'Walking Dead': What Danai Gurira's Exit Means for Its Future

The Walking Dead Season 9 Main 2 - Publicity - H 2018
Gene Page/AMC

Danai Gurira is exiting The Walking Dead, set to return for a handful of episodes in season 10 before departing the series and likely joining the new series of films starring Andrew Lincoln.

In many ways, this was only a matter of time. As the sword-swinging Michonne, Gurira has been a fixture on AMC's zombie drama since its third season. In the nearly eight years since, her star has been on the rise, both in front of and behind the camera, from her new Marvel Studios role in Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War to her powerful work as a playwright. Beyond her own personal accomplishments, there's The Walking Dead itself, voyaging forward into its 10th season with only two characters from the first season still alive, thanks to Andrew Lincoln's departure earlier this season. Following Lauren Cohan's exit, and now with Gurira taking a step back, the person with the third most seniority is Alanna Masterson as Tara.

The facts behind Gurira's decision are easy enough to understand. The way in which it will all play out for Michonne? A little bit more challenging to put together.

Since Rick's presumed death, Michonne has assumed a central leadership role within Alexandria, not to mention the actual Walking Dead narrative. As the mother of Sheriff Grimes' children, and as one of the most prolific zombie killers in the drama's history, Michonne has rightly stepped up over the course of season nine. Imagining the story moving on without her — especially as the Whisperer conflict is about to start gearing up — is almost, well, unimaginable. 

Thankfully, Lincoln's transition from series regular to star of a Walking Dead TV movie franchise makes it easier to picture Gurira's shifting relationship with The Walking Dead. The door is now wide open for some of the franchise's most iconic players to bow out without having their characters bitten and turned, or beaten to death with a baseball bat. Not only can Michonne survive moving on from The Walking Dead TV series, she almost certainly will; a reunion with Rick before too long is virtually guaranteed.

In fact, will Rick be the reason Michonne leaves in the first place? It's a tempting notion, Michonne catching wind of Rick's continued survival and deciding to venture out into the wild to find her lost love. But if such news hits the Alexandria Safe Zone, why in the world would Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus) stick around? He's been rudderless without his best friend and would not be leaving much behind to resume the search for Rick. Whatever draws Michonne away from the community, then, can't be powerful enough to lure Daryl away as well — unless Michonne gives him a serious "These people need you" speech.

Michonne's departure from The Walking Dead proper will also either mean the simultaneous departure of her two children, Judith (Cailey Fleming) and R.J. (Antony Azor), or that she's leaving her daughter and son behind for an unknown reason. The three of them on the road sounds like a fun deal for us as viewers, but not so fun for them as characters: especially young R.J., only 5 or 6 years old. Perhaps that could be part of Michonne's appeal to Daryl, that she needs him to watch over her children — Rick's children — while she finds their lost loved one?

In the Walking Dead comic books from Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard, there are a few periods of time where Michonne goes missing. The most recent instance involves her reuniting with a loved one, albeit in a very different context, and one that's absolutely central to the ongoing Walking Dead story; how the AMC adaptation plans to handle that situation remains to be seen. Less recently, Michonne hit the high seas in order to find supplies for the Alexandrians. Might we finally see "Pirate Michonne," as she's affectionally called? Fingers and toes are well and firmly crossed.

While it's easy to track the circumstances leading up to her exit, and while there are now many ways for Michonne to leave but still survive, thanks to the Rick Grimes roadmap, Gurira's departure from a series-regular commitment is a big challenge for the drama she leaves behind. Creatively, The Walking Dead is currently as strong as it's ever been, thanks to the sturdy leadership of showrunner Angela Kang, not to mention a series of time-jumps that infused the story with a new sense of purpose and energy. But as The Hollywood Reporter's own Dan Fienberg rightly asked, are these improvements too little, too late? Without Gurira, is the new crop of cast members strong enough to hold the audience's investment, even if led by Norman Reedus and Melissa McBride's iconic Daryl and Carol? 

The powers that be will need to make sure fans are invested in the other new characters, and fast, in order to survive an era without Rick, Maggie and Michonne. (Perhaps it's time to call it on Fear the Walking Dead, and bring back Lennie James' Morgan, along with other highlights from the Fear roster?) Even then, as AMC's flagship drama marches onward to its recently announced 10th season while its star players eye the door for a less time-consuming commitment, perhaps it's time for the creative minds behind The Walking Dead to think about whether the series needs to continue or if it's time to move on and evolve, just like Michonne.

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