I like The Walking Dead. I really do. There is something about zombie shows that I really enjoy and I find it a fascinating venue to explore human nature. This is something that The Walking Dead explores thoroughly and it’s one of its better thematic points. With this in mind we should take a look at the antagonists. No, the bad guys of season 6 to 8: The Saviors. A group of schoolyard bullies running a protection racket. While they make for a powerful adversary they are also poorly written.
Season 5 and the first part of season 6 explored a fascinating aspect that gave the show something fresh: it tried to explore how people like us, the regular well-adjusted joes living in a comfortable world, would deal with battle-hardened survivors who have known nothing but terror, loss and stress. Rick and his group became outcasts in Alexandria and just didn’t fit in. Their first and only priority was to protect themselves and they would kill members of Alexandria to do it. After all, they knew what it was like living in the new world and the Alexandrians, these children, had to learn it sooner rather than later. And if they didn’t learn Rick had no problems just shooting them.
This Season YOU Are the Bad Guy!
This gave the audience an opportunity to look at the protagonists we’ve followed for five seasons in a different way. Whom we just spent watching half a season being explored in some very thematic episodes as they are scattered after the attack on the Prison. Episodes that demonstrated that they were just people. Scared killers who will do anything to protect their own, so the juxtaposition with what followed was simply fantastic, if a bit underexplored.
And after the season of maybe-kinda-bad-guy protagonist season 6 arrives and we get a new bad guy to look at: The Saviors and their leaders: Negan. And all of a sudden it was back to square one: Rick and his group are the good guys, the Saviors are obvious bad guys who prey on others. Just like the Governor, Terminus, the Wolves, etc. And yet the Saviors had so much more potential: Negan presented an ideology, an ideology that if done in a different way could’ve kept the “who is really the bad guy?” angle that season 5 tried to explore. Allow me to explain how I would have written the Saviors in season 7.
Let’s start with keeping most of the ruthless elements: they maintain their protection racket and force you into a deal without getting a say into it. They also kill one person of every community they meet, in order to establish Negan’s rules: those who break the rules get punished. This would still result in Glenn and Abraham getting killed, thus giving Maggie and Rick their main motivations for wanting to fight off this new foe.
But my version of the Saviors would get rid of all the plainly stupid evil actions they perform. My Saviors would use their vast amounts of gunpower to protect the vassal states from the walkers and other human survivors. They use their networks and organisation to connect these groups with each other. To create commerce and increase the chances of survival. They wouldn’t just be smug bullies who take every opportunity to abuse a member of the vassal states. They would be professionals, some who even live in the vassal states as protection against enemies. They would be people who keep their side of the bargain: you give them a portion of what your community produces and in return you are a part of their community. You reap a portion of the rewards.
There are a few significant ways that this would alter the story: the first one is that we would explore an ideological clash that is very relevant even today: satefy versus freedom. Would, or even should, people be willing to give up a portion of their freedom if that means they’ll be safe? In times of crisis people are willing to give away power to dictators and all kinds of horrible fucked-up ideologies because they want to be safe. Because they want to have food on the table. The national ideologies and dictatorships of the 20th century followed this principle, something that Negan and his group are clearly based on.
The Knights in Foul Armour
Of course, I would still explore plenty of ways to make the Saviors come off as negative. You still don’t get a say in the deal. What if you have a stable community that can take care of itself? Would the Saviors need to disarm these people, similar to what Negan did with Alexandria? And if saviors come live in your community and serve as your guards; what if individuals decided that they can get away with stuff? What if a conflict erupts between these guards and the community? Things can get messy really easily if you are disarmed and get into conflict with the faction supposed to protect you. Nevermind the fact that these people will look for any sign of dissent and report to Negan directly, so the feeling of privacy is gone. And people who have lived under such a regime can tell you how easily that can become problematic…
Another element that would stay is that some of the Saviors are clear psychopaths who enjoy having power over and fucking with people. That’s why I’d still keep characters like Simon and David (the rapist with a disturbingly obvious rape face) around. But unlike the story where everyone pretty much laughs whenever they go too far I would demonstrate that reactions are divided. That someone like David is clearly hated by the other Saviors, who wonder just why the hell this guy is still on duty. I would tie this in with the exploration of characters like Gavin. People who, while part of this protection racket, fully believe that what they are doing is for the best (and not just their comfort) and who do their best to maintain a professional attitude upholding their side of the bargain.
All of this would tie into the war that starts at the end of season 7 and takes place in season 8. Because now all of the humanisation that takes place in the latter season makes sense. All of a sudden all these Saviors stating that Rick is just the same as them has some weight behind it. All of a sudden Negan saying that he wants to make people stronger makes sense. It’s not just a delusional view of a man forcing his own thoughts unto others, but a genuine justification. If the show demonstrated that the people under his watch prospered (all of them as opposed to just the select few) the audience would have to make their own decisions as to whether Rick and his group trying to break free is a morally good thing. Whether they’d choose for freedom or safety. Which in my opinion is far more interesting than the mere “good guy” vs “bad guy” story that season 7 and 8 explored.
But alas, it seems my version will never come to be. Even though season 8 tried to explore a few elements of what I said (what with the humanisation of Negan and his genuine belief in his ideology, the professionalism of Gavin or the introduction of Alden) it’s clear that they preferred to stick with the concept of school bullies running a scam. This is probably what contributed to seasons 7 and 8 being rather long-winded, which my additions would attempt to solve by trying to explore the various aspects of a totalitarian society in a zombie apocalypse. It would also fit with the other forms of societies that the show has already tried to explore and would’ve made the emotional stakes a lot higher in season 8. In other words, it would’ve made for a more engaging story and that’s what we all want… Right?
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Copyright: The images used in this article are screenshots taken from the TV-series The Walking Dead and its comic counterpart. We are allowed to use them under section 107 of the US Copyright Act of 1976. The Walking Dead belongs to Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore, Image Comics and AMC.