In November 2022, The Walking Dead fans were sad to see the long-running series come to an end after 11 seasons. But less than a year later, two popular characters have returned in The Walking Dead: Dead City.
Against the new setting of New York, the story follows Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), Maggie (Lauren Cohan), and their reluctant journey together to save Maggie’s son, Hershel (Logan Kim), who has been kidnapped by someone from Negan’s past. There are just six episodes in the first season. The ending, and the second season renewal, confirm that The Walking Dead’s notorious barbed-wire bat-wielding villain and badass mom aren’t going anywhere, though there’s still no love lost between them.
Note: This article features major spoilers for The Walking Dead Dead City season 1.
Enjoying a drink in a bar (a sign that some semblance of life before the zombie apocalypse has apparently been reestablished), Maggie is seeking out Negan, though it’s unclear why. When she finds him, she reveals that Hilltop was raided by a vicious man who took their wheat and Hershel for collateral. She realized a connection to Negan when the man arrived whistling a particularly haunting tune. She’s certain he was once a Savior, and Maggie thinks Negan might be able to help her get through to him.
Negan is reluctant to help, but she reminds him that he’s on the run from marshals (society’s new government law enforcement agency) for the cold-blooded murders of several men. They severely beat his wife, Annie (Medina Senghore), so he returned the favor, then told Annie to relocate with their son. He was supposed to follow but hasn’t yet been able to bring himself to leave. He’s also strangely traveling with a teenage girl named Ginny (Mahina Napoleon) who has selective mutism: she hasn’t spoken since seeing her father turn into a zombie. Negan somehow came to take her under his wing.
Maggie promises to send Ginny to safety at Hilltop so Negan can join her on the quest. He agrees and the unlikely pair cross the water into Manhattan.
Reminiscent of the time Rick and company took down the Saviors, Maggie and Negan meet a group of like-minded individuals with plans to take out the mutual enemy: a man who goes by the name of The Croat (Zeljiko Ivanek). But Negan is also running from the Mike Tyson of marshals, a by-the-book lawman named Izaak (Gaius Charles) who followed them, determined to bring justice and fulfill Negan’s execution sentence. Meanwhile, Ginny wasn’t about to leave her father-figure mentor, so she secretly escaped Hilltop to find him.
Who is The Croat? Well, he’s a mentally unstable man Negan picked up years ago when he was at his most vulnerable point. Negan quickly realized that The Croat was willing to go to heinous lengths even Negan couldn’t condone: he went against orders and killed a child. Negan chased him away, shooting but missing, taking off only his ear.
While Maggie knows Negan is essential to her plan given his history with the man, she can’t help but be haunted by the trauma of what he did to Glenn (Beef‘s Steven Yuen), reliving the moment Negan killed him again and again in her nightmares. It doesn’t help that she sees glimpses of “the old Negan” peeking through his charming façade, even if this time, he’s actually on her side.
He surfaces, for example, in one scene he displays his signature love of nursery rhymes, repeating “knock, knock” three times over while simultaneously smashing a man’s head into windows to get the attention of his enemies (that’s all before he guts the man, letting his innards and blood spray down from the top level to his comrades below, and then throws his body over the railing).
Another is when he finally cruelly reveals to Ginny, albeit to stop her from following him to what he believes will be his certain death, that he’s the man who killed her father, and makes it seem as though he only took her on because he felt guilty. Maggie’s horrified look each time Negan’s old persona makes an appearance is telling.
Maybe Negan isn’t the bad guy, though? That’s a question Maggie grapples with after all he’s done to help her. As he suggests, maybe everyone is the bad guy.
Negan and Maggie have their work cut out for them. Not only is The Croat mentally unstable, he’s also fiercely intelligent. He previously worked in the field of alternative energy and has discovered that the bodies of reanimated humans produce methane. This gas can be pressurized and made into a liquid fuel. Humans, he believes, are a resource who can become even more useful in death.
Despite his intelligence, his rash behavior makes it unsurprising that The Croat is merely a puppet. He’s taking orders from a woman known as The Dama, played by Ozark’s Lisa Emery. This isn’t about The Croat’s revenge on Negan. There are bigger things at play. Maggie didn’t seek out Negan because she felt his previous connection to The Croat could be helpful. She was fulfilling a bounty, trading Negan for Hershel.
Negan figures out what’s going on and he and Maggie fight almost to the death, until they are stopped by The Croat and his men, who cart them both away. Negan feels seriously betrayed while Maggie shows slight signs of guilt for what she has done.
What does the Dama want with Negan? Negan’s reputation precedes him, and The Dama needs him to be their leader. She knows the marshals have learned about her successful alternative energy source and they want to get their hands on the formula for it. She needs to protect it at all costs, and the charming, articulate, vicious former leader of the Saviors is the man to help her do that. “What is politics if not performance?” she asks him. She is offering Negan the keys to a kingdom with what’s seemingly an offer that’s too good to refuse.
Herein lies a dilemma, not only for Negan, but also for Maggie. Her reunion with Hershel should be a positive one. But the sullen boy suggests he was happier in captivity. Why? He didn’t have to constantly look over his shoulder and fight for attention from his mother, who was always obsessed and preoccupied with Negan. Maggie might never be able to let go of what Negan did to Glenn, but if she wants to save her relationship with her son, she’s going to have to. Seeing the turmoil she has caused Hershel because of the vendetta consuming her, Maggie promises him she’s finally going to learn how to let go.
Meanwhile, at his job interview, Negan suggests that he has no interest in bringing back the person he used to be. But he might not have a choice, or at least one he’s willing to make. The Dama hands him a small lock box with a tiny human toe inside — Hershel’s — and he instantly realizes she’s far more dangerous than she might seem. She explains that it was through Hershel that she learned of Negan’s one weakness: the boy himself. Hershel spoke of how much Negan has done to make up for his heinous actions, and The Dama uses this knowledge to force Negan’s hand. He either takes the job or she finishes that one.
Fans were promised a return of the old Negan, and they got just that. However, there were only brief appearances from the whistling, smirking bad boy. The Walking Dead: Dead City has been renewed for a second season, so chances are the cocky, self-centered, morally corrupt version of Negan will show his face once again in a much bigger way. But what drives it out of him this time is an admirable reason: to protect Hershel.
Maggie, however, doesn’t know this, and that could prove catastrophic when the two inevitably come face-to-face again. Seeing Negan become the very person he swore to her he no longer was will make the promise she made to Hershel to finally let things go much more difficult to keep. But it could also, in a twisted way, prove that Negan really did change, after all. Or did he? With The Walking Dead: Dead City officially getting the green light for a second season, we’ll find out just where the story goes from here.
Stream The Walking Dead: Dead City on AMC+.