The longer answer requires some more context. Back in October, the eighth season kicked off with a flash forward to a moment that is very recognizable to readers of The Walking Dead comic books. In the comics, there’s a huge time jump after the events of the All Out War that sees a hobbled Rick walking with a cane. It sees a time two to four years following the All Out War after a peace has settled upon Alexandria, which has been rebuilt. It’s a well-known scene, so when comic readers saw it on the series, we thought we knew exactly what was happening. The series was prepping us for a time jump. Scott Gimple even alerted us to the fact that answers about that time jump would be given around episode eight or nine.
In this week’s midseason finale, we finally got answers. We learned, foremost, that the time jump may not actually arrive on the series at all because we now know that the scene that signaled the time jump in the comics was only a dream on the television series, a vision of the future that Carl had before he died. Gimple trolled comic viewers. He baited us with a scene from the comics and transformed it into a hallucination. It also means that any fan theory the Internet conjured up about the future of the series based on those flash-forwards is now moot. The owl statue that Judith saw in the flash-forward, which was supposed to signal the arrival of the Whisperers? Poof. A hallucination.
But there was a rhyme and reason to the excellent troll job. It’s the same reason that Scott Gimple had for killing off Carl in the first place: To keep Negan alive.
(COMICS SPOILERS AHEAD)
In the comics, Negan survives after the All Out War, but the comics don’t offer a particularly satisfying explanation for why Rick decides not to kill his mortal enemy, the man who killed Glenn. If there’s anyone that Rick should not think twice about killing, it’s Negan. The problem is, Negan is such a popular character in the comics that Kirkman didn’t want to kill him off. Scott Gimple doesn’t want to kill him off in the series, either.
So, he killed Carl, instead.
But not without a reason. He killed Carl so that Carl could impart his vision of the future upon his father. Carl’s vision of the future sees a peaceful Alexandria where Eugene has reunited with the Alexandrians, and Negan is not only a friend to the community, but someone that Judith clearly adores, and who adores Judith right back. Before he died. Carl insisted that his father strike a peace between Alexandria and the Saviors. He insisted that Rick show mercy to Negan. This was the entire point of killing off Carl.
In other words, that moment at the end of the midseason premiere that sees Rick reminding himself of his son’s wishes — “May my mercy prevail over my wrath” — is probably a moment in the season finale in which Rick is trying to talk himself out of killing Negan. With Lauren Cohan’s Maggie likely leaving the series, it’s all the more important now that The Walking Dead keep Negan around for season nine and beyond.