'Walking Dead': What the Comics' Ending Means for the AMC Series

Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard's Skybound series wrapped in a way the AMC drama simply cannot adapt outright.
Courtesy of Gene Page/AMC

[This story contains spoilers for the final issue of Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard's The Walking Dead comic book series.] 

Some important differences notwithstanding, HBO's Game of Thrones and George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire source material were closely aligned throughout the adaptation process. The same can be said for AMC's The Walking Dead and the comic book series of the same name from Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard, although "a mountain of important differences" is more accurate: Chandler Riggs' season eight exit was a huge swing away from Carl Grimes' fate in the comics, for one thing, while Andrew Lincoln's departure as Rick Grimes in season nine was yet another massive shift from the original version of the tale.

Martin's Ice and Fire saga remains unfinished, so it's not yet possible to say how closely Game of Thrones' ending aligns with what the author has in mind. Now, thanks to a shocking unannounced series finale, The Walking Dead fandom finds itself in an opposite position: the comics have come to an end, concluded with no warning by Kirkman and Adlard in the pages of The Walking Dead #193 — and no matter what the TV series has up its sleeve for whenever it decides to pull the trigger on a conclusion, we can already say with certainty that it will be fundamentally different from Kirkman and Adlard's finale.

The Walking Dead #193, released Wednesday, takes place several years after the events of the previous issue, in which Rick Grimes was assassinated. Indeed, it features the biggest time jump in the series' history, leaping forward decades into the future. Carl Grimes (very much not killed in the comics' version of "All-Out War," unlike his live-action counterpart) is a grown man with a wife (Sophia, very much not killed in the comics' version of the Greene family farm storyline) and a daughter, fittingly named Andrea. They live on a farm far away from a highly functional version of the Alexandria Safe-Zone, where walkers have not been an active threat for years. It's all the more reason why Carl is furious when a walker roams onto his land, having escaped a traveling road show led by Hershel Rhee, the now adult son of Maggie and the late Glenn. Carl finds himself on trial for killing the walker, which was technically Hershel's property; he's spared from punishment thanks to Maggie, now president of the safe-zone, who is accused by Carl and others of babying Hershel to a dangerous degree.

Like his father before him, Carl acts on his vision of justice and decides to destroy the rest of Hershel's walkers. He heads out on a long scavenging mission, and when he returns, he's once again on trial — except this time, he stands before the highest court in the community, presided over by a famous face: Michonne, now known as Judge Hawthorne, the first time her last name has been revealed in the series. Carl makes a passionate pitch about the need to not minimize the walker threat, even if the new, young generation of survivors hasn't had to endure such terrors. Michonne sides with Carl and clears him of any wrongdoing, allowing him to return to his family without any further consequences.

The finale's last scenes feature Carl reading a book to his daughter, recounting the story of Rick Grimes and all the trials he endured on his way toward restoring civilization. Both in the book — penned by his wife — and in the community at large, Rick is looked upon as a hero; Carl wrestles with his father's legendary status but is ultimately proud of him. The issue ends when Carl's daughter teases him for always bringing up the importance of her grandfather, but all the same, she wants to hear the story one more time. The final image of the series is Carl with his child, happy and safe in a rocking chair; cue the avalanche of inevitable Rocking Dead merch.

"Oddly, as unsure as I feel about ending the story, I feel confident in how I ended it," Kirkman writes at the end of the issue, in a lengthy final acknowledgement to readers. "I’ve been building to this for years, and it does feel good to end on such a happy note. To know that everything these characters lived through meant something. To see that Michonne got to find her daughter, find peace with her life, and even have a grandchild ... that feels good. That the world is fixed ... and at peace, that in some ways it’s even better than before ... that’s meaningful. And to see Carl in that rocking chair, reading happily to his daughter, to know that’s the life Rick wanted him to have ... that makes me happy."

