'Walking Dead' Season 9 Photos Hint at Life After Rick Grimes

The 'Walking Dead' ensemble steps into the spotlight in the first new photos from the season nine premiere.
Courtesy of AMC

[This story contains mild spoilers from the comic books on which AMC's The Walking Dead is based.]

At some point in season nine of The Walking Dead, Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) will exit the scene. The previously unfathomable thought of a zombie apocalypse without the original hero at the heart of the tale will soon become a brutal reality — but perhaps it's some small consolation to see Rick front and center in the first batch of photos for the new season.

With several weeks still standing between now and the season nine premiere, AMC has unleashed several new images from the first episode of Walking Dead under new showrunner Angela Kang's tenure. Rick fans, release a momentary sigh of relief: many of the images feature Sheriff Grimes in his fully bearded and still breathing glory. 

Rick is seen at multiple points working with longtime allies, like best friend Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus) and girlfriend Michonne (Danai Gurira), as seen in the image above. He's riding horseback alongside a considerable crew, including Tara (Alanna Masterson), Siddiq (Avi Nash) and the artist formerly known as Jadis (Polyanna McIntosh), as seen in the image below.

Indeed, Rick is still very much part of the Walking Dead universe, appearing in four out of the 12 new images — a third of the action, in other words. Perhaps it's a good indication of just how much Rick will factor into the new season, as Andrew Lincoln prepares to exit the series he helped launch back in 2010. The actor confirmed his departure at Comic-Con this summer, appearing without his character's shaggy beard, a clean-shaven look that indicated his work on the series was already at an end. 

"This will be my last season playing the part of Rick Grimes," Lincoln said at the time, adding, "I'm really, really excited about this season. No one is bigger than the story, and the story this year is unbelievable."

With Lincoln and Rick both on their way out the door, the stage is set for one or more of the other series regulars to pick up the proverbial hatchet and hack their way forward as the new anchor of the series. Among the top candidates…

…King Ezekiel (Khary Payton), Carol (Melissa McBride), Maggie (Lauren Cohan), Jadis, Father Gabriel (Seth Gilliam) and Daryl, from left to right as they appear in the photo above. Some are likelier picks than others when it comes to packing on additional story weight in the season ahead.

When word first broke about Lincoln's exit from the series, it was also reported that Norman Reedus was negotiating a new deal that would pay him more than $20 million as he became the new No. 1 on the call sheet. In other words, feast your eyes on the bow-wielding hero below:

Daryl Dixon, already the most identifiable figure in the Walking Dead universe outside of Rick Grimes, looks primed to take on a leadership mantle as the series pushes into a post-Lincoln era.

Another season one veteran who isn't likely to leave the scene anytime soon: McBride as Carol, who has been described in the past by series creator Robert Kirkman as virtually untouchable. It's little wonder why, given Carol's prominent role in some of the all-time best Walking Dead episodes: "The Grove," "No Sanctuary" and "JSS," just to name a few. 

The TV adaptation's version of Carol is a vastly different character than the one depicted in the comics from Kirkman and illustrator Charlie Adlard. For one, she's still alive. For another, her warrior ways are matched by few others in the group, a far cry from the Carol of comic book lore. Indeed, McBride's Carol has even taken on some of the story material originally meant for Michonne. In the comics, Michonne embarks on a romantic relationship with King Ezekiel. But as you can see in the image below…

…it's Carol and Ezekiel who are becoming an item for the show. The series has spent time building up to this romance, from the very first scene Carol and Ezekiel shared together. Thanks to the time jump between seasons eight and nine, however, the pair appear ready to make things Facebook official — assuming Facebook still exists in the world of the dead.

With all that said, there's still one major Michonne moment from the source material to look out for in the episodes ahead. The coming season of Walking Dead will take cues from a similar point in the comic books, in which a large time jump follows the end of "All-Out War." When the story resumes, Michonne is missing from the action for several issues, before it's revealed that she's now running the group's marine operations, sailing out into the seas in search of survivors and supplies. 

"Pirate Michonne," as she's sometimes called, is very much a thing fans of the comics would like to see in the TV series. Perhaps those fans are in luck, based on Michonne's season nine makeover:

Consider those fingers fully crossed for the Dread Pirate Michonne. Even if such a thing does not come to pass, at least there's this: reformed bad boy Father Gabriel. Not only is Seth Gilliam's formerly sniveling preacher seen in these photos helping Rick and the gang on a high-stakes mission, he's also seen with an intriguing new look: a dimmed-out eye, due to the blindness he suffered in season eight, as well as a hat that gives him something of a Heisenbergian aesthetic: 

Speaking of makeovers, add another one to the list: Eugene Porter (Josh McDermitt), seen in one image at the Saviors' Sanctuary, standing alongside Carol, Ezekiel and Rick. He has a gun at the hip, hair pulled back, relaxed and confident in a way the late Abraham Ford (Michael Cudlitz) would doubtlessly approve. 

Has Eugene officially graduated past "stage two badass" territory? Time will be the judge of that. 

If there's one person who won't step into the spotlight when Rick departs the stage, it's Maggie. Like Lincoln, Lauren Cohan is poised to leave The Walking Dead in season nine, due to her series regular role on ABC's midseason drama Whiskey Cavalier. While she's a steady presence in the photos for season nine, don't expect her to stick around past the midseason finale — something that's likely being teased in this ominous glimpse of trouble at the Hilltop:

There are a few notable absences in the current crop of season nine photos. No, it's not Rosita (Christian Serratos), who remains tough-as-nails with a new look of her own:

Thankfully, Ezekiel's best friend Jerry (Cooper Andrews) is alive and well as well:

But there's no sign of Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), freshly defeated at the end of "All Out War," sentenced to live out his days in an Alexandrian prison cell. What will The Walking Dead look like with Negan in the picture, but without Rick? For now, fans will have to keep speculating on such an image — not to mention what it's going to look like when a new enemy arrives: the Whisperers, deadly survivors who wear suits made from human flesh in order to blend in with the dead. Samantha Morton will play the series regular role of Whisperer leader Alpha, but so far, no word on how the character's iconic likeness will translate to television.

While the world keeps waiting to see season nine's take on Negan and Alpha alike, for now, fans can feast their eyes on Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes — emphasis on "for now."

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