'Walking Dead': How the Show's Biggest Twist Yet Creates an Uncertain Future

The season one veteran gave his fellow survivors and fans alike a serious shock in the midseason finale. Here's what it means moving forward.
Gene Page/AMC

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from season eight's midseason finale of AMC's The Walking Dead, "How It's Gotta Be," as well as major spoilers from the comics on which the show is based.]

Remember when Carl Grimes' (Chandler Riggs) losing an eye was a big deal? Sunday's season eight midseason finale of The Walking Dead proved that wound was but a scratch.

In what's easily the show's biggest departure from the Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard comic books to date, The Walking Dead has just started the process of killing off one of the single most important figures in its entire story: Carl, the one-eyed teenager turned postapocalyptic cowboy, and one of only five actors from the first season still involved in the series. (For what it's worth, one of the other five — Lennie James, who plays Morgan — is leaving the series this season to star on spinoff Fear the Walking Dead.)

From the very first episode, Carl has been the emotional fuel for Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), beginning the adventure as a young child before becoming an action hero in his own right. His body count is as high as virtually anyone else's on the show, having even euthanized his own mother during the season-three prison days. And now death comes calling for Carl, thanks to a zombie bite he weathered while on the search for Siddiq (Avi Nash) — a bite that was hidden from viewers until the moment Carl revealed his fatal injury to Rick and Michonne (Danai Gurira) in the midseason finale's final scene.

It's hard to overstate just how much of a change Carl's looming demise is from the Walking Dead comics, where he not only remains an active part of the story, but a pivotal one as well. In the aftermath of the source material's depiction of "All-Out War," the story of Walking Dead jumps forward several years in time. Carl is an adolescent who decides to move away from Alexandria and live at the Hilltop, in order to train to become a blacksmith. During this time, he finds love in the form of Lydia, a young girl who happens to be a member of the Whisperers, a group of humans who survive in the world of the dead by wearing skin suits and walking among the undead. Lydia is the daughter of the Whisperers' leader, Alpha, and it's her association with Carl that kick-starts the first major conflict for Rick's group since succeeding in the war against Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and the Saviors.

With Carl dying, how will Walking Dead move into Whisperers territory? There are a few possible paths forward in light of Carl's coming demise, such as transferring his involvement with Lydia over to another character — Enid (Katelyn Nacon), for instance, or even Siddiq as a Carl surrogate. The show can also age up Lydia and have her fall for one of the show's adult characters — say, Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus), whose romantic interests have been a subject of fan speculation for years.

Of course, Carl's importance extends far beyond his relationship with a Whisperer. In the comics, he's Rick's only blood relative; in this version of the story, Baby Judith died at the prison alongside Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies). On the show, Rick will still have Judith in his life, though there's questions about her parentage, with even Rick once stating he believes Judith is Shane's (Jon Bernthal) biological daughter. Some viewers have speculated that the comics are slowly transforming Carl into a Governor figure of sorts, what with his occasionally callous attitude toward life, and certainly the removal of an eye. Other fans think Carl may one day inherit the protagonist role in the Walking Dead comic books, should Kirkman ever decide to take Rick out of the mix. It's not impossible the comics could feature yet another time jump at some point down the line, one in which Carl is a full-fledged adult, leading the Walking Dead narrative forward.

"I always thought Carl was going to be the one who led the show forward," Lincoln told THR this week about why he was so shocked to learn about Riggs' departure, "that Rick would hand over his boots and revolver when he walked off into the sunset in season 28."

Such an occasion will never come to pass on the Walking Dead TV series. Now the only question regarding Carl's future: When and how will his fate fully resolve? Expect the Feb. 25 midseason premiere to feature Carl's dying moments and message for Rick, Michonne and the rest of his fellow survivors. At least we have a couple of months between now and then to properly process the magnitude of this pivotal Walking Dead character's looming death. Our advice: Make peace with it. Send as many vats of chocolate pudding to AMC as you want, but given the circumstances, this is one shocking character death that won't be reversed.

Follow THR.com/WalkingDead for all of our ongoing coverage of season eight.

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