Warning: Spoilers will follow for The Walking Dead season 9, episode 5, “What Comes After.”
It’s officially a new era for The Walking Dead. Rick Grimes is gone from the show, his future and the ongoing helicopter mystery to be answered in a future film trilogy. Season 9 started with a year and a half time jump, and now another time jump has occurred, this one six years into the future with Judith Grimes growing into a fierce young lady.
With the All-Out War storyline long concluded — especially for the characters considering how many years have now passed with the two time jumps — it feels a bit odd that Negan is still alive and looks to have a significant presence in upcoming episodes. It’s also a bit baffling as the characters’ storylines he was most connected to were Rick Grimes and Maggie Rhee.
Rick just had his last episode of the series, and showrunner Angela Kang confirmed it was Maggie’s last episode of season 9. Negan’s purpose in season 9 up to this point has largely been what he represented for Rick and Maggie. To Rick, keeping Negan alive represented keeping Carl’s dream alive of civilization that transcended the endless cycle of violence. To Maggie, Negan’s ongoing existence represented the injustice of Glenn’s death and other tragedies, a constant obstacle preventing the communities from moving forward. Maggie made her peace with Negan in her final episode of season 9, feeling it was crueler to let him live and suffer rather than give him the sweet release of death where he could join his wife, the original Lucille.
With Rick and Maggie now gone and new enemies like the Whisperers on the way, Negan’s presence may seem strange, but it’s certainly intentional.
From what is seen in the promo for upcoming episodes, Negan appears to still be imprisoned, but he’s formed a relationship with Judith. She talks about wanting to help the “newcomers” she saved at the end of the previous episode, and Negan says, “Let me guess — you want to help them.”
In a weird way, Negan might be a sort of paternal figure and fountain of wisdom in Judith’s life. Trapped in his cell, she can visit him at any time and talk. Horrible as he was, Negan did have an undeniable fondness for children and a desire to be a fatherly figure. His relationship and admiration of Carl is proof of that. His conversation with Michonne this season also reveals how he and his wife wanted to have a child. Now Negan can sort of get his wish with Judith, somewhat filling the void left in her life after her father’s “death.”
Negan will also be kept alive as a way of honoring both Rick and Maggie. It honors Rick’s goal to build civilization and break the cycle of violence as Carl wanted. It honors Maggie’s revelation that it was more just for Negan to live out his days miserable in a cell than to end his suffering.
As entertaining as Jeffrey Dean Morgan makes his scenes, the show can’t keep him in a cell forever. It seems an inevitability that he will eventually be freed from his imprisonment this season. The question is whether it will be to help or attack the communities. His last conversation with Rick made it apparent he was confident he would return to the world and take power for himself again. Those emotionally heartfelt scenes shared with Michonne and Maggie also brimmed with manipulation. Negan may be playing an incredibly long game in which he bides his time to stay alive until he can break free and assert power once again. Forming a bond with Judith could certainly help him achieve that goal.
He’s already played the villain role, though, so it might be more interesting for him to be freed so he can help the communities combat the Whisperers and other threats they face this season. For all his faults, Negan is undoubtedly clever, resourceful, and does whatever he thinks is necessary to get a job done. Those are traits that might be needed to help take on the Whisperers and other enemies. His relationship with Judith and the mercy shown to him by Michonne and others might be enough to get him to help, especially if it means getting out of the cell he’s been in for seven and a half years.
Only time will tell how exactly the show will use Negan in the future. For now, we’re just glad we get to see more of Jeffrey Dean Morgan and his compelling performances.