8:00pm PT by Josh Wigler
'The Walking Dead': Why Father Gabriel May Not be in Danger (Yet)
[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the season eight premiere, "Mercy," of AMC's The Walking Dead, as well as major reveals from the comics on which the show is based.]
As a menacing psychopath with a big bad baseball bat once said: "I hope you're wearing your shitting pants."
Really, those words were uttered quite recently, as Walking Dead nemesis Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) found himself caught in an unfamiliar situation: trapped, surrounded and outnumbered by a horde of walkers, all conventional wisdom pointing toward a swift and decisive death.
What's more, Negan's not alone. The eighth season premiere of the AMC zombie series, directed by executive producer Greg Nicotero and titled "Mercy," ends with Negan trapped inside a trailer on the Saviors compound, alongside an unlikely fellow survivor: Father Gabriel (Seth Gilliam), whose recent "frock yeah" attitude is a far cry from the sniveling cowardice he displayed during his first season on the show almost three full years ago.
Negan and Gabriel's current predicament should leave viewers concerned about the futures of both men, sure, though only one of these two characters feels like he's in true imminent danger. In the comic books from Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard, Negan survives the events of "All-Out War," becoming a prisoner while the Alexandrians and their allies positively flourish. (Glimpses of that triumphant future were seen throughout the season premiere, though it remains unclear if those flashes were time jumps, dream sequences, or some other as-yet revealed device.) For his part, Father Gabriel survives the war as well — but only for a time.
Gabriel finally reaches the end of his rope during an arc called "The Whisperer War," a conflict that sees Rick's expansive community at war with a group of survivors known as "The Whisperers," feral figures who wander the apocalypse wearing — and this is a huge spoiler from the comics — human flesh suits in order to blend in with the walkers. In the midst of the war, while standing lookout, Gabriel gets tangled up in a rope, dangling as walkers slowly approach, terrified for his life. Instead, he meets his end at the hands of one of the Whisperers, who violently (and casually) guts Gabriel on his way toward the thick of the war.
If The Walking Dead stays true to the comic book script, then Negan has nothing to worry about right now, and Father Gabriel won't have to face his own demise until much further down the line. But as viewers know all too well via the deaths of Shane Walsh (Jon Bernthal), Dale Horvath (Jeffrey DeMunn), Lori Grimes (Sarah Wayne Callies) and Andrea (Laurie Holden), just to name a few, The Walking Dead tends to mix things up in the translation process between comic book and television show. Characters die earlier or later than their source material counterpart, sometimes with slight alterations to their fates, and other times with massive changes in their manner of departure. Just because someone has an incredibly iconic death in the comics, like Glenn Rhee (Steven Yeun) absorbing all of the heartache from the Negan debut in the 100th issue of The Walking Dead but sharing the load with Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) on the show, it doesn't mean it will play out beat-for-beat on television.
Given their current predicament, then, it's hard to see the scenario in which both Negan and Gabriel get out of the Sanctuary alive, while walkers swarm the place. For Negan, survival is essential for the story to move to the next necessary place. For Gabriel, his role in the future of Walking Dead could be occupied by other characters — which means he's the man to worry about right now.
But all hope isn't lost for anyone steeling themselves to lose Father Gabriel in the immediate future. The character serves a useful function on the show right now, especially in relation to Negan: he's an ear to bend. As a priest, Gabriel's function is to hear out and talk through the sins of anyone willing to confess. Imagine the scenario where Negan, trapped in an unwinnable situation, finally decides to come clean and unburden some of his darkest secrets onto a man like Gabriel. It could be an easy way to dive into a full-blown Negan flashback episode, based on "Here's Negan," a short story from Robert Kirkman that pulls the curtain back on the smiling psychopath.
"You never know," Kirkman told THR in 2016 about whether that arc would ever make it onto the show. "I love Jeffrey Dean Morgan with a burning fury of a thousand suns and I would love to see him tell that story and see the character go through those paces. It's a great way to get more context into who this guy is. It'd be neat but there are no plans as of yet."
Perhaps those plans have changed, especially given what showrunner Scott M. Gimple teased about what's next for the Negan and Gabriel pairing: "It certainly looks like he's doomed. It's the beginning of a story. Both characters have things to do and a path to tread and things to befall them. We will play out that story."
That story could last for five more seasons, five more episodes or five more minutes — who can say? The pieces are on the table for Gabriel to move forward as an unlikely new confidant for Negan, but the stage is also set for Gabriel to take an imminent final bow.
Do you think the clock is running out for Father Gabriel? Let us know in the comments section below. Follow THR.com/WalkingDead all season long for more theories, interviews and news.