Image Source: AMC
This week, we get to see a slightly softer side of Negan on The Walking Dead, as he confesses to Father Gabriel his darkest secret: that his first wife — his only real wife, whom he married before the zombie apocalypse broke out — became sick with cancer at a time when he'd been running around on her, and he's had trouble letting go of her loss ever since. She, he reveals, is his weakness.
The revelation is pretty similar to what we learn about the character's history in Robert Kirkman's comics. Even scumbags have a story, it seems.
In the written iteration, found in the "Here's Negan" portion of The Walking Dead comics, we learn that Negan's face-bashing bat is named Lucille as a tribute to his fallen wife, who'd stuck with him despite knowing of his extramarital activities. Once she's diagnosed with cancer, Negan chooses to stop carrying on with his mistress and stays at her side throughout the duration of her illness, using his signature four-letter language to encourage her to beat the disease all the while.
Lucille, for all Negan's mistreatment of her, has a surprisingly similar sense of wryness to her husband and gives him some well-deserved grief as he tries to make amends before it's too late.
Negan is a school gym coach at the time of their marriage, which also explains his particular fondness for using the baseball bat as his primary weapon and his leadership approach of coaxing people into his way of thinking through philosophical overtures. While challenging students to games like ping-pong at his home, for example, Negan had been known to have humiliated the kids often. He was always a fan of head games more than any other sport.
Lucille's ultimate death culminates in her zombification in the comics, and her walker form is put down by one of Negan's followers, a boy who Negan charges with handling the dirty deed in his stead. After he eventually assumes ownership of his baseball bat, he clings to it as a morsel of his wife's memory, and when it, too, is destroyed, he gives it a full-on burial service that's about more than just saying goodbye to the bat; it's about atoning for his failure of the first Lucille.
Image Source: Image Comics
Negan's still a villain, no matter what he's been through. But his personal affliction from before the walker invasion is still somewhat sympathetic and certainly explains his tight grip on that barbed bat.
His post-Lucille history, however, is hardly defensible. There's a reason his current demands for fealty from his henchmen have been so successful, and no one hesitates to call themselves Negan to sate his massively intense ego. After the death of his wife, Negan goes out on his own, assumes ownership of his trusty weapon on the road, and is approached by Dwight about joining his group of survivors, now known as the Saviors, after the two meet by chance in the wilderness.
Although Negan is originally a mere guest of the group, he quickly begins to take over with his mouthy manipulation and constant chest-pumping challenges to so-called "weak" men around him. It's all reminiscent of when he'd intimidate the kids he'd worked with, and his philandering with a multitude of women makes a comeback as well. Once he establishes his leadership, he takes on several new wives — including Dwight's own wife Sherry — by using some very colorful courtship phrases meant to demean both them and their estranged spouses. To secure his position of dominance, despite taking so many of the women for his own, he regularly burns their former mates' faces if they're caught sneaking around with his spouses (as with Dwight).
That shock-and-awe approach to leadership, and his personal offenses against Dwight in particular, lead to some embittered characters running recon against Negan by secretly aligning with his enemies, like Ezekiel and the Kingdom, before the big war.
Negan likes to play dirty and even schemes to use blood-infected weapons on the Alexandrian allies so as to ensure they'll turn and damage their ranks. However, his tactics backfire once Dwight decides to take back control of the community he'd run long before Negan assumed his name-sharing position. And Negan's attempt to return to glory in the wake of Dwight's move is ultimately thwarted by Rick, but his story is far from done, both onscreen and in the comics. He may be down (by way of one gnarly neck slice courtesy of Rick Grimes), but he is not out and gets to spend a couple of years in cell captivity before we meet him again and find him a different, more temper-toned talker who's conserving his energy for an all-new fight.
Is redemption even possible for him at this point? Probably not, but as we continue to pick at the onion peels of this big bad on The Walking Dead, his past and future in the series only get more interesting, and the road map of his constant cruelty seems all the more linked to his past life and wife.