From bat-swinging big bad to redemption seeking anti-hero, once Savior leader Negan is successfully rehabilitated by Rick Grimes in Robert Kirkman’s Walking Dead comic books — a path his live-action counterpart, portrayed by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, is poised to follow.
In the books, Negan similarly executes Glenn with babseball bat Lucille and subjects Rick and the survivors to an oppressive regime under Savior rule. When Rick rallies the communities to unite against Negan, the villain is defeated when Rick slices his throat and jails him for his crimes, using Negan as a living symbol of the survivors’ new beginning and a return to law and order. A time jump of roughly two years follows, and Rick’s conviction sways Negan into a true believer.
Negan is so committed to winning his redemption he remains within his cell despite having the opportunity to escape and unleash mayhem, something Negan tells Rick is the first step towards “building trust” between the two enemies. After a confrontation with the still-jailed Negan, Rick tells lover Andrea he must keep Negan alive to show the other communities there’s a “better way” of handling their enemies.
Later, Negan is freed by revenge-seeking teen Brandon Rose after his parents are killed: mother Tammy is a victim of the Whisperers, while Rick kills father Morton in self-defense during an ambush on his life. Brandon aims to manipulate Rick into a war with the Whisperers, hoping Rick and Whisperer leader Alpha will wipe each other out. His plan backfires when Negan appears to agree before killing Brandon and then continuing on into Whisperer territory alone.
Negan then integrates for a time into the Whisperers’ ranks and wins the respect of Alpha, but soon clashes with their uncivilized way of life. Negan breaks Alpha emotionally, kills her, and presents her decapitated head to Rick as a sign of his allegiance. He did it for the same reason he didn’t escape his cell: “To earn trust.”
Still suspicious, Rick next conscripts Negan to fight on the frontlines as a member of the militia assembled to combat the Whisperers, who are led by second-in-command Beta in the wake of Alpha’s murder. If he serves dutifully and proves his worth, he’ll be given food and supplies in an outpost where he’ll live free but alone.
Meanwhile, a vengeful Beta vows to use the undead to destroy the society being developed by Rick and company, emerging as the next big bad and a personal rival for Negan. When Negan helps Michonne, Dwight, Yumiko, Jesus and other members of the militia combat a pack of Whisperers and walkers, Negan is left upset after he shatters his beloved baseball bat in a brawl with the towering Beta.
In The Walking Dead #162, the bat — named after Negan’s late wife — is laid to rest, allowing Negan the chance to metaphorically bury his wife. Negan returns with the militia to Alexandria, where he steps up to defend the gated community when it comes under attack from an ocean of walkers.
The massive horde pushes forward and topples Alexandria’s gates, forcing its citizens to flee. Rick — who in the books walks with the assistance of a cane, courtesy of a leg break earlier caused by Negan — is tripped up and nearly consumed by the advancing walkers. But Negan doubles back and saves him, and the pair take refuge in in a nearby house.
While trapped, Rick and Negan have a heart-to-heart, in which Negan admits Rick helped him realize his past actions, including the murder of Glenn and the subjugation of the communities, was “f—ing f—ed up one side and f—ed right back down the other.” To his own disbelief, Negan works with Rick to make a break through the wall of walkers, and Rick returns the favor of saving Negan’s life by gunning down walkers when the swarm proves too overwhelming.
After helping defend Alexandria from the walker invasion unleashed by Beta, Negan is granted his freedom and takes up in an outpost in the wilderness. Though he begins fashioning a second Lucille, he’s confronted at gunpoint by Maggie, Glenn’s widow. Negan breaks down and apologizes for killing Glenn before begging Maggie to kill him. But she refuses, telling him a suitable punishment is having to live with what he’s done.
Shattered by the encounter, Negan chucks Lucille 2 into flames and walks off alone, letting the sins of the past burn away. That issue, The Walking Dead #174, currently marks Negan’s last appearance. Could similar events unfold in the television show?
“As somebody who’s working at ComicBook.com, you know what comes in the comic,” The Walking Dead showrunner Angela Kang told us in a recent interview.
“There’s some really interesting story for Negan moving forward, and we’re going to kind of play with our version of it, but we just thought what is the way in which Negan gets out of prison in our world, and how is that similar to or different from the comic book version? So this all plays in his story moving forward.”
The Walking Dead premieres its Season Nine finale tonight at 9/8c on AMC.