Warning: SPOILERS ahead for The Walking Dead season 7 finale
Season 7 of The Walking Dead reached its tense and shocking conclusion last night in the finale episode 'The First Day of the Rest of Your Life', and things certainly looked bleak for Rick Grimes and his band of Alexandrian survivors. Jadis and the Junkyard Community proved both treacherous and untrustworthy, and their leader's chances of 'laying' with Rick took a sharp nosedive when she revealed her true allegiance to Negan. With the good guys betrayed, outnumbered and in the tightest of spots, it was up to the joint efforts of the Kingdom and Hilltop communities to ride in to make the last-minute save and the ensuing battle was enough to put the Saviors on the back-foot and force a hasty retreat back to the Sanctuary.
The final moments of the episode were very clear about which direction the show will head in next: war is on the horizon. From Negan's dictator-like address, to Dwight's wooden soldier figurine message, The Walking Dead clearly signposted to viewers that the already announced season eight will focus heavily on the epic battle between Rick and Negan's respective forces and could potentially be the most brutal, bloody and violent period in the series so far.
But while the show's direction may seem clear, the question remains as to how Rick will lead this new allegiance in the forthcoming season. War may be very much on the cards, but Rick's mistake in trusting the Junkyard bunch and the fact that both Carl and Michonne came very close to death might just mean that the Alexandria leader will adopt a less gung-ho attitude when The Walking Dead returns in the fall.
All Out War
As fans of the The Walking Dead comic series will be all too aware, the 'All Out War' two-volume arc was one of the high points of the publication's run thus far, and chronicled a huge ongoing campaign between the trio of Alexandria, the Hilltop and the Kingdom against the Saviors. To this end, 'The First Day of the Rest of Your Life' left the narrative perfectly balanced for the AMC adaptation to interpret this material authentically. Earlier in the season, the addition of the TV-original Junkyard group threw a spanner in the works in terms of the show staying faithful to the source material, and it seemed as if Rick's alliance would have a fourth member group. With Jadis' betrayal, however, the situation is currently more or less exactly as comic fans would have expected.
Rick stands tall alongside the Maggie-led Hilltop and Ezekiel's Kingdom, and what remains of the Junkyard group are now essentially just an extension of the Saviors - even if they aren't as loyal to Negan as his own people are. This gives the perfect three-against-one dynamic, and Rick automatically sits at the forefront of this new triple threat. Maggie, naturally, trusts the man implicitly after becoming - in her own words - family, and since Rick was the figure to approach Ezekiel about taking on the Saviors, he is arguably the de facto leader out of three bosses (whether he wants to be or not).
Should The Walking Dead continue to follow its corresponding comic story line, Rick's conversation with Dwight towards the beginning of the episode gives viewers some hint as to where he'll lead his new army when season 8 premieres. Dwight spoke of the Saviors' various outposts that will need to be targeted in order to ensure victory, and although Negan's disgruntled employee didn't show it during this particular battle, his aid will be surely be invaluable in season 8. Assigning teams to hit various Savior outposts will likely be one of Rick's first moves as commander-in-chief and will help deplete both Negan's manpower and his bountiful supplies.
If the show does roughly follow the comic narrative, Rick will, however, need to be prepared that things will undoubtedly get worse before they get better and plenty more of his friends' blood will be shed before victory can be achieved. How Rick galvanizes his troops in the face of such devastating defeats will likely be a significant feature in season 8 and keeping his people loyal and dedicated to the cause is the only way to achieve victory. In this regard, the support of Michonne will surely be key, just as Andrea's was in the comic series.
Another Way To Win
Arguably, a whole season of ongoing warfare is more tricky to execute successfully in a TV show than it is within the pages of a comic book, and therefore perhaps Andrew Lincoln's Rick Grimes will be less willing to lead a full-scale assault than his comic counterpart. Obviously, the ship has well and truly sailed on any amicable agreement with the Saviors, and Virginia is no longer big enough for both Rick and Negan, but nevertheless it's possible fans may see a more considered approach to war from Rick. This will likely involve taking full advantage of his facially disfigured mole, Dwight.
AMC's The Walking Dead has generally been a richer detailed, character-driven piece compared to its source material, and often employs a much slower pace. As such, it makes sense that a more tactical war could be on the horizon. This would also make sense in terms of what transpired with the Junkyard Community. It's unlikely to have escaped Rick that he put his own people in severe jeopardy by trusting Jadis, and this could give the character some doubts as to whether he's fit enough - or indeed has the right to - lead both his people and those from other communities into a war they have a slim chance of winning.
A possible and critical potential deviation from the comic books in season 8 may be the addition of the Oceanside community to the fray. In Robert Kirkman's original works, this group don't appear until after the Negan threat is finished with, and their early introduction in the TV show could be an indication that Rick will lead his survivors directly back to Oceanside next season in an attempt to enlist some capable extra fighters. It was evident in 'Something They Need' that the majority of Oceanside wanted to fight, and only their stubborn leader prevented them from doing so. If Rick can somehow change this situation, he'll gain a valuable new ally.
Additionally, Dwight and Oceanside may not be the only weapons Rick will have in attempting to take down Negan from within. It currently appears as though Eugene has truly thrown his lot in with Negan and become a Savior in a move he believes offers the greatest hope of survival. However, given the character's intelligence and the development he underwent in recent seasons, it's possible the mullet-clad boffin has a master-plan and is attempting to take the Saviors down in his own unique way. After all, Eugene did give Sasha the poison pill she used to escape Negan's clutches (not to mention give him a nasty shock), and he also lied to Negan about it afterwards.
Wherever Eugene's loyalties lie, Rick will surely want to minimize casualties in the upcoming war and this will mean taking advantage of every asset and attempting to out-think his opponent. This direction of leadership could lead to some ruptures within Alexandria. Many survivors could be eager for revenge and desperate for an all-out attack whilst others - most likely Tara - could balk at the idea of relying on Dwight's help for victory.
Whether Rick becomes a bona fide wartime commander, or whether he attempts to take down Negan with a slower and more tactical approach, he will no doubt have dissent within his ranks. How Rick leads the group in spite of these disagreements will likely define the leader he will now be forced to become. After all, Rick Grimes may have led his people successfully against the living dead and some less friendly bands of survivors, but never has he instigated a full-on war against a seemingly unstoppable force. Such pressure and responsibility could see the former cop make decisions he wouldn't normally make for the good of his new alliance.
The Walking Dead season 8 premieres in Fall 2017 on AMC.