Submitted by Corodon Fuller
Let’s get one thing out of the way first: I will waste no time speculating on who Negan “killed” at the end of this season finale. The Walking Dead has teased the question of “Who will Negan kill when he shows up?” and jerked its audience around for more than a full season at this point. Now it turns out, as I might have expected in my most cynical moments, which we won’t find out the answer until next season. Let’s just agree that the writers haven’t decided yet.
Besides, The Walking Dead asked more interesting questions this season, and come closer to answering them. Namely: are we watching the good guys? Does this show even have good guys and bad guys, heroes and villains, anymore? Or are Rick and company ultimately the same as the people they keep fighting?
It’s easy to get impatient with this line of reasoning, especially after a season finale dedicated to making the Saviors as menacing as possible. Is it possible to finish this last episode and not hate Negan? I did, in spite of myself. Wishy-washy postmodernism aside, what would you call a character—if “villain” is off the table—who says “hello” by killing one of your friends in front of you and expecting you to just accept it, who extorts defenseless people for half of their possessions and calls it fair? What do you call that, if not a villain? Well, how about Rick Grimes? Because I’ve just described Alexandria’s dealings with Hilltop just as much as anything Negan and the Saviors have done.
Everyone is the hero of their own story, and Rick has the benefit of The Walking Dead’s camera following him around to make him the hero of the show’s story, too. But when the camera drifts to an outsider’s perspective, Rick always seems to be the villain of their story. This isn’t new. To the hostage the group took in Season 2, Tyreese and Sasha in Season 3, the Alexandrians in Season 5, the Saviors and even the people of Hilltop this season, Rick has been a figure of menace.
In fairness, The Walking Dead isn’t always sure what it wants to say about this. Especially in the aimless stretches of this past season, the show slouches back onto the idea that Rick and his group are “fundamentally good people.” But when the show is on-point—meaning those episodes where the show fires on all cylinders—it’s been asking more and more explicitly if the group are really anti-heroes or just… not heroes.
Think about the stretch of episodes from “Knots Untie” to “The Same Boat” this season (If you’ll recall, these are the three episodes from when Rick and Maggie make their deal with Hilltop to when Maggie and Carol finish off the last of the group of Saviors they attacked.) Those episodes together work hard to establish Rick and Alexandria as a threat. The only Saviors we see are desperate, pathetic. They’re killed in their sleep, shot on sight, trapped, and set on fire by our heroes.
Where does that leave us? We could resign ourselves to the idea that everyone is evil now and no one deserves saving. The Walking Dead has flirted with that kind of nihilism, but it’s never the whole story. Rick and his friends are protectors as well as murderers. They move back and forth between being heroes and villains. But this is true for the show’s bad guys, too. There have to be stories, even if we never hear them, where Negan is the hero, where the Saviors’ name isn’t ironic.
The question The Walking Dead still has to answer is whether it really matters whether the characters are good or evil anymore, or which one they’re trying to be. The show’s ambivalence on that point is part of what’s left it in the same condition as its characters: a hard-to-peg mix of the very good and the very bad.
A lot of people see this season as a turning point for The Walking Dead. We may have to wait until Season 7 is underway to know for sure which way it’s turned.