[This story contains spoilers from the midseason premiere of AMC's The Walking Dead, "Honor."]
"I'll make it real."
Rick Grimes' (Andrew Lincoln) final words to his dying son, Carl (Chandler Riggs), are a promise and a commitment to the future. A future without violence. A future where differences, petty and otherwise, are set aside for a greater good. A future where Weird Al Yankovic is getting renewed play time, where baked goods are back in style, where even Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) has a role to play in this utopia.
But is it a future that's going to come to pass — at least with Rick in the mix?
That's the question The Walking Dead is forcing viewers to ponder based on the final image of season eight's midseason premiere, called "Honor." In the episode's closing moments, Rick is seen sitting against a tree, bleeding badly from his abdomen, the color all but completely drained from his skin. It's Rick in the most physically endangered state we've ever seen him, at least since the fourth season's midpoint. Given Lincoln's own thoughts on the matter, it's worth considering that this will be among the last images we ever see of Rick Grimes.
"There are lots of unanswered questions, and we owe a debt to all of the viewers to answer a few of those," the Walking Dead leading man told The Hollywood Reporter about Rick's grave state. "So, yes, once they're answered, there is an endgame. I've said it before. There's certainly an endgame in my head."
The endgame could come as soon as the end of the eighth season, even though it would be an even bigger departure from the Walking Dead comic books than Carl's death — the biggest departure thus far. There's plenty of reason to believe Rick will survive his looming predicament (for one thing, Lincoln has a deal in place for season nine, though that doesn't necessarily guarantee his character's survival past the finale), but let's take a moment to contemplate the worst.
What would The Walking Dead look like without Rick Grimes? A cursory tour of that future:
Old Days Gone Bye
Rick's death would signal a huge shift away from the original era of Walking Dead. Entering season eight, there were only five main characters still alive from the first season. (No, we're not counting Morales, but if we were? He's dead now, too.) We have already lost one: Carl. We're about to lose another: Morgan (Lennie James), shipping out to Fear the Walking Dead in time for season four. If Rick joins Carl and Morgan on the way out the door, we're down to two season one veterans, and that's it. We're already a long way from the Frank Darabont days, but the changing of the guard would be absolutely undeniable after Rick's departure.
Daryl Dixon's Destiny, Fulfilled
Even if he's not the show's central protagonist, Norman Reedus has been synonymous with The Walking Dead since the very beginning. His likeness has been used in countless ancillary projects, he's stood front and center in marketing campaigns, and he's acted as Rick's right-hand man for many seasons now. If Rick goes, there's no one better positioned for a central role than Daryl. Are we in for Daryl Dixon overload moving forward? Maybe, but one of the things that's interesting about the idea of Daryl taking an even more central role in the story is that he's one of the few main characters with absolutely zero roots in the comic books. Giving him the lead, without a road map from the source material in place, is an exciting prospect as Walking Dead looks to reinvent itself almost a decade on.
No More Negan?
If Rick dies, is there a future for Negan? The Saviors' commander was seen in Carl's hopeful vision for the future, which certainly doesn't guarantee his continued survival. With that said, Negan's very much still alive through the current issue of The Walking Dead comic books, with a big role to play after the dust settles on the current conflict. However, the role is deeply intertwined with Rick Grimes. If Rick is gone, and if Carl is gone as well (Negan's other great scene partner), is there still a need for Negan — or could we see both leaders of the currently feuding armies die by the end of "All Out War"?
Alpha and Omega
How would Rick's death impact the next big conflict from the comic books, the Whisperer War? In the comics, Rick and the Alexandrians exist in peace for a number of years, until encountering a group of survivors who wear skin suits and walk among walkers as camouflage. Rick plays a central role in the feud between these two communities, and suffers a tremendous loss in the process. If Rick's gone, who occupies his role — and who would we lose in turn?
On Second Thought…
Knowing that Andrew Lincoln has a deal in place for a ninth season, and knowing that there's a key death tied to the Grimes family in the Whisperer War … what if we're worrying about Rick just a touch prematurely? Emphasis on "just a touch," as Rick would actually make a fantastic replacement for the death that occurs in the next big movement from the comics.
With that in mind, comic book spoilers are ahead.
At the height of the Whisperer War, Andrea (dead on the show, but Rick's love interest in the comic books instead of Michonne) suffers a zombie bite in the effort to save her people. She dies shortly after as a result. This is an ideal spot for Rick Grimes to die in the TV adaptation, as it gives him the chance to see Carl's vision of the future become a reality, and allows him to die in defense of the dream. Plus, it's a death that could come as soon as next season, meaning the "endgame" thar Lincoln has been building toward could still be within arm's reach — albeit far enough in the future that we wouldn't have to worry about losing two members of the Grimes family in one season. Seriously, how much heartache can the Walking Dead fandom handle?
What does The Walking Dead look like without Rick Grimes in your mind? Sound off in the comments section below, and keep checking THR.com/WalkingDead for more coverage.