With the conclusion of The Walking Dead's epic "All-Out War" storyline today, there is a new and surprising status quo in place for Rick and his group of survivors -- albeit one that builds organically on what Robert Kirkman has been trying to do with the characters for nearly fifty issues.
The "Larger World" that Rick Grimes sought out after the fall of the prison and the attacks from The Hunters seemed for most of this arc like it was a mirage in the desert, but the ultra-violence of "All-Out War" goes out in such a way that, for those left standing, it seems there may yet be some hope for normalcy.
On the one hand, the story will likely be disappointing to some: with no major character deaths, it hardly feels like a Walking Dead event at all (although it could be argued that Glenn's death way back in #100 fulfills the requirement, since Rick and the others have been doing battle with Negan in one form or another ever since). There's a sophistication and hopefulness to the story's conclusion, though, that the book has lacked since Negan walked in, all foul language and never-ending violence, and hijacked the direction of the book about 18 months ago.
The notion that The Walking Dead is "not just a zombie book," that it's about survival, the human condition and the like, is one that's been tossed around since the early days of the series, but had felt decidedly less true for the last 25 or so issues, as Negan's influence seemed to drive the tone of the series more than Rick's did.
It now seems that was a creative choice -- setting up an uncomfortable status quo to tell a story about humanity rising up, our better angels overcoming that little, foul-mouthed voice in the back of our heads. It bears -- as if The Walking Dead #125 didn't make that explicit with the knife to Negan's throat -- going back to #100 and re-reading the last year or two in order to see what he bigger story is that Kirkman and company have been hammering away at since they first introduced Negan.
“No novelization for Negan,” Kirkman said in a recent interview. “He’ll get a larger backstory if he doesn’t DIE before the end of the ‘All-Out War’ storyline.”
And he doesn't, so perhaps that's what we'll be seeing in those mysterious "a new beginning" covers. Some readers had already speculated that the story could be flashbacks, and those could be Saviors in a more innocent time, rather than an entirely new gang of survivors.
What they'll do with him is anybody's guess, really. The end of #125 saw Negan finally coming around to Rick's philosophy, realizing that he'd been "doing it wrong" all this time and that perpetual war made no sense. He was ready -- or at least said he was -- to put the past behind them and start to forge a more civilized society, before Rick said "good," and cut his throat. Will we see that version of Negan, or will (and this seems more likely) he feel like he was duped into that headspace, and that Rick was and is full of it?
In any event, the last time they left someone that dangerous for dead it was The Governor, and he came back -- with a tank -- and killed loads of very important people. This time around, it's a character Rick had sworn to kill...and they let him go with jail time. That seems like a destiny unfulfilled, and the similarities between Negan and The Governor have always been difficult to avoid. Until he's dead, it seems likely most fans will expect (as I do) that Negan will ultimately rise again for a final, deadly kamikaze strike on those who defeated and imprisoned him.
Of course, killing him would have sent a very odd message. The idealism that Rick used to win Negan over last issue is actually more or less what he believes. That means cutting his throat and watching him die would not only have sent a conflicting message, but doing so in front of the other Saviors would have made it basically impossible for them to ever have a true alliance with Rick's people. The conclution to "All-Out War" might not have the visceral sense of satisfaction that many fans were hoping for -- Negan having his head caved in by Lucille, for instance -- but it sets up a surprising new status quo and finally seems to be fulfilling a long-held promise that the world of The Walking Dead can be more than just survival.