(Note: This post contains spoilers through the March 18 episode of “The Walking Dead,” as well as clues from the comics.)
“The Walking Dead” has been dealing with Negan for almost two full seasons now, spending most of that time positioning the leader of the Saviors as the ultimate Big Bad and foil for the show’s main protagonist, Rick Grimes. Lately, though, things are changing for Negan, and we’re seeing the groundwork being set for the way that Negan might make it through the finale of Season 8 to continue to be a character into the future of the show.
First, a bit of a spoiler: In the comics on which “The Walking Dead” is based, the war between Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) ends, but it doesn’t result in Negan’s death. Instead, the leader survives the war and a peace is reached, but Rick and his group keep a jailed Negan in the basement of one of the houses of Alexandria. Eventually, Rick frees Negan after he helps Alexandria deal with some tight spots, and he tries to buy his way into the community during another war with another faction.
It’s not clear if the show will follow the same events as the comics — this season has brought major changes to the story in the adaptation, like Carl’s death, and pretty much everything that happened this past week was original to the show. But it does seem as though “The Walking Dead” is building the foundations for a way in which Negan and Rick might be able to forgive each other in a way that didn’t really happen in the comics. So keeping Negan alive may work a bit better and be more satisfying than it was in the book.
In Episode 12 of Season 8, “The Key,” we get a sense of where “The Walking Dead” is intending to take Negan, the Saviors, and Rick in this telling of the story. It all started with Carl’s death. Carl was bitten by a walker in the mid-season finale of Season 8, and died during the show’s mid-season premiere. Before he went, though, he tried to impart some serious wisdom on Rick, his group, and even Negan. Carl believed that the only way forward was peace between the factions, and that once war was over, everyone would have to live together.
Carl wrote letters to several people before he died trying to convince them to stop fighting each other, and one of those people was Negan. Rick has taken Carl’s death pretty hard, but his response has been to double down on trying to get his revenge on the leader of the Saviors. Negan, on the other hand, seems to be softening in the wake of Carl’s death. He respected Rick’s son quite a bit, and the message Carl tried to give him, that Negan has fallen from his original goal of actually trying to save people, seems to be affecting him.
We’ve been seeing Negan having some reflective moments in the episodes since Carl’s death, but none has been so poignant as the one in “The Key.” As Rick calls to Negan in the darkness of a basement, we see that Negan is really listening to what Rick has to say — that he can’t save anyone, because he’s become such a tyrant. It’s not Rick’s words that are getting to Negan, though; it’s Carl’s. They’ve sunk in with Negan much more than they have with Rick. That’s why, instead of attacking and destroying the Hilltop, Negan suggested a relatively more merciful measure: Attacking with walker-blooded weapons in hopes of turning a few people, scaring the Hilltop community, and leaving everyone else alive but fearful of the Saviors.
Though Negan’s plan is still pretty horrific, it’s not nearly as bad as rolling into the Hilltop and massacring everyone. It also doesn’t sit well with Negan’s top lieutenant, Simon (Steven Ogg), who thinks all these negotiations and attempts at scare tactics are more trouble than they’re worth. After the mid-season premiere, Simon went into a rage and, against orders, wiped out the Scavengers, the community that lived in the garbage dump settlement and were led by the woman called Jadis (Pollyanna MacIntosh). When Negan goes missing in Episode 12, Simon starts campaigning to do the same thing to the Hilltop.
The end of the latest episode of “The Walking Dead” finds Negan in the hands of Jadis, and it seems pretty obvious that a few things are about to come to light. Negan’s going to find out that Simon’s not just a loose cannon, but obviously positioning himself to take over the Saviors, and Jadis is going to find out that Negan wasn’t the one who had all her people killed. That gives Jadis a common enemy with Negan, and eventually, it’ll give Rick a means of ending the war.
Alexandria is basically gone, Oceanside is unwilling to help, and the Kingdom’s leader is struggling with believing in himself. Rick and his crew are at a marked disadvantage if the Saviors come at them with their full force. It’s the reason Rick was willing to try to once again parlay with the Scavengers, even though they’d betrayed him twice before. Rick still needs more fighters if he’s going to defeat the Saviors. There’s one person left who can give them to him: Negan.
With Negan out of the picture for the Saviors for a while starting at the end of Episode 12, Simon is already stepping in and taking charge. That’ll likely create two factions within the Saviors: The band that likes Simon and his new, even more ruthless way of doing things, and the people who are still loyal to their original leader. And that’ll mean that if Rick chooses to work with Negan rather than continue to fight him, Negan will be able to divide the Saviors. It’s a scenario that gives Rick a clear path to try to become the person Carl wanted him to be, and justifies Rick coming to grips with, and moving past, Negan’s past transgressions.
As Season 8 moves forward, it seems more and more clear that Simon is becoming the villain that needs to be brought down, in direct contrast to the “All Out War” story in the comics in which Negan was the Big Bad until the end. On the show, on the other hand, we’re seeing a version of Negan that is remembering the ends he was trying to achieve through his awful means. For all that Negan has done, he still uses killing to try to let other people live, which he counts as a net good — he’s still really freaking evil, sure, but apparently not quite as evil as Simon.
Combine Negan coming around to what Carl was trying to tell him, being betrayed by his top lieutenant, and realizing he can’t win the war with Rick, and you have a recipe for a situation in which Negan really can survive the war in a way that feels satisfying from a character development sense, rather than just a bit of plot trickery to allow the people creating “The Walking Dead” to keep a charismatic character from winding up undead. Negan might not be Rick’s best friend by the end of Season 8, but it seems the show might be angling to find a way to truly justify keeping him around a while longer.