With Rick Grimes no longer front and center of The Walking Dead, it's time for a new star to emerge and Negan could potentially be the future of the franchise. Rick was written out of AMC's The Walking Dead TV adaptation in the show's most recent season after actor, Andrew Lincoln, decided to step away from the series. Rick's fate will be addressed in a forthcoming The Walking Dead movie, but it has been confirmed that the man who fronted the series for almost 9 seasons won't be returning. The comic series of The Walking Dead has now followed suit, and issue #192 saw Rick killed in controversial fashion by a spoiled teenager with a grudge.
It's currently too early to say how the comic books will deal with Rick's death and how the void created by his absence will be filled, but the AMC version of The Walking Dead has already enjoyed some success when it comes to replacing Rick Grimes. Rather than opting for a like-for-like replacement protagonist, The Walking Dead expanded the roles of long-standing characters such as Michonne, Carol and Daryl, fleshing the show out into more of an ensemble piece. This tactic proved largely successful, as the Rick-less portion of The Walking Dead season 9 was released to an improved critical reaction.
However, there's one element of The Walking Dead's future that still feels primed for something big: former villain, Negan. Played on screen by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Negan was introduced to The Walking Dead a number of years ago as one of the most despicable and depraved villains the franchise had seen, but he was eventually defeated in a war against Rick and forced to live a life behind bars. Crucially, both the TV and comic iterations of The Walking Dead have made a great effort to turn Negan into a more sympathetic figure. On the page, Negan saved Rick during the war against the Whisperers, while live-action Negan managed to save both Judith and Dog from a deadly blizzard. Both versions of the story have also fleshed-out Negan's backstory to paint him as less of an outright sadist and more of a damaged survivalist.
This kind of extreme character development, the kind that turns the man who killed Glenn and laughed about it into someone the audience can root for, surely has to be leading to something big. In the comics, Negan was released after saving Rick, living alone in the wilderness and, perhaps tellingly, it appears that the first chapter after Rick's death will catch up with Negan as a free man. This arc could pose even more opportunities for redemption, before eventually leading to a heroic return to Alexandria as a reformed figure. On TV, the need for a replacement lead protagonist is less urgent, but with Danai Gurira reportedly leaving The Walking Dead next season, the current ensemble-style solution may not last much longer, and a Rick-placement could be required.
Both the comic and Jeffrey Dean Morgan versions of Negan are ideally suited to leading their respective stories, whereas other characters lack certain key aspects. Daryl isn't good with people, Carol isn't particularly dynamic, the Carl of the comic books is too similar to Rick, while Michonne isn't quite as prominent on page as she is on screen.
Negan, on the other hand, is a proven leader, endlessly charismatic, popular with fans and jumps into the action headfirst. However, he's also a major departure from Rick as a lead character, and would offer a new slant on The Walking Dead as a man desperate to prove himself and atone for his past.
The Walking Dead season 10 is expected to premiere this October on AMC.