[This story contains spoilers for "Honor," the midseason eight premiere of AMC's The Walking Dead.]
Could AMC's The Walking Dead be taking out not one but two members of the Grimes family?
The closing moments of Sunday's midseason premiere left the fate of series lead Rick Grimes (star Andrew Lincoln) up for interpretation as the iconic character was last seen in a scene, likely from the near future, leaning up against a tree, looking very pale and bleeding from the abdomen.
Season eight has toyed with the show's central timeline, revealing during Sunday's episode that the idyllic vision of Alexandria's future — complete with Carl (Chandler Riggs) and a considerably older and bearded (and cane-using) Rick — was not a time jump forward as in Robert Kirkman's source material. Instead, that was the future that a dying Carl had for his father as he urged Rick to stop the violence and prepare for what comes "after."
What Carl's vision of the future didn't explain, however, was that tree scene which leading man Lincoln tells The Hollywood Reporter is not a vision for the future but a glimpse at Rick's upcoming reality. The key to that is Rick's final words in Sunday's episode: "My mercy prevails under my wrath," which is the same quote that Siddiq (Avi Nash) says when he first encounters Carl in the season eight premiere. (It's also worth noting that Carl gave his life to help save Siddiq, who it turns out, is a doctor.)
So is The Walking Dead setting the stage to kill off Rick Grimes, the former sheriff who has been the face of the franchise — and whose comic-book counterpart continues to thrive, even 100 issues after where the show is? Below, The Hollywood Reporter talks with Lincoln about that terrifying ending and if his time with the AMC drama is coming to an end anytime soon.
Let's start with that ending, with Rick sitting against a tree. What can you say about the last scene of what appears to be a dying Rick in the not-too-distant future?
I can't really say anything about that, apart from it doesn't look good, does it?
It doesn't! Is that scene real or a vision, given how much the show has been toying with the timeline and visions of a future that aren't real?
Now that you've seen the episode, you realize that so much of what was seen in the season eight premiere was a premonition — or a vision — of Carl's hopes or ideas for the future. If you subtract that from the first episode [of season eight], you're left with the scene under the tree. Rick says something under the tree — a reference to a real scene that has already played out in the reality of the world.
In that scene, Rick says: "My mercy prevails under my wrath."
That harkens back to an earlier scene [when Carl met Siddiq in the season eight premiere, watch that below]. That gives an indication that that, in this scene, is not a premonition. The fact that I'm equating something, I think, probably gives you an impression that it exists in the real world of the show.
So you're saying in that scene, we're seeing Rick, seemingly bitten by a zombie, dying.
I'm not saying that. I'm saying that that's what it looks like. I'm not saying that that's actually happening. I am saying that if you do the arithmetic, that scene plays out not in Carl's imagination because Rick has already said something that exists in the real story, which is, "my mercy prevails under my wrath." So, it is a real thing.
We hear you have closed a deal for season nine. How much can you say about your future with the show?
[Laughing] I'm not at liberty to say! I don't want to be disingenuous. But, for the sake of these back eight [episodes] … I wouldn't want to give too much away because the back eight is interesting and an emotional trajectory for Rick, Michonne and the family [of survivors]. There's a lot of twists and turns that we still have to navigate. I don't want to give too much away. Forgive me for not being as candid as I really should but I think it would spoil the experience of getting on the roller coaster.
When we talked in December after the midseason finale, you said you saw an end in sight for your time with the show. Is there a scenario where the show continues without you as part of it? Could that happen any time soon?
I think there's always a version of events … If you look at the blueprint of what the show is, it's an endless story about how people survive, change and adapt to their surroundings. If ever there was a show that was able to survive, adapt and change to the death of a central character, I think we've done that and we've got more action going through it now [with Carl's death]. You just witnessed the biggest bereavement to date, certainly in Rick's world. The result of this all happening is, hopefully, a compelling and exciting drama — with the key word being surprising. It's a very difficult question. I love doing the show; I love the character; I love playing Rick. It's been one of the most satisfying, thrilling and rewarding parts of my career. But I have always said that I want to finish in the way that we began: big scale, pared down vision of the world. There are lots of unanswered questions and we owe a debt to all of the viewers to answer a few of those. So yes, once they're answered, there is an endgame. I've said it before. There's certainly an endgame in my head. Whether or not that's the same endgame that's in the producers' heads or the people I work with, is another matter. That's open for discussion.
Robert Kirkman has said Rick in the comics will die before the end of the books. Knowing that will eventually happen, have you started preparing for Rick's now seemingly imminent death? What was your response to reading that tree scene in the script?
I was very worried! Especially when we did the makeup test and I said, "He looks like he's lost quite a bit of blood. Do we want him to be this white?! Can we make him look like he's got a pint of blood in his body?!" (Laughs.) This is the world that I've been involved in for almost a decade. When Glenn (Steven Yeun) died, it felt like a call for everybody. We have a commitment to honoring the source material and other shows possibly wouldn't dare to mess up the formula [by writing out a lead like Glenn].
And then there's Carl's death, which is the biggest detour from the comics that you can get.
This is the big one, Carl's death. It almost felt like a button had been pressed with Glenn and Abraham's [Michael Cudlitz] deaths and now it's the big one with the kid. To me, I have never envisioned Chandler going. It's a very big year.
How much should viewers worry about Rick dying in back half of season eight?
I don't want to fan the fire. I don't want to say anything … it's so hard! (Laughs.) I just want people to lock in and hopefully we take them on this extraordinary emotional roller coaster like we've done in the past. I think if they come with us, they're going to be rewarded in many different ways. It's very edgy and felt quite dangerous, this back eight episodes, for all the reasons we're talking about. Put a safety belt on. It's doing justice to all the effort that we're putting in. So, I'm not going to say! (Laughs.)
Storyline-wise, Rick pledges to make Carl's vision of the future real: to effectively not kill everyone and start building toward something that comes after, despite Rick saying earlier that he didn't know how to be who he was before. How will Rick struggle to heed Carl's dying wish?
It's at the core of the back eight episodes. That's the big conflict. Does he honor his dying son's wishes? Or does he subvert them? Or does he go his own way?
Rick seems to be imagining a possible future where Negan is integrated into Alexandria — even seeing Judith running toward him —
I'm not necessarily sure that's Rick's vision; It could be the boy's [Carl].
Still, could Rick ever forgive Negan to the point that he allows him into Alexandria?
There's a long way to go for Rick to stomach that. You saw in this episode that Rick is not in that place at all at the moment; he's traumatized. He's in the worst possible place and he will be there and will at least try to navigate this hell in the middle of a war, which is going to be difficult at the best of times. Rick has lost his wife [Lori, played by Sarah Wayne Callies] and his son and so much about this back eight is about him trying to live as well as win a battle. I had to stay honest in this back eight; there weren’t many easy days coming to work in these remaining episodes. It's a testament, after eight years, to put me in the corner. I had to earn my keep!
How would you describe the remaining seven episodes of the season?
Let mercy prevail.
Lauren Cohan has signed on for the lead in an ABC pilot and does not yet have a deal to return for season nine. What can you say about a Walking Dead universe potentially without Maggie in it?
My goodness. That makes me terribly sad but at same time I'm absolutely thrilled because she's a friend and a good actress. But I don't know what that looks like.
Follow THR.com/WalkingDead for full coverage of season eight and the fallout from Carl's death.