The Walking Dead showrunner Angela Kang explained why Negan was a no-show in the season 9 premiere. The ninth season of AMC’s long-running zombie drama is being touted as a new beginning, and that point was driven home by the premiere, which jumped ahead in time to show the survivors finally at peace (for the most part) and working to build a new civilization out of the ruins of the old.
Of course, The Walking Dead will never stray too far from its familiar formula, so there was also plenty of inter-personal conflict punctuated by violence. Among other things, the episode set up the heated tension between Rick and Maggie that is expected to be a dominant thread throughout the first half of the season (after which both characters are expected to exit the show). Meanwhile, the show’s former baddest bad guy Negan continues to rot away in jail after being bested by Rick at the end of season 8.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Negan is sure to be a major factor in season 9 going forward, but for one episode at least, he was kept off-screen while the other characters went about the business of cobbling civilization back together. Speaking to Talking Dead after the premiere episode aired, showrunner Angela Kang explained that even though Negan was kept on the sidelines physically, his presence still loomed over the proceedings (via ComicBook.com):
“The previous story, All Out War, was so Negan-driven, and I think when we enter this new chapter of the show, it’s a year and a half later, and the people are trying to move on. And so it’s like we’re trying to see the people in a world without Negan, except that Negan hangs over all the proceedings. There’s all these scenes where they don’t even say Negan, but it’s about Negan.”
For one episode at least, Negan became less an active bad guy and more of a boogeyman figure haunting the survivors. Of course, that exact outcome could have been avoided had Rick just listened to Maggie and put Negan down at the end of season 8. But Rick decided to heed Carl's dying advice and show mercy to their enemy, leading to Negan's imprisonment. It's very possible that decision, as well-intentioned as it might have been, will come back to bite Rick in the very near future.
As for Negan himself, who knows what thoughts are going through his head as he rots away in prison. It's possible he could be using his time to think really hard about the evil acts he committed and he'll soon be ready to rejoin society as a changed man. But it's more likely he's figuring out how to escape and get revenge. Either way, it will be interesting to see what the show does with the character moving forward. Negan has certainly been a divisive figure on the show, and there are a lot of fans who hated the character so much, they quit watching altogether. Perhaps a kinder, gentler Negan would be more palatable to those Walking Dead fans who bailed because they could no longer stand his brutality and one-liners.
The Walking Dead season 9 continues Sunday October 14 at 9pm on AMC.