WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for The Walking Dead Season 9 episode "Adaptation."
One of the big debates stirred up recently on The Walking Dead was whether or not Alpha would be a better villain than Jeffrey Dean Morgan's Negan. Now, that's hard to suss out, as we've only just glimpsed Samantha Morton as the zombie skin-wearing murderer, but when it comes to Negan, it's no secret how twisted he's been.
In fact, he's one of television's most sadistic villains, so much so that folks were ticked off when the show decided to leave him alive after Rick Grimes defeated him. Well, if they didn't like that decision, they certainly won't like what Season 9's doing, because as of the midseason premiere, Negan's already taking steps towards redemption.
What may have once been an unfathomable notion is now a stark reality as AMC, showrunner Angela Kang and the creative team adopt this bold approach to the character, albeit while still keeping their cards close to the chest. The episode opens with his escape from Alexandria and an eventual heart to heart with a young gun-toting Judith as he's just about to scale the fence. There's some affection in their exchange as they ruminate over how he stole her compass from her room, the first hint that Negan has shed, or is in the process of shedding, his evil skin.
As he insists on secreting away, he doesn't come off like someone who's running from jail, but as someone desperate to find himself. Judith, wise beyond her years, recognizes this after all their intimate conversations and allows him to go free, even letting him keep the compass so he can "find his true home." It's quite mature, and the fact that she places this trust in him is a telling sign of the direction the show is looking to steer Negan's story.
Embarking on his soul-searching solo run, the series wastes no time humanizing him. Back out in the wilderness, Negan takes no joy in killing zombies, or any life in general, like he did with his barbed wire bat Lucille. Another illuminating moment comes when he gets ill and throws up after drinking some river water, signifying he doesn't have the stomach to roam wild and free anymore.
It's more a metaphorical sickness than physical, though, because as the camera pans out we see he's retching at the clearing where he killed Glenn and Abraham. That's right, he's come to repent and spiritually seek some sort of forgiveness, one he'll never get from the citizens of Alexandria and its neighbors. Seeing as he's by himself, you can tell it's not an act. Negan is genuinely remorseful about the pain he inflicted.
Eventually, he returns to his old camp, killing off former comrades who've been turned into walkers in a series of mercy killings. He quickly realizes the Saviors are something best left buried; Negan wants to burn everything associated with his old world. He pensively stares at Judith's initials inscribed in her compass and it's obvious what he's contemplating. An emotional Negan boards a motorcycle and heads back to Alexandria's prison cell, only for Judith to shoot him off the bike a few miles later, as promised if she ever saw him again.
It's a moment of levity between them with no damage done. In fact, it feels like a bond being strengthened. You can sense she's as happy to have him back as he is to have returned. Oddly enough, the way the show is positioning him alongside Judith feels organic. Negan may not be a leader yet, but it's obvious he feels he could be a father figure. Having him care for her in Rick's absence certainly flips the script, because no one could have foreseen him ever becoming a guardian like this, not to her or the alliance.
However, in terms of narrative, with Daryl taking over Hilltop and the Kingdom being overseen by Ezekiel and Carol, Alexandria will eventually need a new protector for Season 10 when Michonne departs. In the comics, Negan became more of an antihero when he escaped captivity, but here he's ready to embrace this particular role and make a full 180, following through on the peace Carl asked for in his will. How polarizing this will be for audiences, well, that remains to be seen.
Airing Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on AMC, The Walking Dead stars Norman Reedus, Danai Gurira, Melissa McBride, Alanna Masterson, Josh McDermitt, Christian Serratos, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Nadia Hilker, Dan Fogler, Angel Theory, Lauren Ridloff and Eleanor Matsuura.