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Warning: spoilers ahead for The Walking Dead Season 7 finale.
Season 7 of The Walking Dead has finally come to an end, and the finale more than delivered on all the hints of an epic zombie apocalypse showdown between settlements. The climax kicked off after Jadis and her junkyard pals turned on Rick and Co., leaving Rick on his knees in front of Negan again. This time, however, Rick was not reduced to a quivering wreck. This time, Rick practically laughed in Negan's face when Negan announced his intention to kill Carl and take Rick's hands. According to episode director Greg Nicotero, a certain moment in this scene is what set up Season 8. Nicotero had this to say:
The best part, of course, is that Negan actually looks scared for a second when Rick leans in and whispers into his ear, 'You're dead already.' The look on Jeffrey's face -- to me that's what launches season 8. Because in the first episode, Negan was like, 'Nope, haven't broken him yet. He's still got that defiant look.' And the fact that now he can't do anything to break Rick, I love that moment. Andy and I talked so much about that before we shot that particular sequence and seeing the façade drop away and seeing Negan with that look on his face for a split second that says, 'Uh-oh, I may have met my match with this guy.' And then it turns it back on.
Rick spent most of Season 7 on the defensive, and for good reason. The premiere kicked off with two of his people being brutally beaten to death in front of him, and he was forced to agree to an awful deal with Negan to spare the rest of his friends. Most of Rick's defiance to Negan's rule has been behind-the-scenes, and the finale was really the first time that Negan met Rick 2.0, who's willing to cross just about any line and give up just about anything if it means taking him out. Greg Nicotero's reveal to EW that this particular conflict will launch Season 8 points to a much more openly proactive Rick moving forward.
Given that Rick now has the public support of Hilltop, the Kingdom, and a damn tiger, the Alexandrians are a much more formidable threat than they were when they were just a settlement scared witless by the Saviors. On the one hand, Rick and Co. may now stand a better chance of defeating the Saviors, especially since Dwight's defection still seems to be undetected. On the other hand, Negan really doesn't have a reason to continue sparing any of their lives anymore. The main players are more trouble than they're worth now that they're joining together and rebelling against him; Negan's decision to march to war against them may get very messy for everybody involved.
Of course, Negan isn't exactly infallible. If he was the best leader he could possibly be, he probably would have just beaten the brain matter out of Rick as soon as Rick said that he was going to kill him, no matter what and no matter how long it took, and his love for speechifying may have cost the Saviors the victory in the finale. The good guys scored their first really major win against Negan, and the win may have helped all of his allies realize that he really is just a man with a baseball bat.
Obviously, Negan still has far more resources than Rick, and Eugene could still be an ace in the hole, but I'd say that the sides are at least a little bit more balanced going into Season 8 than they were going into Season 7. I'm certainly happier this time around since there's no huge cliffhanger to have to deal with for the next six months. We still have plenty of questions that need to be answered without another ginormous cliffhanger.
Stay tuned to CinemaBlend for the latest in Walking Dead news, and be sure to check out our midseason TV premiere guide and our summer TV premiere schedule for a look at all your small screen options before The Walking Dead returns for Season 8 in October. Don't forget to take a peek at our rundown of 2017 TV renewals and cancellations as well.