Spoiler alert: Do not read until you’ve watched episode four of this season of “The Walking Dead,” titled “Service.”
All is quiet in Alexandria. “The Walking Dead’s” “Service” opens with three minutes of near silence, as Michonne and Rick wake up next to each other, she slips quietly out the front door and he perches baby Judy on his shoulder. For a moment, it feels like this might be a flashback to a time before Negan murdered two members of their group and brave, indomitable Rick was reduced to a quivering wreck, but no: This is the new normal, or as close to it as they’re going to get.
Negan arrives unexpectedly and ahead of schedule, the better to keep Alexandria’s residents perpetually off-balance. He appears first as a shadow on the safe zone’s gate, whistling like Peter Lorre child murderer in “M.” He’s just as bad up close, and no more complicated, a two-dimensional baddie about as menacing as a Tex Avery wolf. The comic book’s creator, Robert Kirkman, clearly patterned Negan’s introduction after the scene in “The Untouchables” where Robert De Niro’s Al Capone takes a baseball to an underling’s head, but the crude oral sex metaphor Negan uses to express his dominance over Rick is hardly David Mamet, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan is, at least with this material, no De Niro. “The Walking Dead” spent months building up Negan, but thus far he’s failed to live up to his advance building. With the real horrors erupting in the world around us, his cartoonish menace feels comforting by comparison.
Where last week’s “The Cell” showed how Negan indoctrinates new Saviors into his group, “Service” gives us a fuller picture of how he plies his trade, compelling conquered settlements to “earn” for him under threat of death. He ostensibly takes only half of what his subjects produce, but as he informs Rick, “Half is what I say it is.” That becomes especially clear once Negan and crew start rounding up all of Alexandria’s guns, beginning with the two they take off Rosita and Spencer just inside the gate. Spencer, never the town’s sharpest resident, doesn’t even know who Negan is at first, a transgression which alone is enough to make Negan toy with the idea of killing him. He comes even closer with Rosita, who shoots him a defiant glare as she slips away. “A lot of suspense there,” Negan quips to Rick. “I don’t think she even knew how much.”
Negan and co. quickly make their way to the armory, where they relieve the Alexandrians of their entire stash: How they’re meant to “earn,” or even defend themselves, without guns is a problem for them to figure out on their own. But the safe zone’s meticulous record keeping works against them when the armory’s ledger shows the Saviors’ haul is two handguns short. Rick is well beyond trying to defy Negan, and the others are inclined to follow his compliant lead, but the guns are genuinely missing, and no one seems to know where they are. Negan, unsurprisingly, doesn’t care. Either someone brings him the missing guns, or poor Olivia, the keeper of the armory’s stock, will end up going the way of Glenn and Abraham.
“The Walking Dead” usually saves its plus-sized episodes for major developments, but “Service” stretches out to a full hour (85 minutes with commercial breaks) for no apparent reason. It’s not an especially complicated episode, dedicated mainly to letting Alexandria’s new reality sink in more fully. The difference is underlined when Negan comes across the camcorder Deana, Spencer’s late mother and Alexandria’s former leader, used to tape interviews with Rick’s crew when they first arrived in town. It shows Rick, steely-eyed and swathed in a busy beard, at the peak of his wildness, before the town allowed him to regain a semblance of life before the zombie outbreak. Negan savors the distinctions between that Rick and the version standing in front of him. “I would not have messed with that guy!” he roars. “But that’s not you anymore, is it?”
Apart from Rosita, the people most inclined to stand up to Negan are those closest to Rick, perhaps they understand how fully his spirit has been broken. Michonne, who’s out in the woods practicing with the town rifle for much of the episode, drops the deer she’s killed at Negan’s feet with a thud, and Carl actually pulls a gun on some of the Saviors, which by rights ought to get him killed without warning (not that we’re rooting for that, exactly). But therein lies the trap “The Walking Dead” has built for itself. The purpose of Glenn and Abraham’s orgiastically brutal murders was to establish Negan’s Big Bad bonafides beyond question, but on a show where so many have died, no death can have that big an impact for long. It’s as if “Game of Thrones” had lopped off Sean Bean’s head in the pilot. Getting attached to the characters is like naming goldfish; you know they’re going to turn up floating on top of the tank eventually, so why get involved?