Someone Needs to School Negan on Cult Leadership

Lon Harris
TV The Walking Dead
TV The Walking Dead Horror

Negan ranks #16 on our list of the 100 most popular villains of 2018 (check it out here).

It’s not just their name that makes The Walking Dead’s Saviors somewhat resemble a cult, nor the fact that they live in a place known as “The Sanctuary.” The group operates under the authoritarian control of a single, essentially infallible strongman  — Negan.

There are lots of slogans and sayings, and an oddly utopian philosophy, backing up the group’s rules and actions. There are rituals and sacred objects. Members all live and work together, in isolation from the rest of the world, and labor under an unfair and exploitative “points” system that governs even basic essentials like food and shelter. And that’s not even mentioning the whole “Negan has multiple wives” thing. It’s on the cult scale. It’s part of the cult conversation.

Yet Negan doesn’t meet his end in some kind of ritualistic mass suicide like Jim Jones, or in a shootout with the authorities like David Koresh, or even passing away in his own bed like Rajneesh. Negan doesn’t meet his end at all. Instead, he winds up dethroned and imprisoned by his enemies, after being betrayed by several of his followers.

As a fashion and branding icon, Negan’s place in cultural history is definitely secure. The guy wears leather jackets during a zombie apocalypse no matter how sunny it is outside, and he basically invented the barbed wire baseball bat fad. But as a cult leader, Negan’s pretty much a miserable, disgusting failure, and if ever wants to run another cult, he’s going to need to rebrand — or enroll in a cult leadership class at his local community college. 

A Warm Welcome Goes a Long Way

Negan's bat in Rick's face The Walking Dead
While potentially effective in the short-term, this recruiting doesn't have long-term benefits.

The goal of any cult-style organization is constant growth. The group feeds on new membership; recruits form the base of any good pyramid scheme, after all. Most of these groups save the really scary or off-putting stuff for after you’ve already accepted the core ideology, forged relationships within the community, and started breaking ties with the outside world.

Negan, on the other hand, prefers a more direct, even intimidating approach, like bashing in your good friend’s skull with a bat right in front of you. Granted, this lets you know where you stand, vis à vis the Saviors, but it isn’t such a terrific recruitment tool. No one’s thinking, “OK, I better give up all of my worldly possessions and follow this man around” just because he made Glenn’s eyeball momentarily pop out its socket. People want to be inspired.

Imagine if Negan had, instead, convinced this new community to sign up with the Saviors, began indoctrinating them more solidly into the group, and then — after commitments had been made — started burning half of everyone’s faces off. More enticing, right? You have to believe this was how he built up the initial group of Saviors in the first place.

The Walking Dead Ezekiel and Shiva
Not only is Ezekial self-assured, he also has a freaking tiger.

Even smaller, less tightly controlled communities like The Kingdom have figured out the importance of good PR. Impress people with your royal court and your pet tiger first, you know, to get them excited. Then slip them the bad news about having to do lots and lots of (mercifully off-screen) farm work.

Mingling With the Commoners

Sure, any cult leader worth his blessed, ritualistically sanctified salt knows that they need to be respected, and even worshipped, by their membership. But at the same time, it’s important for cult members to feel like their leader is “one of them,” and that they are all truly united in pursuit of the same end goal.

Negan, regrettably, is all about special privileges for himself and his favored lieutenants. Running The Saviors as an absolute dictatorship is one thing. The Branch Davidians weren’t frequently putting things up to a vote, after all. But Negan isolates himself too much from his everyday membership. He’s rarely seen wandering the hallways, saying hello to people, taking part in group meals, or just walking amongst the people as they eat and shop.

Negan The Walking Dead on a balcony
You've got to come down and greet your loyal subjects occasionally.

Thus, because he doesn’t feel like a functioning, integral member of the collective — so much as its mastermind and ultimate enforcer — he becomes easier, psychologically, to betray, or simply ignore.

Successful Cults Have Strong Branding

The Saviors are a hierarchical and competitive organization by design. Negan has an inner circle, and though he rewards certain members by implying that they, too, could one day gain access to his trusted inner circle, it’s certainly not merit-based or egalitarian by any stretch. The man plays favorites, and you’re either among his select group of friends and confidantes, or you’re not.

The Saviors also lack the typical conformist calling cards of groups like the Heaven’s Gate cult. There are no uniforms or official nicknames that signify membership and make group members feel united and bonded together. (Recall, Heaven’s Gate members adopted strange new titles when they entered the group, and even dressed the same. The group is best remembered for the matching outfits and sneakers they wore during their mass suicide.)

The Saviors The Walking Dead
Look at this ragtag bunch. There's not a matching shirt in sight.

So, rather than a unified corporate-style structure that Negan could potentially survive under stress, he had created a chaotic mess full of infighting, betrayal, and complex crisscrossed alliances. A number of his right-hand lieutenants were actively working against the group, seeking power on their own terms. (Dwight was even allowed to outright leave the group and then return later, a definite cult no-no.)

“We Are All Negan” Just Wasn’t Enough

Getting everyone to repeat the phrase “We are Negan” is a great start. Truly encouraging Saviors to lose their own individual identities and, instead, exclusively think of themselves as part of the unified “Negan” would have saved him a lot of trouble down the road. But no, despite the slogan, Negan allows Saviors a substantial amount of individual freedom.

The only time we see him attempt to break anyone’s will is when he’s trying to convert Rick’s followers into his own, as with Daryl at the beginning of Season 7. He should essentially be doing this to all the Saviors all the time. That’s how you win hearts and minds.

Sell the Dream, Not the Reality

Negan has a big idea for the role the Saviors will one day play in the world, but it’s pragmatic and functional, not visionary or spiritual. He wants to impose order, and his will, on the post-apocalyptic world, but he doesn’t do enough to give it any metaphysical meaning for his fellow Saviors.

Negan sitting at a table with Lucille The Walking Dead
We're always ready to follow a dreamer.

No wonder they think nothing of abandoning him. By presenting himself as essentially a good community organizer, a city planner, Negan has rendered himself completely replaceable. But you can never replace a prophet; they’re your direct line to the almighty, and the keeper of the vision.

In fact, Rick and Carl Grimes actually did a better job at establishing themselves as not just smart leaders but moral authorities, people whose advice was not just well-received but essential.

Negan remains alive and active, so perhaps future seasons will provide an opportunity for him to fully ingest some of these lessons, and return to his project with greater intensity of focus and success. Definitely by Season 24 or 25.

Lon Harris
Lon writes for Screen Junkies and "Honest Trailers," Rotten Tomatoes, Inside Streaming and elsewhere. He still can't believe critics didn't like "Three Amigos" when it came out.
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