The Walking Dead season 8 finale: is there a future for Negan?

Warning: this article contains spoilers for season 8 of The Walking Dead

The season finale for AMC’s hit horror drama The Walking Dead aired in the US last night, with an unexpected last-minute twist. It ended with a showdown between Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) and his greatest adversary yet – not the ever-growing horde of zombies marauding across the show’s landscape, but baseball bat-wielding psychopath and fan favourite Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan).

We saw, in a flashback, how Rick’s late son Carl had written a letter pleading for his father and Negan to settle their differences.

And after a climactic battle in which many of Negan’s followers, the Saviours, were wiped out by their own defective bullets, Rick seemed willing to do just that.

Mentioning his son in an attempt to win Negan’s sympathy, Rick said: “Give me 10 seconds for Carl.” For those few seconds, he described an optimistic future in which he and Negan could work side-by-side – and appeared to win over his enemy, as Negan’s eyes began to well up with tears.

But then his rage got the better of him, as Rick slashed open Negan’s throat with a shard of broken glass. Covered with blood, Negan offered what seemed to be a final rebuke. “Look what you did – Carl didn’t know a damn thing.”

Speaking to Entertainment Weekly, Lincoln said this comment was a decisive moment for his character, forcing him to reconsider his actions – and ultimately to spare Negan’s life.

“It’s just vengeance up until that point and in the moment that he says, ‘The kid didn’t know a damn thing,’ he realises where he’s about to go and what he’s about to become,” Lincoln told the magazine.

“And I think in that moment, in that fleeting moment, that’s when he decides, if I continue with this, if I don’t try to save this man’s life, it’s over. So I think it is ultimately a story about restraint rather than revenge and love rather than hate, which has always been integral to our show.”

Rather than lower himself to Negan’s level by killing him needlessly, Rick decides to keep him as a prisoner, so that Negan can serve as a living example of the brutal path he could have chosen. “You alive is gonna help show people that things have changed,” he tells his followers.

Robert Kirkman, writer of the comics on which the show is based, said the decision to spare Negan represents a new direction for the show. “This is a huge turning point in a long series of turning points for Rick Grimes. But this is him finally realizing that he has to choose a different way.

“Every major conflict in the history of The Walking Dead has ended with a huge death or someone dying and this is him choosing life,” Kirkman continued. “This is him turning over a new leaf and deciding there’s a different way forward.… It shows that from this point on the stories are going to be very different.”

The Walking Dead’s season eight finale, Wrath, will air on Fox UK tonight at 9pm. The show has been renewed for a ninth season, which is expected to air later this year.