[WARNING - This article contains MAJOR SPOILERS for The Walking Dead #156 and possibly future episodes in the television series.]
The Walking Dead, both comic book and television series, enjoys shaking things up. For anyone who's read the comics, watched the show, or both, that should come as no surprise. Every few issues or hours of television usually promises something shocking, often involving the death of major characters or, at the very least, leading to the situation where those deaths happen.
Death is very much the way of the world in The Walking Dead, and it has fans constantly on guard for who could be next. Being both prepared and still gobsmacked when a character bites it in The Walking Dead is part of why the series has remained so addicting. We know it's going to happen, we're ready for it to happen - but then it does happen and everyone loses their minds. (In fact, being denied that tiny arc of realization when a major character dies is partly why The Walking Dead, the show, refusing to reveal Negan's victim stung so badly.)
But The Walking Dead, the comic, may have just outdid itself when it comes to shocking deaths. Not because it was a beloved character (it wasn't); not because it came out of nowhere (it did though); and not because of who did the killing (they're sort of known for it, anyway). No, what makes this latest in an unbelievably multitudinous string of deaths is what it means for the series going forward. What it means for Rick and his scrappy band of survivors - some whom have survived an incredibly long time and with this latest development, may see their time surviving come to an abrupt end.
In its most recent issue, The Walking Dead #156, Negan has escaped his imprisonment in Alexandria and finds himself among The Whisperers - a group of people who disguise themselves as the dead with rotting skin suits in order to move about freely. The Whisperers have been at odds with the survivors' colonies for a while now, with causalities on both sides, and at any moment the tension threatens to boil over into an all out war. And who better to capitalize on the whole situation than Negan? Rick had - for years at this point - been, perhaps foolishly, confiding in Negan as he remained their prisoner, receiving from him some invaluable wisdom. But it's now clear Rick wasn't the only one listening and learning, since Negan quickly realizes that reaching out to The Whisperers may be his best shot at getting revenge on Rick.
At first, Negan makes a show of trying to fit in with The Whisperers, learn their strange, feral ways, and slowly ingratiates himself to their leader, Alpha (pictured on the cover above). It all goes rather swimmingly, too, proving himself a real asset - that is, until he witnesses something that even he can't stand for. See, Negan has a code. He engages in and authorizes horrible acts of violence, but always (in his mind) for the greater good. For him, bashing in a man's brains with a baseball bat as an example for others not to step out of line fits within this code. But senseless murder, sexual assault, rape - these fall outside of the sorts of savagery Negan permits. And when he witnesses two Whisperers about to rape another of their group, he snaps.
This leads to a heated debate between Negan and Alpha in which they each present their views on how they believe the world now works. Alpha believes it's only the strongest who survive, that people are little more than animals, and that humans shouldn't shy away from their baser instincts; Negan still believes in civilization and its ability to protect the weak - a somewhat shocking bit of empathy from such a loathed villain, but it aligns with his character as it's been presented thus far. Negan isn't insane or bloodthirsty, he's pragmatic. He knows a civilized, orderly society is stronger than a chaotic one, just so long as he's the guy in charge. So after hashing out their philosophic differences, Negan does the only practical, sensible thing he can think of - he kills Alpha, beheading her.
Alpha's death at the hands of Negan is a twist that surely no one saw coming, especially after the flirty banter Robert Kirkman had been writing for the pair. Add to that the positively romantic embrace on the cover, and it seemed only right that two of Rick's worst enemies would unite against him. Instead, The Walking Dead pulls the rug out from under readers and sends its narrative spiraling into a new and unexpected direction. And it's these kinds of developments, these unseen turn of events, that readers can only hope make their way onto The Walking Dead, the TV show. Even if they aren't exactly what occurred in the comics (and it's usually better if they aren't), The Walking Dead as a property is nothing without these surprises.
So what is Negan hoping to gain? Will he become the new Alpha? Possibly, but given how he despises what The Whisperers have let themselves become, that doesn't seem likely. Plus, there's Alpha's second in command, Beta, to contend with, and it seems more than likely he'll be out to kill Negan himself. After freeing Alpha's head of its body, Negan says to himself, "Wait until Rick gets a look at you," implying he plans on delivering her head as gift for Rick. That's incredibly suspicious, and it'd be unheard of for Rick to trust Negan based on that alone. So, what is Negan's plan here? Play both The Whisperers and Rick against each other, hoping they destroy one another? Or hope to somehow get on Rick's good side with the intention of eventually backstabbing him? That option seams brazenly optimistic, but then again, Negan is nothing if not confident in his ability to get others to do what he wants.
"The Whisperer War" begins in The Walking Dead #157, releasing on August 3rd. AMC's The Walking Dead season 7 premieres this October.