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Is Negan Being Set up as the New Hero of THE WALKING DEAD?

Warning: This article contains major spoilers for Andrew Lincoln‘s final episode of The Walking Dead, “What Comes After.” Proceed at your own risk.

Well, as is often the case, The Walking Dead did an excellent job of misdirection, and kudos to AMC for trusting us writers with significant spoilers. There were many surprises in this week’s episode, not the least of which was yet another time jump at the end. But of course the main thing on every viewers mind was the expected departure of Rick Grimes, and the question of who’ll take his place from now on as the main protagonist.

First, let’s just say Rick departed somewhat as we predicted with the Narnia analogy, substituting for Gabriel as Jadis’ prisoner, and after a near-death on a stone table, no less. He’s probably headed for the meritocracy known in the comics as Commonwealth, hence the “A” and “B” grades for prisoners, but we’re not likely to see that followed up on for a while, as the Whisperers are confirmed to be coming first.

Rick may be technically still alive, but he’s way out of the action, which leaves room for a new leader to rise. Maggie, who learned that compassion beats revenge this week, would be the natural successor, but Lauren Cohan is leaving the show too. This leaves room for a more unexpected hero to rise, and it might just be the show’s one-time arch-villain.

Almost as shocking as Rick’s destiny was the turn Negan took this week. All season thus far, he’s been set up as a Hannibal Lecter type, getting into his adversaries’ heads from behind bars, seemingly plotting his inevitable return to leadership, and forcing all the major heroes to confront their own demons by facing him and matching wits. The reveal, as he literally stepped into the light, that he was simply being the worst person he could in order to goad someone — anyone — into killing him was unexpected, and a necessary step to redemption. As any prison warden or drill instructor knows, you have to break down the difficult ones before you can build them up. In showing Negan utterly broken, with the lost bat named for his dead wife becoming his own personal “Rosebud,” the show is setting the stage for him to restart with a clean slate.

[If you think a Citizen Kane reference is a reach, consider that much of this week was basically Bridge on the River Kwai, with Rick finally destroying the bridge he’d worked so hard to get cooperation for. The allusions are getting highbrow at times.]

Which brings us to the time jump. In the episode’s final moments, we see an older Judith Grimes making like Kick-Ass‘ Hit Girl with walkers, donning the family hat and name-dropping like she’s a pint-sized James Bond. Judith is long-since dead in the comics, but Carl isn’t; the obvious inference is that they’ve let her grow up a bit so she can substitute for her late TV brother in future storylines. But who will then take Rick’s role? Perhaps the one other guy who felt protective of Carl, and whom Carl finally had hopes for: Negan. The battle against the Whisperers in the comics wound up forcing Negan onto the right side anyway, with Maggie’s attempt to kill him originally coming after all that, and seemingly offering him closure then.

Moving that up in the timeline, and then cutting ahead a few years lets Negan be broken for a while without us having to linger on it as viewers. It’s realistic to assume he’d start to emotionally rebuild himself after a couple years at least, but we don’t have to wait around for that to happen if we skip ahead. Recent seasons of The Walking Dead were often accused of spinning their wheels, so getting straight to the next good part is yet another step up for this stronger-so-far season.

Will viewers buy Negan as a hero? Well, he was getting tiresome as a villain, never really letting us see through the quippy facade. Jeffrey Dean Morgan is certainly capable of bringing more to the role, and the challenge of becoming likable is one the actor ought to relish, even if it’s going to take a ton of pride-swallowing from the character.

What say you, fellow viewers? Is Negan the hero you need, or want? If not, is there anything he can do to get there? Sound off in comments!

Images: AMC

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