Megalomania is a lonely disease. It’s not easy keeping everyone on point for your grand schemes, which is why you must occasionally pull out the branding iron or baseball bat to emphasize your rules. Strangely enough, this episode of The Walking Dead proved that even brutal dictators need love.

While getting on Negan’s bad side is never a good idea, there’s also a light-hearted level to him, capable of joking with underlings and captive victims who are powerless against him. Yes, it’s an odd sort of humor and chilling in context. But if you laugh along with it, chances are you’ll avoid having your face imprinted by a red-hot piece of metal.

We finally learned this week that the Saviors view themselves as more than an evil gang. Negan believes that they are the beginning of a new start for the human race, saving the world from its folly. In order to provide that security and organization, a system is in place and taxes must be paid.

If everyone follows the rules, they live. Violate the rules, and there’s an iron with your name on it heating.

One thing’s for sure: there are enough people itching for Negan’s death and actively acting on those plans. Carl, Jesus, Rosita and Michonne are seen in various stages of ready. Which probably means that none of them will be the ones to pull the trigger when the time comes.

This week’s recap:

*** Carl and Jesus are secretly stowed away in a supply truck, heading toward Negan’s compound. But Carl tricks Jesus into bailing out early, leaving Carl alone on his mission – kill Negan. When the truck stops, Carl hears Negan’s voice, and grabs his trusty machine gun, ready to wreak havoc. He kills two men, but freezes when Negan appears. That allows Dwight to get the jump on him, and Carl is down and disarmed. But a funny thing happens – Negan appears more amused than pissed. He gives Carl a hand-up from the ground and takes him on a tour of his compound.

***  The tour winds up in Negan’s bedroom/office. There, he makes Carl remove the bandages on his eye so Negan can see the damage. It’s predictably awful, the socket encased by a crusty red scab. But a strange thing happens after the reveal. After making Carl sing to him while he wildly swings his barbed wire baseball bat (a power trip if ever there was one), Carl’s shame-filled blubbering brings out a tender side to Negan, who seems remorseful that he induced such sorrow in what is, after all, a kid. But that tender moment is quickly dispelled when he barks at an underling who obsequiously brings him his beloved Lucille baseball bat. Only the king can enjoy a good forced laugh.

*** Negan tells Carl that he feels Daryl can be a good soldier, and muses aloud whether Carl and his father could be similarly brought to heel. Carl stands up and is defiant, but Negan delights in such bravado. He sees potential in the boy, and in a strange way feels fatherly toward him. Perhaps it’s what a good leader does, breaking them down and building them up, as Negan alludes to in his ramblings.

*** There is a dark side to Negan’s good humor, though. A man named Mark neglected to perform a critical task, instead stealing off to spend some time with Amber, a former wife/girlfriend (it’s not clear which). Negan confirms the misdeed with one of his sister wives. That means he’s got to publicly act and make Mark pay the price for breaking the rules. The punishment is branding with a red-hot iron. Negan claims he doesn’t want to do it, but if he lets the rules slide, chaos ensues and the world cannot be rebuilt. After the ceremony, Daryl is reduced to mop boy, cleaning up the puddle of urine that Mark left beneath his chair.

*** In the B-story of the week, everyone is out scavenging. There’s a deadline to meet, and finding stuff is increasingly difficult in this picked-through world. But one item of note – Rosita manages to convince Eugene to make her a bullet. She does this by denigrating his manhood, which is apparently a powerful motivator for helmet-haired Eugene. Meanwhile, Michonne sets a trap and manages to get a female Savior to stop and exit her vehicle. At gun and sword point, Michonne orders her to take them to Negan’s compound. Clearly, she’s out to put an end to his tyranny. In other scavenging news, Spencer finds a note leading to more supplies written in Latin, which he can read; Rick and Aaron find supplies in a pond guarded by walkers.

*** Back at the Sanctuary, Negan decides he will accompany Carl back to Alexandria. Mop boy Daryl mans up and warns Negan not to harm Carl. For his trouble, he gets thrown back into a cell. While there, someone slips a key and a note underneath his door. “Go now” reads the note. Does this mean Daryl still has enough fight in him to make his way out of the Sanctuary?

*** When Negan and Carl arrive at Alexandria, they head to the food and drug warehouse, where Negan reduces overweight and overwrought Olivia to tears when he mocks her assertion that they are “practically starving.”  To make her feel better after his body-shaming, Negan makes a clumsy pass, but is rebuffed with a slap. This only fuels his ardor, but he lets the matter slide. There’s a bigger picture to concern him, and as Carl takes him on a tour of the compound, Negan discovers a real prize – baby Judith. He takes her out of her crib and spends the time waiting for Rick’s return from scavenging sitting on the family porch, jostling and cooing at the baby. He almost seems – human.

Next week: The 90-minute mid-season finale. The fates of Carl, Daryl and baby Judith will likely be determined. Negan’s habit of turning his back on would-be killers must come to an end at some point, and it’s looking more and more like that action might be the season ender. Just in time, too, as ratings are plummeting this half-season, mostly thanks to the bloviating by the fearless leader. And that’s no joke.