Over the past few seasons, AMC's The Walking Dead has shaped Negan as one of scariest villains in the history of television.
While there were minor tweaks in adapting him from his comic book roots, Jeffrey Dean Morgan's depiction captured the character's essence, often leaving viewers uncomfortable at just how sadistic he could truly be. From his grand introduction in the Season 7 premiere, where he beat Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) to death with his trusty barb-wired baseball bat, Lucille, as well as Glenn (Steven Yeun), recreating one of the comic's most iconic moments, Negan has been an absolute force of terror.
As the seasons progressed, Negan established dominion over Alexandria, the Hilltop and the Kingdom via very sinister measures. But despite all this, Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) wrestled with the concept of making peace with him. This was a promise Rick made before his son Carl (Chandler Riggs) died but in the Season 8 finale, "Wrath," it seemed like Rick really wasn't about to keep that vow, slashing Negan's throat in their climactic fight. In a comics-faithful scene, viewers are quickly given the impression that Rick ignores Carl's dream of peace, and kills Negan.
However, that isn't the case. Rick actually ensures Negan's life is spared so that he can live out his days imprisoned in Alexandria. This is done to honor Carl's last wish and unite everyone against the real threat: The ever-present walkers.
And while many fans of the show may not agree with Rick's actions, it's actually the right one, for a few reasons.
Having Negan sentenced to a life in confinement under Rick's watch like this acts as the protagonist's new moral compass. Rick has often wrestled with his inner-darkness, sometimes losing himself to his rage and running the risk of becoming the same violent monster he swore he'd protect his own people from. What often brought him back to the light was the thought of his loved ones, especially his children; Carl and baby Judith.
Negan's survival would help remind Rick of this true north, tethering him to the memory of Carl and his humanity as a whole. Negan's presence would now certainly be a far cry from the egotistical, profane dictator we've grown accustomed to, but for Rick it'll be a stark reminder that in this post-apocalyptic, zombie-ridden world, while many people have lost their souls trying to survive, they can still change. Negan's fate here may be seen as karma in the flesh (no pun intended) by a lot of fans, but by keeping the villain alive, Rick can look himself in the mirror every day, hopeful that he can build the new world Carl wanted for Judith.
This act of mercy's also a great decision for the show's narrative as it adds a lot of drama and tension. Rick choosing not to kill Negan is certainly going to create conflict, not just for Alexandria's citizens, but with the people Negan oppressed from the Hilltop and Kingdom. Maggie (Lauren Cohan) already voiced her anger at keeping the man who brutally murdered her husband alive, and she's already showing signs that she wants revenge. What makes this prospect so intriguing is that Rick's usually up against external threats, but by saving Negan he may have just sparked a civil war among other trusted allies, with Daryl and Jesus also seemingly disapproving.
Lastly, Rick's decision has a lot of potential that comes by building toward Negan's redemption. There's a chance we'll see a repentant Negan looking to Rick, learning how a true leader should lead, and even admiring him. In "Wrath," we get a hint that Negan is tired of his savage ways, after all; it's obvious just before Rick slits his throat. He tricks Negan by playing off his emotions and affinity for Carl, distracting him with the teenager's dream of peace. As Negan drops his guard right then and there, he tears up, teasing fans that in this rare moment of vulnerability, he really does want a better world for everyone -- which could ultimately see him inspired by Rick and turning to the light in Season 9.