The Walking Dead’s fanbase, that’s much worse.
The Walking Dead airs on Sundays at 9 p.m. Eastern on AMC.