'The Walking Dead': How Andrew Lincoln's Exit Sets Up a Powerful Reunion

The Walking Dead S09E05 Still_TWD_905_JLD_0619_02981_RT - Publicity - H 2018
Jackson Lee Davis/AMC

[This story contains major spoilers for season nine, episode five, of AMC's The Walking Dead, "What Comes After."]

Entering Rick Grimes' final Walking Dead installment, fans were prepared for the worst. Instead, the face of the franchise lives on, albeit in a new form: Andrew Lincoln has exited the Walking Dead TV series, only so he can star in a series of new Walking Dead feature films for AMC.

That's the good news. The bad news? Rick's time on the show is truly at an end, according to all parties involved. Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter about eventually returning to the flagship TV series, Lincoln himself reveals: "I think that's not going to happen [for] me. I wouldn't want to tarnish what's been the most remarkable, beautiful, creative experience so far in my career."

"This is intended to be his end on the series for all the reasons that have been spoken about," confirms showrunner Angela Kang. "He needs a little more flexibility in his life to be with his family, so the intention was that this is his end arc on the show."

Does that mean it's the end of Rick's interactions with the family he's forged across nine Walking Dead seasons, however? Not necessarily. For one thing, chief content officer Scott M. Gimple, who is writing at least the first Rick-centric feature film, offers this silver lining about the plot: "It is about Rick Grimes, it is about who he is and who he's going to be. And certainly how he deals with the situation he's in… I mean, we know Rick Grimes. He would want to be home."

Will the Rick Grimes films focus on the character undergoing an Odyssey-esque trek to return home to Michonne (Danai Gurira), Daryl (Norman Reedus), and his other loved ones still in Alexandria? That remains to be seen — but AMC programming president David Madden does have this very optimistic comment about the character's future: "I can't really say to you what will exactly happen in the movie, but I have high hopes that… let me put it this way: I have high hopes that Rick and Michonne's paths will cross again. I'll just say that."

The suggestion of Rick and Michonne reuniting flies in the face of talk that Lincoln won't ever return to the flagship series, at least on-screen. (Off-screen, Lincoln has expressed his intentions to direct an episode in the still unannounced season 10.) What it does mean, perhaps, is Michonne could appear in one of the upcoming Walking Dead movies, crossing paths with Rick in that format.

In that regard, Gimple says he isn't ruling out the possibility that Michonne, Daryl or any other number of characters could appear in the Rick-focused films: "I'll say the first film is through Rick's point of view and then after that, as we are still in development, there are some possibilities that we're playing around with but I don't want to get into them now." 

While Norman Reedus and Melissa McBride recently signed new franchise deals, Danai Gurira is in the midst of renegotiating her deal with AMC. An iconic presence from the moment she arrived on the Walking Dead scene as Michonne, Gurira's star has only risen higher and higher, thanks in no small part to her turn as Okoye in Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War and other upcoming Marvel Studios projects. 

Given what's now occurring with Lincoln, set to pioneer a high-profile path forward for how to remain in the Walking Dead universe in a sustained albeit limited capacity, could Michonne be the next major player to leave the series in favor of a leaner, meaner role in the feature film side of the zombie universe? It's an open question for the time being, but in a more general way, here's what Gimple says about spinning other characters off into their own Rick-inspired offshoots: "What we're doing is about possibility."

"We are launching into all this great stuff with Rick, and then beyond that," says Gimple, "but really the show is about to launch into some of its best stuff ever, some of its most different stuff ever. It is meeting the challenge of losing someone like Andrew Lincoln and it is meeting that challenge and even I think it's going to exceed expectations. So beyond that, seeing other characters from the show in other ways? Absolutely a possibility."

Will Gimple say that none of the other Walking Dead series regulars are going to splinter off from the flagship series, then?

"I wouldn't say that," he answers with a laugh. "I wouldn't say that at all. I would say that… there's a very long plan, and then also within the movies, there are ways that things could maybe cross-pollinate. But we're not going to see them fly off in their own helicopters."

Follow THR.com/WalkingDead for continuing coverage of season nine and beyond.