Warning: SPOILERS below for episode 909 of The Walking Dead.
"Adaptation" has more than one meaning in the context of The Walking Dead's mid-season premiere. On the one hand, it refers to the illusion that walkers appear to be adapting. The second meaning, as revealed by Lydia, the first of the Whisperers to be captured, is that she and her people have adapted to a tribal, nomadic mode to move among herds of the dead undetected.
Yet the third meaning is most significant: it's Negan who is adapting. As we speculated, he seems to be moving into more of a "main hero" role, and this is his transition episode. So how do you take a character who was once the most hated back when he brutally murdered fan-favorite characters? You take a page from pro-wrestling, which does this kind of thing all the time. Every major move Negan makes toward goodness this week is taken straight from the "babyface turn" template that companies like WWE have perfected over decades.
Step 1 - Humiliation and Rebound
As the Iron Sheik regularly proclaims on Twitter, the goal of a wrestling rivalry, in storylines, is to break your back and make you humble. Rather than dying in a glorious battle, Negan was spared, put in prison, and forced to regularly use a chamber pot. Now he's wandering the land looking for purpose.
It brings to mind Sgt. Slaughter, who earned the ire of a nation when he took the side of Saddam Hussein during the 1991 Iraq War and declared his loyalty to the dictator of Baghdad. You'd think that's the kind of unpatriotic turn nobody can come back from. Yet after several crushing defeats by Hulk Hogan, Slaughter spent a month in seclusion, then began appearing in vignettes with a new hairdo where he said he deserved to get beaten, he was traveling through America again to remember its greatness, and he wanted his country back.
The fans ultimately re-accepted him, and cheer him to this day.
Step 2 - Regain Chivalry
Evil male wrestlers often demonstrate their wickedness by demeaning people less strong than themselves, and the female talent are frequently on the bad end of such. Think Macho Man Randy Savage and Elizabeth: he attained fame as an aggressive jerk treating her badly, but the moment he began defending her from others, opening the ring ropes for her, and putting her safety above all else, he was cheered, and earned Hulk Hogan's friendship.
Negan's attitude towards women has been lousy; having lost his wife years ago doesn't excuse his constant misogyny. So when he's confronted mid-escape by Judith, boy, do we expect the worst. Old Negan would have outsmarted Judith, taken her gun, maybe even knocked her out (he's bad, but as his attitude to Carl always showed, not a child-killer). Instead, he defers to her, accepts his share of the blame, and is willing to take the punishment due, if that's what it must be.
It's telling that he'd rather run away than fight her.
Step 3 - Tone Down Your Signature Sadistic Move
Every wrestler has a devastating finishing move, and in the case of villainous heels, it's often one that adds insult to injury. When Mick Foley was named Mankind and portrayed as some kind of medieval torture beast, his move was the Mandible Claw, in which he supposedly dug his fingers into various nerve endings under the tongue to cause paralyzing pain. Once he became a goofball nice guy, the Mandible Claw would be enhanced with a comical sock puppet named Mr. Socko, and the move became simply shoving a sock into somebody's mouth.
Negan's signature weapon once was Lucille the barbed wire bat, which is a nasty piece of work. No longer equipped with Lucille, he takes up a shovel this week, which can still be used for decapitating zombies. If you hit a human in the head with it, however, it'll merely knock them out, rather than lodging in the brain and popping an eye out.
Step 4 - Demonstrate Resilience
Stone Cold Steve Austin was the most hated wrestler when he started in WWE. His TV persona routinely got drunk, beat up random civilians, blasphemed, swore, and flipped off the audience. He was the Negan of his own show, basically.
Then Bret Hart put him in a submission hold, and even though Austin was covered in blood, he refused to tap out and Hart refused to break the hold. It was the beginning of both men switching sides: beneath the trash-talk, Austin was incredibly tough and deserved respect.
Forced to fend for himself at a clothing store that portentously proclaims "become the man you were meant to be," Negan manages to evade both wild dogs and a surprise walker, pitting them both against each other. No cheating, no outside help, just tenacity.
Step 5 - Allies Turn
"Turn" has slightly different meanings to zombie aficionados than it does wrestling fans, but the effect is the same when it comes to the character arc of our burgeoning babyface. Basically, he has to take a beatdown from his former colleagues and come out the other side.
But while in WWE it simply means the bad guys beat up one of their own and make him a martyr in the process, Negan's former colleagues have literally "turned" into walkers. All the better to showcase his newfound shovel skills on, though at this point he's simplified even further to a piece of pipe.
Step 6 - The Underdog Friend
Villains in the wrestling world are often softened into heroes when they start to give grudging respect to an opponent they ought to be able to overpower easily...and yet the underdog opponent believes in them too, enough to make a difference. Think the 1-2-3 Kid with Razor Ramon, Matt Hardy with Bray Wyatt, and more recently Braun Strowman and some random kid named Nicholas.
Judith Grimes is that person for Negan: on paper she's no match for him, but she's earned his respect. By the end of the episode he's using profanity in front of her to show that they're friends...right after she fired a bullet at him and knocked him off a bike.
Step 7 - The Bigger Bad
The final step in becoming a good guy is fighting a worse bad guy, and while we don't see that yet this week, we do get new arch-villain Alpha revealed somewhere else, at the same time Negan basically surrenders all his past baggage. Even if we didn't know what was coming from the comics, we could guess: it's gonna take a former foe to take on an even worse villain.