Oh, Carl. Carl Carl Carl. You silly, scary teenager.
It’s easy enough to hate on Carl. Seems like the whole internet pretty much wishes he’d up and die already. But hey, at least he’s got a plan and he’s following through on it, right? Kissing his girl goodbye, then stowing away to Negan’s compound, with the single-minded purpose of blowing away the madman who killed his friends? Sure, it’s dumb; it puts everyone else at risk. But at least it’s a plan, not like Rick’s useless despair or Rosita’s brilliant idea to only one bullet.
But if this is his plan, then why doesn’t Carl shoot the guy? He fools Jesus into jumping off the truck before him, gets all the way into the Saviors’ compound, grabs a huge machine gun and lets loose on the first dude he sees. He calls Negan out, presumably to shoot him, and the man himself comes strolling up, whistling that dumb whistle. And Carl…just stands there. Is Negan really that charismatic? Carl couldn’t possibly have thought he was getting out of there alive anyway. If the whole point was revenge and to hell with the consequences, now’s your chance, Carl! Pull the damned trigger.
Instead, Carl just gapes like the little weirdo he is, and after blowing one more unimportant nameless dude away, he gets tackled and disarmed. Game over.
Except that this is Negan. He’s not just a ruthless killer; he’s a torturer and a strategist, a calculating psycho who likes to toy with his prey. So instead of a dead Carl and more horrible repercussions for Alexandria, we get a guided tour of “the Sanctuary,” the Saviors’ home base, while Negan gives Carl what seems suspiciously like a recruitment pitch.
He keeps Carl on his toes, refusing to reveal his fate, flattering him by calling him scary and a badass, but keeping the threat of punishment looming. It’s an effective way of breaking a relatively weak person like Carl down—and we see Carl responding with fear and panic, but also dawning respect and even something like hope. The suggestion is that maybe Negan could make a soldier out of this kid. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but eventually. If he wanted to, that is, which isn’t at all clear.
Along the way, Negan shows off his power, displaying how the ordinary Sanctuary citizens bow down, how he subtly bullies his wives into professing their love and devotion to him, and so on. The main drama in the Sanctuary today is that one of Negan’s soldiers, Mark, skipped out on his job (redirecting a horde of walkers away from the compound) so that he could be with his girlfriend, Amber, who just happens to be one of Negan’s wives. So not only was Mark cuckolding Negan, he was putting everyone at risk by letting walkers run amok near their home.
Instead of punishing Amber, Negan just tells her that she’s free to go back to Mark and her mom, with the light suggestion that of course he will be making their lives a terrible suffering hell from then on. Amber instantly tells him that no, of course she only has eyes for him. Mark isn’t so lucky, though—he gets the same iron-to-the-face treatment that Dwight got.
Of course Carl also gets a front-row seat to the whole horrible thing, searing flesh and all. And just like he did with his dad, Negan makes him hold Lucille while he does it, teasing him with the impossibility of revenge. The whole day Negan keeps up this pattern of building Carl up and putting him down. Telling him he’s impressed with his initiative but that he’s got to pay for what he’s done. Making him take off the bandage covering his missing eye, reducing him to tears, and then telling him it looks “rad as hell.” Joking around with him like they’re ball-busting equals, then forcing him to sing him a song at Lucille-point. (Heartbreakingly, it’s “You Are My Sunshine,” which Lori used to sing to him.)
Eventually Carl just blows up, suggesting that Negan is weak for not having killed him yet, and that there must be something holding him back from taking Alexandria out for good. In response, Negan piles him into a truck and brings him back home. Negan gets a tour of the amenities of Alexandria, ending with his discovery of toddler Judith. Who he dandles on his knee as he sits on the porch and waits for Rick’s return.
Because Rick’s away on one of the many tiny subplots in the episode, less stories in themselves than barely sketched-out setups for next week’s mid-season finale (bloating the episode to a dumb 90 minutes). So: Dwight and his ex-wife seem to be plotting against Negan, and one of them slips Daryl the key to his cell. Rick and Aaron are off on a mission to find supplies for Negan, which involves them somehow getting across a lake swarming with walkers.
Spencer and Father Gabriel are also scouting, but on the way Spencer confesses to Gabe that he hates Rick with the fire of 1,000 suns, so Gabriel tells him he’s being a dumb shithead like usual and takes off back to Alexandria. On his own, Spencer uses his unlikely Latin skills to decipher the location of huge caches of supplies to bring back with him.
Rosita bullies a very reluctant Eugene into making her a single bullet, with which she intends, like Carl, to just off Negan and damn the consequences. Michonne has her own plan, which involves creating a roadblock of walker bodies, ambushing the first Savior who stops, and demanding that they bring her to Negan. And Jesus is still out there somewhere skulking around the Sanctuary, unnoticed.
How all these come to a head next week is yet to be seen. But things don’t look good for our heroes, no matter how many dumb plans each one has separately formulated. The bad guy is in your gates already, and he’s got the weakest among you sitting on his lap.