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THE WALKING DEAD Brings Gabriel and Negan Together in “The Big Scary U”

Warning: Spoilers are ahead for the season eight of The Walking Dead. Keep reading at your own risk.

Father Gabriel has had a rough time on The Walking Dead.

Often seen as unreliable, untrustworthy, and cowardly, Gabriel has been kicked around by the show and fandom alike. In many fans’ eyes, Gabriel’s character has been a series of grievous missteps: he let his parishioners die, goaded Sasha into killing him, undermined Rick in front of the Alexandrians, and hid more often than he helped. Gabriel is so hated that actor Seth Gilliam has received death threats for his portrayal, and fans have created theories of how Gabriel is actually working for Negan. When Gabriel runs back to save Gregory from the walker horde in “Mercy,” only to get himself stranded in a trailer with none other than Negan, many fans saw it as a sign. Either Gabriel’s true colors would finally be revealed, or the character who had long outstayed his welcome would finally be killed.

Yet that’s not what happens. Like many others, I was fully expecting “The Big Scary U” to open with Gabriel sobbing, begging, and eventually being flung out the cabin as walker bait (not revealed as a spy; sorry folks, that one was too much of a stretch). Instead what we get is Gabriel, filled with serenity and steel, calmly telling Negan, “I think I know why I’m here. I’m here to take your confession.”

It’s a remarkable opening line for a character who, up until now, was often found cowering in corners at the end of a battle. When faced with arguably the most dangerous villain of the series, Gabriel exhibits the most composure we’ve ever seen from him, and his whole demeanor changes. What results is an intriguing back-and-forth: Gabriel quietly chipping away at Negan while Negan attempts to remain thoroughly unaffected. A priest and a despot, two opposing forces that couldn’t be further apart in morality and power, figuring out how to somehow gain the upper hand and survive.

It would be incorrect to say “The Big Scary U” shows us a complete role reversal between the two characters, but for a while they end up feeling like near equals–an interesting twist when you consider that the last time Negan was in that same trailer, he was lording over Rick’s tearful, distraught form in the wake of Glenn’s death. To think that the one character that could even begin to get under Negan’s skin is none other than Gabriel, considered the weakest link in Rick’s group, is a surprisingly refreshing twist for a show that has offered little in the way of subversions the past season or so.

One of my favorite aspects of “The Big Scary U” is how the cinematography works to reinforce how, at the end of the day and regardless of power structures, both Gabriel and Negan are only human. Director John Polson levels the playing field between the two with his tight framing, dim lighting, and all over claustrophobic atmosphere. Actors Gilliam and Jeffrey Dean Morgan both play their parts deftly as well; they’re both hollowed out and stubborn men, and they both accept that they really might die there with a surprising amount of grace. They’re on very different sides of the aisle, yet by the end of the episode you get the sense that Gabriel has actually gained some of Negan’s respect, and Gabriel has, perhaps, made a dent in Negan’s facade.

Interestingly, being trapped in a situation where Negan has little power not only fills Gabriel with resolve but humanizes Negan in a way we really haven’t seen before. Negan grows increasingly sweaty while hope of rescue dwindles, and while Morgan telegraphs little, you get the sense that Gabriel’s questions begin to unnerve him. Does Negan feel guilt? Shame? Is there anything he wants to confess before he dies?

And then there’s the fact that Negan doesn’t kill Gabriel outright to begin with. Instead he tells Gabriel that he saves people–hence the Saviors–that he wants them to work together, and that his system feeds and protects more people than it hurts. And we see this play out by the end of the episode: Negan covers himself in walker sludge, protects Gabriel from the horde, and stops violence from breaking out between the rightfully upset workers and Negan’s dim-witted warriors. It’s more humanity and honor than we’ve really seen Negan display, and the fact that his way of doing things may have merit is both an interesting and horrifying thought.

Is “The Big Scary U” a successful episode? To an extent, yes. It takes two characters–one wildly hated, and one a near caricature–and deconstructs them more than expected, but perhaps not as much as needed. While it was interesting to finally see Negan concede and confess to Gabriel, his confession does little in the way of truly humanizing him. (And from the perspective of a woman, it just makes him look like an even bigger ass.) And while we finally got to see Gabriel grow as a character, by the end of the episode his chances aren’t looking too great. Did The Walking Dead finally build up Gabriel only to kill him off? I’d like to hope not.

What did you think of the episode? Sounds off in the comments!

Images: AMC

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