Spoilers below for the most recent episodes of The Walking Dead, so be warned.
With two time jumps, a host of new characters, a grown-up Judith and a set of new mysteries, The Walking Dead looks and feels completely different from past season. One of the biggest changes is the pronounced lack of Jeffrey Dean Morgan's formerly monolithic villain Negan. Walking Dead showrunner Angela Kang spoke with CinemaBlend ahead of the midseason finale, and I asked how intentional it was to keep Negan on the back burner in differentiating Season 9 from previous years. In her words:
That explanation may not fully sate the biggest Negan fanatics out there, but it's obviously important to note and appreciate that the TV show kept him alive in the first place. Sure, that's how the story plays out in the comic book, but then Rick and Maggie also remained part of the core narrative in The Walking Dead comics, so those source material comparisons are certainly not guarantees in any sense.
In many ways, it's understandable where Angela Kang & Co. were coming from. For two full seasons, The Walking Dead's protagonists feuded with the epitome of post-apocalyptic tyranny. With Season 8 wholly dedicated to the All Out War arc, neither the writers nor the characters were allowed much time to calmly sit back and take it all in. With Season 9, however, those opportunities have been refreshingly ample, with only the sporadic trip down to Negan's cell giving viewers a look at how the former leader is doing.
He's not doing so well, either. At first, Negan seemed content to try and work some psychological villainy on Rick, Michonne and others, but even he had to realize that he couldn't just disgustingly charm his way out of this one. He eventually broke down hardcore in front of Maggie, soothing the latter's thirst for revenge. But even though he seems a bit more mentally put together 7+ years after first being imprisoned, Negan's inner demons have not been vanquished inside his cell.
Angela Kang explained that limiting Negan's screen time was purposeful, and that it's more of a temporary thing than a longterm one. More Negan is on the way, so don't worry. But before that could happen, Kang explained to me how they wanted to use other characters' points of view to supplement the big bad's current story.
If somebody would have gone back to the night the Season 7 premiere aired, and told me that Negan would one day be a sobbing mess in direct relation to having bashed Glenn's brains in, I would have been suspicious to say the least. Sure, Negan was a human being in the days before the walker outbreak changed everything, but his Here's Negan backstory showed him off to be a major prick even before he turned into a murderous leader.
Truly, it's Negan's monstrous actions and powerful influence that still make him such a formidable threat behind bars with no place to go. Few characters could remain so dangerous under similar circumstances, especially after breaking down and sobbing over being separated from a bloodied baseball bat. (Sure, the bat represents his wife Lucille, but it's still a bat.) Yet, Walking Dead fans and characters are fully aware that it would take but a single mishap for Negan to escape and once again loom large over these communities.
At this point in the comics, just such an interesting incident occurs. Under questionable circumstances, Negan is able to walk free from his cell, but instead of going on a deadly rampage or fleeing the area altogether, he chose to hang back and prove his newly developed trustworthiness to Rick. It's extremely hard to tell how the TV show will adapt this portion of Negan's story, considering Rick isn't around anymore to judge the villain's behavior anymore.
In fact, it's difficult to foresee where any of Negan's later comic arcs are going to get brought to live-action, given all the foundational Walking Dead changes that have gone down on AMC. His biggest personal connections were mainly with Rick and Carl, both of whom are long-gone from the TV series. As well, Maggie and Negan's story took different turns as the narrative played out. Neither Rick nor Maggie are dead, but they likely won't cross paths with Negan again for a long while, if at all.