Spoiler warning for anyone who hasn't yet watched The Walking Dead's latest episode, "Monsters."
For some fans of The Walking Dead, a little bit of Jeffrey Dean Morgan's nefarious Negan goes a long way, and the villain's screentime has been severely limited in these first episodes of Season 8. After showing up in the season premiere to get shot at for a while before finding himself a temporary roommate of Father Gabriel, Negan has been a no show in the All Out War's earliest days. And for the most part, keeping Negan on the wayside has brought all the focus back to Team Family, which is helping in several different ways.
Negan's absence lets the show develop more small-scale conflicts. Without Negan's physical presence around to remind viewers and characters that he is the main source of everyone's ire, it's easier for The Walking Dead to get back to the emotional and moral strains that are always threatening to tear the good guys apart. Within the show's timeline, Alexandrians are familiar with Hilltop and Kingdom residents the way that someone is familiar with a new librarian, so it's not like everyone has instantly become best pals who agree on all forms of post-apocalyptic idealism. Strife is inherent to just about any civilized group, and I like that Negan being gone allows for in-house problems to develop.
At this point, Jesus has stepped up to become the most blindly empathetic of the main characters, wanting to save and rehabilitate as many P.O.W. Saviors as possible, while Tara and Morgan are clearly more interested in eliminating any and all threats as they present themselves. (Morgan used to follow Jesus' basic mindset, but that all changed after Richard's foolishness last season, but who knows where he's headed?) Daryl and Rick could very well come to blows at some point over the former's growing bodycount. Negan's influence still looms large over these problems, since it's his reign of terror that has birthed some characters' lust for Savior-killing revenge, so it's not like people forgot about him.
Negan's absence allows the show to put other leaders into the limelight. Because the All Out War is generally thought of as a "Rick vs. Negan" scenario, it's easy to justify giving both of those characters a lot of screentime. But with the leather-clad baddie out of the picture, a lot of the characters characters introduced last season can continue to get developed, such as all the Hilltop and Kingdom citizens.
Perhaps the most interesting development will come from Maggie's leadership within The Hilltop, especially now that Gregory is back in the picture. (Hopefully not for too long, though.) I of course want to watch Maggie destroy Gregory in a traditional sense, but I also want to see how things play out between Maggie and Jesus as far as their chosen Savior-treatment goes. Maggie has all the motives in the world to want all these people dead, but she does share some of Jesus' views on keeping humanity intact through it all. And that grey area is all the more pronounced without Negan around to inspire rage-killings.
Negan's absence allows the All Out War to maintain more credibility. Given its zombified genre setting, The Walking Dead's storylines come equipped with an immediacy that works for and against it in equal measures. So for an entire war-based storyline to work, the show can't just have Rick and Negan in the same room as one another for a few scenes in every episode, since there are only so many creative reasons to keep either man from point-blank killing the other. Keeping Negan hiding out with Father Gabriel sidetracks their story in a way that doesn't necessitate constant revisits.
In the meantime, all the protagonists' respective crews are whittling away at their Savior enemies in different ways. Which, combined with all the short-timer characters' deaths, is giving the creative team a chance to clean house with its expanded character set to eventually reshape the core cast for the post-War life. And one assumes that Negan's resurgence will bring about another action-packed tête-à-tête with Rick that provides further population-whittling brawls. (And bloody ones, too.) Then, he'll hopefully take another dip back into the distance, to become a little more like a movie monster than a comic book monster.
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As a fan of Negan's on the page and on the screen, I would be more than happy to catch Jeffrey Dean Morgan's smiling menace on a weekly basis, especially if he's just shooting the shit with Simon and Eugene. But keeping him out of the picture doesn't appear to be hurting the momentum. The Walking Dead airs Sunday nights on AMC at 9:00 p.m. ET, and we'll hopefully get an update soon on where that menace will be seen next.
Head to our fall TV premiere schedule to see all the other new and returning shows coming in the future.