We’ve seen him gleefully bash in the skulls of two helpless men in front of sobbing friends and family. We’ve seen his thugs extort peaceful communities for half their food and supplies. But if somehow The Walking Dead had yet to convince you of the depths of Negan’s depravity, Sunday night’s episode, “The Cell,” added a new, even sunnier dimension to the show’s latest Big Bad: He’s the type to extort a woman into becoming his “wife”—with all the sexual benefits that entails.
But of course, he doesn’t see himself as a rapist.
In recounting the story of his relationship with one of his most loyal men, Dwight (Austin Amelio), Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) offers a first unwelcome glimpse into his demented relationship with women. Dwight, we learn, was married when he first arrived at the factory that Negan and the Saviors call home. Like most newcomers, he and his “super hot” wife and his “super hot” sister (Negan’s boorish descriptors) worked for “points” to earn their stay.
Unfortunately, Dwight’s sister Tina was diabetic—and the price of insulin, a difficult thing to scavenge post-apocalypse, was high. She fell behind on the points needed to keep herself healthy, so Negan offered her a deal: marriage with him in exchange for safety, shelter, food, and her much-needed insulin.
Tina told her would-be suitor she’d think on his offer but instead, motivated by an understandable desire not to marry an egotistical psychopath, she ran off with her brother, his wife Sherry (Christine Evangelista), and the whole of the factory’s stock of medication. (Daryl runs into the family in the Season 6 episode “Always Accountable,” in which Tina succumbs to a walker bite and dies.)
Negan, of course, didn’t take well to the news that he’d been stood up by his “maybe-one-day fiancée” and robbed. He and his men tracked the family down, intending to bring them to his own twisted form of justice via Lucille, the barbed wire baseball bat he used to murder Dwight and Abraham.
Dwight begged Negan not to kill his wife, a display of emotion Negan says he found “kinda cute,” which softened him into settling for killing Dwight instead. Desperate not to watch her husband die, Sherry then offered Negan the only thing she had left: herself, in exchange for Dwight’s life.
Negan accepted her offer. He “married” her, permanently scarred the face of the man she loved with an iron, then turned Dwight into his loyal right-hand man—one so warped by his deference to Negan that he carries out orders against scared, broken men in the same position he once was in.
Welcome to the factory, kids.
That charming little tale takes on an even more gag-inducing quality in the context of another moment in the episode, when Negan offers Dwight a “little blast from the past with you-know-who” in exchange for his hard work—that is, a conjugal visit with his former wife. (“I just said it was happy hour at the pussy bar and Dwight eats for free,” he announces magnanimously, as if expecting a medal for his generosity.) In Negan’s worldview, you don’t take what you earn, you earn what you take—unsurprisingly, that extends to women.
And because this is The Walking Dead, any situation that can go from bad to worse inevitably will. What’s to come in the episodes ahead will likely hew closely to Robert Kirkman’s Walking Dead comic books. It’s there that we find an even grimmer picture of the status quo at Negan’s factory. (Warning: Light comic book spoilers ahead.)
In the comics, Sherry is hardly the last woman forced to become Negan’s “wife” in exchange for safety, comfort, or the lives of their loved ones. There’s an entire group of women who, through differing circumstances, come to live in Negan’s harem. Some of them, presumably, do so out of their own free will and a desire for protection. Others, like the TV version of Sherry, are not so lucky. In theory, each is free to return to her former life of earning “points” for her supper. But understandably given the horror of life under Negan’s rule, few ever do.
Negan is the sort of man who defines rape as a single type of straightforward, violent act. It’s what he sees when, at one point in the comics, he walks in on one of his men ripping the clothes off a distraught female prisoner tied up alone in one of the factory’s cells. He abhors this type of violence, especially against prisoners, primarily because he finds it counterproductive:
“Ultimately, we have to work with these people!” he bellows at the perpetrator, a man named David. “We want a community that can accomplish things together! That healing cannot begin if we have sunk to such in-fucking-human levels!”
His tolerance for rape (at least this kind—the only kind he seemingly recognizes) is zero. He thrusts a hunting knife through David’s throat after making him repeat the words “We don’t rape.” And he apologizes to the victim, explaining to her, “We’re not monsters.”
But rape isn’t actually limited to what happens when a strange man corners a helpless lady in a dark cell. Consent under duress (like, say, when your husband’s about to be murdered) is also hardly consent. Negan can fathom neither fact. It’s part of what makes him a villain.
With Sherry, he used his power to create a situation in which she had no choice but to consent. He may find no crime in that—after all, they’re “married” now—but in real life, we’re capable of recognizing what he’s done for what it is. We are not all Negan, after all.