This post contains potential SPOILERS for The Walking Dead
Ever since Rick Grimes resolved to stop licking Negan's boots and start fighting back in The Walking Dead season seven's winter finale, he's been desperately seeking a way to win the inevitable upcoming war. Rick knows his group aren't only massively outnumbered but hopelessly outgunned - even more so since Jeffrey Dean Morgan's villainous gang leader stole all his group's firearms. This has put Rick on something of a recruitment drive since the show's return, but he's had little luck so far with his request refused by both Gregory at the Hilltop and Ezekiel at the Kingdom.
Last night's episode - "New Best Friends" - showed the Alexandria leader having to prove himself in a zombie version of the Rancor pit in an attempt to get the recently introduced Junkyard community on his side, and as a result he seemingly managed to win over a formidable new group. However, the odds still appear to be stacked heavily in the Saviors' favor with Negan's group being bigger, better fed and better armed, and Rick's people have plenty more work to do before they're in a position to overturn their ruthless dictator.
With all this in mind, how will Rick Grimes finally be able to win the forthcoming war against Negan?
The Hilltop and The Kingdom
It seems inevitable that both the Hilltop and the Kingdom communities will come around to the idea of rebelling against Negan before too long. "New Best Friends" showed the growing cracks in the Kingdom's deal with the Saviors in an opening scene during which a handover went awry and the Saviors overstepped their boundaries once more. Not only does Richard remain convinced that fighting back is the only real option available but it seems Ezekiel is slowly beginning to realize the same truth - even if he continues to try his best not to.
On the other hand, the Hilltop's Gregory isn't even remotely close to signing up for Rick's plan; as long as he is allowed to continue living his relatively plushy lifestyle, he'll continue appeasing the Saviors. Last week's episode, however, demonstrated that some members of the community were willing to join the battle, and both Maggie and Sasha have gained a great deal of respect thanks to their heroic actions earlier in the season. Readers of the The Walking Dead comic series will be aware that a shift in leadership occurs at the Hilltop, and it seems likely that the same will happen in the AMC adaptation - therefore leading to the group fighting alongside Rick and Alexandria against the Saviors.
In "New Best Friends," an emotional scene between everyone's favorite non-couple couple, Daryl and Carol, gave several large hints as to the latter's potential role in the events to come. Carol claimed that if the Saviors had hurt any of her people she'd instantly seek revenge, but insisted that there would be "nothing left" of her afterwards if she did. Daryl covered up the deaths of Glenn, Abraham and the rest in order to protect his friend, but it's surely only a matter of time before the truth is revealed. As a downtrodden housewife turned one-woman killing machine, Carol is one of The Walking Dead's most compelling characters, but viewers much prefer the badass, take-no-prisoners version of Carol to the pacifist currently hiding out on the outskirts of the Kingdom.
Carol proved against the cannibals of Terminus exactly how much damage she's capable of causing all by herself and it seems highly probable that Rambo-Carol will return to play her part in the fight against Negan. If that happens, she'll be an invaluable - potentially tide-turning - asset. Of course, Carol's comment that returning to the front lines of battle would destroy her plant some major death flags around the character, and if she does join the fight she's also perhaps one of the figures least likely to make it out alive.
It may not come as a surprise for TV-only fans to learn that in The Walking Dead comic books, one of the key moments in Rick's battle against Negan is the betrayal of one of the Savior's highest ranking members: Dwight. Despite being a right hand man to Negan, Dwight has a large axe to grind against his leader and these troubles have been given plenty of screen time, from Negan currently sleeping with his wife to the face-burning debacle, it's amazing that Dwight has managed to stay loyal as long as he has.
Of course, The Walking Dead's television and comic iterations often differ - the Junkyard community don't feature in the comics at all, for instance - and so Dwight's betrayal isn't guaranteed by any stretch. However, given the current state of play, a man on the inside could be decisive for Rick and given how many of Negan's people must secretly hate their leader, it's surely possible for Alexandria and their allied forces to recruit some help from the inside. Not only is Dwight perhaps holding the biggest grudge against Negan, he's also a solid fighter and keen strategist and could be a crucial factor in handing Rick the victory - if he can be turned.
One community Rick hasn't tried recruiting is the Oceanside community, and that's because Tara is the only Alexandrian who currently knows they exist. This could soon change however, as the deal with the Junkyard community requires the offering of a small arsenal to sweeten the pot, and Rick needs to come up with the goods soon in order to ensure his new friends' loyalty. Whether Tara will finally crack and spill the beans or whether the currently M.I.A. Heath will return and inform Rick of this new group remains to be seen, but in the world of The Walking Dead Oceanside surely won't go unnoticed for long - especially since they have a large stack of guns ripe for the taking.
Rick has two options when it comes to the Oceanside group. He can steal their guns as a gift for the Junkyard community or he can attempt to make yet another alliance. Given Negan's strength in numbers, Rick needs all the people he can muster and the aid of yet another strong group could be the difference between victory and defeat. With so many potential allies in the pot - the comic books just featured Alexandria, Hilltop and the Kingdom in the fight - don't rule out a dramatic, last minute salvo à la Gandalf in The Two Towers, and it's possible that Oceanside might just be the group to make that save.
During "Rock in the Road," a point was made of Rick and co. stealing a significant quantity of dynamite from the Saviors. While this could've simply been a set-up for the amazing dual-car zombie kill scene that followed, it's more likely that these explosives will become significant further down the line. Given that plenty of innocent people reside at the Saviors' Sanctuary, it's doubtful Rick will feel comfortable blowing up the entire building - and with such heavy security it would be a near-impossible feat anyway.
The Saviors have, however, been shown to occupy several outposts in addition to their main headquarters and it would make sense for Rick to kick-off his war against Negan by hitting several of these locations hard with the stolen explosives. By taking out a chunk of Negan's men and supplies in one fell swoop, Rick can use the element of surprise to quickly gain the upper hand.
Face to face
Whatever happens between now and the conclusion of the battle between Rick and Negan, the hostilities seem primed to end in one way - a brutal one-on-one fight between the two leaders. Certainly that's what transpires in the comic books and if the same occurs on the TV series, both men are likely to suffer severe - if not fatal - injuries. A man-to-man punch-fest would be a fitting end to a war that has arguably been as much about ego and personal outlook as it has about survival. Both men want to assert their dominance over the other, and shooting guns from a distance doesn't quite convey that in the same way smacking each other in the face does.
But before Rick can give Negan a much-deserved beating, he needs to find a way to eliminate or get past the hordes of Saviors that the baseball-bat wielding lunatic has at his disposal, and this will surely mean plenty of deaths for the allied communities in Rick's allegiance. Whether this comes in the form of characters fans know and love or just a bunch of red-shirts, it has already been heavily hinted in the show that the primary way Rick will win against Negan is through great sacrifice.
The Walking Dead continues February 26th with 'Hostilities and Calamities' on AMC.