How 'The Walking Dead' Just Echoed Its Biggest Deaths Ever

Walking Dead -Season 9, Episode 9 -  Jeffrey Dean Morgan 2- Publicity- H  2019
Jackson Lee Davis/AMC

[This story contains spoilers for season nine, episode nine of AMC's The Walking Dead, "Adaptation."]

In true blink-and-you'll-miss-it fashion, The Walking Dead midseason nine premiere paid tribute to the late Glenn Rhee (Steven Yeun) and Abraham Ford (Michael Cudlitz) in subtle but powerful fashion, all through the unlikely avatar of the man who smashed their heads in with a baseball bat: Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan).

Sunday's episode, "Adaptation," primarily focuses on escalating tensions between the main cast of survivors and their new nemeses, the Whisperers, led by Alpha (Samantha Morton). Simultaneously, another story plays out, focusing on an old foe slowly turning into a begrudging friend: Negan, who was last seen in the midseason finale stepping out of his prison cell in an Alexandria basement, the place he's called home for nearly a decade.

Throughout "Adaptation," Negan walks through the zombie apocalypse for the very first time since he was taken down by Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) at the end of season eight's "All-Out War." It doesn't take long for Negan to discover he no longer has the same stomach of steel — quite literally, in fact, as he drinks water from a river, prompting him to violently vomit in the middle of a clearing.

And not just any clearing, as it turns out. It's the Clearing, with a capital "C," the same place where Negan killed Glenn and Abraham.

"The Clearing," as it's come to be known within both the Walking Dead crew as well as fan circles, is a location on the Riverwood Studios set where Walking Dead films in Senoia, Georgia. It's been used for a number of filming purposes, such as housing Father Gabriel's church in season five. Most famously, it's where the Walking Dead cast and crew members bid a painful farewell to Yeun and Cudlitz as Glenn and Abraham respectively, their brains bashed into oblivion, launching the zombie drama forward into a period of divisive darkness.

Greg Nicotero, the longtime Walking Dead executive producer and a legendary fixture in the horror effects community, directed Sunday's "Adaptation," as he's helmed so many episodes of the series by now. In conversation with The Hollywood Reporter, Nicotero acknowledged the sacred qualities surrounding the filming location where Yeun and Cudlitz lost their on-screen lives.

"We've shot a bunch of stuff there," he says, "but obviously once we shot the scene with Steven and Michael, it became The Clearing, in capital letters."

Given what happened the last time The Walking Dead filmed in The Clearing, it became a perfect place for Negan to reflect on his journey thus far, dropping to his knees, sick and demoralized, not unlike the people he terrorized so many years earlier.

"We were scouting locations, and I thought we should go to the same clearing, because even if Negan just throws up the water and looks around, a viewer may recognize it," says Nicotero. "They may see Negan's reaction: 'OK, I just got out of prison. I've been locked up for six years, and I just happen to find myself right back in the same exact place where it all started.' It's where he met Rick, the man who took him down."

It takes a few additional moments before Negan finally realizes his old post-apocalyptic style no longer suits him, prompting him to return to Alexandria and an unknown future, alongside his only friend in the world: Judith Grimes (Cailey Fleming). Now, with the knowledge of the Glenn tribute in mind, it may only take one additional viewing for fans to fully appreciate the subtle but important step Negan just took on his own road toward redemption.

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