'Walking Dead': How the Season 10 Premiere Sets Up Danai Gurira's Exit

The Walking Dead _ Season 10 - Still 4 - Publicity -H 2019
Courtesy of AMC

[This story contains spoilers for the season ten premiere of AMC's The Walking Dead, "Lines We Cross."]

Just as Andrew Lincoln's exit loomed large over the first few episodes of The Walking Dead season nine, so too does the specter of Danai Gurira's departure hang heavy over season ten. 

As of yet, there's no official word on how Gurira's sword-swinging Michonne will step away from active Walking Dead duty. Will she leave Alexandria on a quest to find Rick, or will she go down swinging like so many of the apocalypse's other casualties? Even without any concrete answers, showrunner Angela Kang's season ten premiere, "Lines We Cross," at least offers some setup for Michonne's exit from the story — and from my vantage point, the forecast is not as sunny as Rick's airborne med-evac.

The premiere focuses on members of the Alexandria Safe-Zone engaging in military training at Oceanside, battling a particularly gnarly pack of walkers. Michonne is a force within the exercise, repeatedly shouting at her friends and neighbors to remember their training, and making sure to slice through her own share of rotting dead in the fight. She eventually joins Aaron (Ross Marquand) on a quick scouting trip, once it appears the Whisperers have returned. The two engage in a heated conversation — on a bridge of all places, not unlike the last known whereabouts of one Rick Grimes.

"Nice never got me anywhere, but smart did," Michonne snaps at Aaron, when he remarks about not wanting to play "nice" with the Whisperers. "They have a nuclear weapon, and we don't. It's not about being nice, or good, or anything — but keeping our people alive and not having them die over nothing."

Later, Michonne returns to Oceanside and overhears a conversation between her children, Judith (Cailey Fleming) and RJ (Antony Azor). Judith regales her younger brother with the story of Rick's "death," also known as "the brave man." She explains: "People like the brave man are never really gone. They live inside our hearts and make us brave, too." It's not a good enough explanation for RJ, who wants to understand why "the brave man" died. Michonne tells him: "There are some people you love so much that you would do anything for them, just like I would do anything for you, and for Judith … and your dad."

Processing Michonne's scenes through the prism of Danai Gurira's inevitable exit offers up a couple of reads of these scenes. One involves the reminders of Rick setting the stage for Michonne to some day learn the truth: he's alive, and she has to "do anything" in order to go out into the world and save him. Perhaps the premiere's fallen Russian satellite is somehow linked to the community where Rick will find himself in his next feature film appearance, wherever that may be — and maybe Michonne allowing Eugene (Josh McDermitt) five minutes to salvage satellite parts will end up leading her back to her husband somehow.

That's the rosy outlook. And hey, let's root for it! But there's a grim outlook to consider as well: Michonne is not going to survive season ten, and the premiere has put the pieces in place for such an ending. Speaking about it further requires dipping into spoilers from Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard's Walking Dead comic books; proceed with caution.

First of all, let's start here: Michonne does not die in the comics. She's a key player in the series finale, helping an adult Carl Grimes out of a legal jam. Of course, Carl is very much dead in the TV version of events, one of the many instances of how death in the comics differs from death on the show, so Michonne's comic book survival does not mean anything for her live-action counterpart.

In the comics, Rick and Michonne are not an item. Instead, Rick eventually embarks on a relationship with Andrea, long since deceased in the television series. Andrea eventually dies during the Whisperer War, thanks to her role in fighting against the Whisperers' "nuclear weapon" of a walker herd. She succeeds in saving the rest of Alexandria, but not without incurring a fatal walker bite. Andrea dies in bed with Rick at her side, and eventually rises from the grave as a walker, forcing her husband to put her down.

Is it possible that Michonne is going to take on Andrea's fate from the comics? The pieces are in place: she mentions the Whisperers' "nuclear weapon" in the season premiere, while talking on a bridge that calls to mind Rick's final stand, mere moments before telling her children that she would do anything for them, and all after Judith talks about how "people like the brave man are never really gone." Sounds like a powerful way to map Andrea's comic book ending onto Michonne's television ending.

Incorporating some behind-the-scenes details about a different character entirely: Lauren Cohan is about to return to The Walking Dead as Maggie Greene. In season nine, it was established that Michonne and Maggie had some sort of falling out before Maggie fled the Hilltop alongside Jayne Atkinson's Georgie. Is it possible Maggie's upcoming return has something to do with Michonne — attending her estranged friend's funeral, perhaps? Food for thought.

Turning to some comments from the folks in the know, here's what showrunner Angela Kang told The Hollywood Reporter about constructing Gurira's exit, during a recent appearance on the Series Regular podcast: "For people who are fans of Michonne, I really hope that [they feel we gave] her a worthy exit. That's certainly been heavy on my mind ever since I knew that this would be her last season. We kind of knew for a bit it was coming. For people who follow any of the entertainment news, they might know that she has had her own show as a writer/showrunner picked up, which is amazing. And she's an incredible writer. So I'm very excited for her to kind of open that chapter of her life in addition to all of her acting work. But we went at it with the same kind of seriousness that we treated Andy's exit last year. Her character has been so memorable. So I just hope we didn't screw it up. I never know until it's out there. But we know that we're just excited about the work that Danai did. I just think she's a powerhouse and a force of nature. The work she does on screen is beautiful, really moving and powerful throughout."

Speaking at PaleyFest during a panel moderated by yours truly, Gurira noted she's already finished her time on Walking Dead; there are still a few weeks remaining in production on season ten. 

"It was a beautiful goodbye," she said. "We were able to deeply collaborate right through to the end. The last aspects of the story I got to tell with Angela and her team… I was really deeply satisfied with it. It allowed her to be herself to the end, but also go through a lot of things she had never been through. That's the really cool thing these guys do and will continue to do with all of these great characters: they get to be themselves, and they get to go through things where you're challenged every year and transformed every season."

For anyone wanting to get into the granular details of the word choices, perhaps Gurira's talk of Michonne's "transformation" is literal — that she ends up as a walker, not unlike Andrea in the comics. It's certainly a tragic thought to consider, given Rick's continued survival somewhere out in the Walking Dead universe — but it's also a beautiful story as told in the pages of Kirkman and Adlard's comic books, albeit centering on a different character. Given the current quality level of The Walking Dead and the players involved, there is little doubt that Gurira, Kang and their collaborators could render an equally moving story — one that leaves both the characters and viewers alike with the same message as Judith's story about her father: "People like the brave man are never really gone. They live inside our hearts and make us brave, too."

Hear more from Angela Kang and her thoughts on season ten in a special edition of the Series Regular podcast:

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