(WARNING: Spoilers for The Walking Dead S07E01 below.)
Negan has come in swinging, breaking the hearts of not just the group but the audience. Negan has managed to become the most hated fictional character currently depicted on the small screen. That’s quite a task, but beyond the two deaths that followed Negan’s entrance, and the lost guts of Spencer his most impressive and scariest action to this date was the psychological warfare he used to break Rick and the group.
His actions in the Season 6 finale and in the premiere episode can be specifically linked to four of the 36 Strategies of China, a collection of Chinese proverbs that serve as a foundational pillar for strategical warfare.
1. Substitute Leisure For Labor
It is an advantage to choose the time and place for battle. In this way you know when and where the battle will take place, while your enemy does not. Encourage your enemy to expend his energy in futile quests while you conserve your strength. When he is exhausted and confused, you attack with energy and purpose.
Negan decided when and where he would reveal himself. His entrance wasn’t just for his ego, it was there to intimidate Rick’s group in an already stressful situation. During the Season 6 finale, we saw Rick hopeful and even a bit arrogant, believing no one could stand in the group’s way. Negan attacked Rick’s inflated ego by killing more than a few people of his group.
Negan decided the place — blocking the roads and diverting Rick’s group around in an attempt to find a hole, which leads to them becoming so desperate that they tried to break through his barricade by foot, leading them right into Negan’s trap. This whole act not only showed Negan’s men’s power but also gave Negan an air of omnipotence and omnipresence, making him seem as if he knows everything and was everywhere.
2. Catch A Fish While The Water Is Disturbed
Before engaging your enemy’s forces, create confusion to weaken his perception and judgment. Do something unusual, strange, and unexpected as this will arouse the enemy’s suspicion and disrupt his thinking. A distracted enemy is thus more vulnerable.
Negan does an incredible job when it comes to disrupting Rick’s thoughts with the chain of walkers. For those who have a hard time remembering —at one point in the finale, the group encountered a road block in the form of chained walkers. This already is a bit disturbing, but what really got them was the fact that one walker wore some of Michonne’s clothes and had two of her dreads stuck to its head, while another had some of Daryl’s arrow’s stuck into his body.
This made a clear statement that the Saviors had both Daryl and Michonne. The group managed to get through this chain of walkers, even while under fire by some Saviors, but after this, you can see Rick shook and the group becoming paranoid. They start discussing the fact that the Saviors wanted them to get through this chain. They start feeling that a trap closing around them and they can’t stop it. Adding to this is the fact that the next wall they encounter is a wall of cars surrounded by a dozen of armed men, further illustrating the differing power dynamic between the two groups.
3. In Order To Capture, One Must Let Loose
Cornered prey will often mount a final, desperate attack. To prevent this, you let the enemy believe he still has a chance for freedom. His will to fight is thus dampened by his desire to escape. When in the end the freedom is proven a falsehood, the enemy’s morale will be defeated and he will surrender without a fight.
After a day of driving around in the RV, the group decides that they still had one way to escape the road blocks and confrontation, by moving by foot. Well, that failed, and they ran right into Negan’s trap. You can see on the group’s faces that they’ve lost their motivation. The situation worsens when Negan’s men bring out Michonne, Glenn, and Daryl. They have no way to escape and Negan has displayed his power over them on multiple occasions. He has them in his grip and every single move — the joking, the talking, the long speech — shows the group how much control he has over this situation. So much so that he feels completely safe in giving a 10-minute long speech about how much control he has, presenting his concept of a new world order.
4. Defeat The Enemy By Capturing Their Chief
If the enemy’s army is strong but is allied to the commander only by money or threats, then take aim at the leader. If the commander falls, the rest of the army will disperse or come over to your side. If, however, they are allied to the leader through loyalty then beware, the army can continue to fight on after his death out of vengeance.
In the comics, Negan made a strong point in saying he can’t kill Rick: He would just create a martyr that would haunt him. Just like in the show, Negan decided it was more important to establish his rules and make a statement by killing one member of the group as punishment for all of Negan’s men that Rick’s group killed.
Negan doesn’t actually like killing people. This might be surprising, but Negan wants Rick’s group to work for him and bring order to the apocalypse. They have no use to him dead, but Negan needs to make a statement to his own group and Rick’s group by “shutting that shit down.”
Now, how did Negan “break” Rick outside of killing two members of his group? Their entire trip was Negan’s way of showing that only one person is in control: Negan. He gave Rick the illusion of power. He gave Rick a weapon to kill him and Rick took the bait.
To be clear, Rick killing Negan would have achieved nothing; everyone else would have been just executed. The purpose was so that Negan could demonstrate his preparedness — pulling out a gun, seemingly out of thin air. He showed Rick that no matter whenever Rick thinks he has the advantage, Negan will continue to outsmart and outmatch Rick.
Furthermore, the entire quest of Rick getting back his ax, was Negan training Rick in the ways of the “new” world. Negan says “Go get the ax,” and Rick follows this order. When Rick is in danger of being killed who saves him? Negan. Not only is Negan showing that he decides when Rick dies, but also that if he follows orders, Negan will protect and help Rick. Even after Rick fights his way back to the RV, Negan is the one who decides if he gets in or if he gets left behind to die.
When Negan returns with Rick, he has pushed Rick to the edge. To push him even further, Negan announces that Rick has to cut off Carl’s arm with his own ax, which he retrieved on Negan’s behalf. This is not only Negan lording his power over Rick, but that he will use their own weapons against them. By then stopping Rick from doing it, he establishes that he isn’t unforgiving or completely crazy. In fact, Negan takes no specific pleasure in torturing them or harming them for no reason but shows to the group that he managed to push Rick so far over the edge that Rick would have done it, making it clear that Negan can force people to do terrible things to each other. Their only safety lies in following Negan’s orders.
Negan has broken Rick and the group — he has shown them how outmatched they are and what he can force them to do. He has created a monster in their head that they can’t beat or overcome. It works on everyone except Maggie and it has to be said how much that says about her and her leadership qualities (or maybe how insane she is to oppose Negan).