For Walking Dead comic book readers, it's about as happy an ending as one can imagine, save for Rick's own existence in this relatively idyllic post-post-apocalypse. But how much comfort should the TV audience take from the way in which Kirkman and Adlard wrapped their run? Perhaps not as much.

In the show's version of events, Carl is dead and Rick is far away, albeit set to make some kind of return in a series of movies for AMC. Even then, the denizens of Alexandria, the Hilltop and the Kingdom all believe Rick is dead — and in the several years that followed his supposed death, the communities grew further apart rather than rallying together in the wake of his loss. The entire Walking Dead comic book finale hinges on Rick having died a martyr, paving the way for a pseudo-utopia. Without Rick actively in the Walking Dead television series, even if he's still somewhere out in the universe, can the show come anywhere near the same ending?

There are characters on the show who could theoretically occupy the pivotal Rick and Carl spots: Michonne and Judith Grimes, for instance. But the Michonne of the AMC series isn't likely to end up as Judge Hawthorne, as the show's version of the character wasn't a lawyer before the apocalypse. What's more, breakout star Danai Gurira is set to exit The Walking Dead at some point in season 10. Depending on the circumstances of her departure, Michonne may not even be alive to see the end of the series.

As always, there's the wild card to consider: Norman Reedus as Daryl Dixon, a character who doesn't appear in the comics at all. Perhaps he could serve as a martyr, a la Rick's comic book fate; then again, Daryl doesn't quite instill the same spirit of leadership and camaraderie as good old Sheriff Grimes. Besides, there's the old saying to a consider: "If Daryl dies, we riot." Doesn't exactly sound like peace will follow the crossbow-slinging warrior's demise, should it ever come to pass.

If there's anything from the Walking Dead comics' ending that could prove useful for divining Daryl's eventual fate, perhaps it's Carl's eventual marriage to Sophia. In the comics, the two are childhood sweethearts before becoming nothing more than great friends in their teenage years. The platonic relationship eventually evolved, clearly. Could a similar pairing occur by the end of the TV adaptation between Daryl and the late Sophia's mother, Carol? It would stand in the way of a current Daryl Dixon love interest theory, but it would certainly make one (major) section of the fandom very happy indeed.

Other characters who are still alive in the TV series who also happen to be alive at the end of the comic books' run include Eugene (Josh McDermitt), working tirelessly to repair a railroad to the west despite apparent sickness; Aaron (Ross Marquand), who has happily aged with his partner, Jesus, dead in the television version of events; and very likely Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who goes sight unseen in the finale, but his continued survival is strongly believed in by Carl and outright confirmed in Kirkman's final two words in his closing remarks postscript: "Negan Lives." Lauren Cohan's Maggie is still alive, of course, if not quite on the show anymore; the death of Whiskey Cavalier may ease her return to the zombie franchise before long. As for her son, Hershel, it's a great opportunity to bring Steven Yeun back into the series to play a time-jumped version of Glenn's son; that's perhaps a bit too fan-servicey, but it's still fun to consider.

Even though there will have to be important distinctions between the comic books' ending and the television series' eventual finale, based solely on who's alive and who isn't, two of the conclusion's biggest factors can still make the leap. First, there's the time jump, a fast-forward into the future to show that there is indeed life after Walking death. The next is the surprise factor. Few people anticipated Kirkman and Adlard would end The Walking Dead with the 193rd issue, just in sight of the landmark 200th issue and right on the heels of killing off its lead character. But as Kirkman notes in his final address to the readers, his story "has always been built on surprise." Since so many things have been mixed and matched over the years between the two tellings of the tale, showrunner Angela Kang and her team of writers (or whoever is in place when AMC finally shutters the flagship Walking Dead) should feel emboldened to double down and go with something completely different from Kirkman's version of events. Without Rick as an active presence on the show and, even more important, without Carl still alive in the universe, the truest way the TV series can honor the comic books at this point is by offering up an entirely different ending — one the audience will never see coming.

Read Kirkman's entire farewell column below, and keep scrolling to see the solicited cover art for issues that will never see the light of day.

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