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As civilization returns from the rubble, Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) stands ready to crumble. The Walking Dead hero will fight his final battles in the weeks ahead, as season nine represents the end of the line for Lincoln’s time on the AMC zombie drama. (In front of the camera, at least; Lincoln has announced his intent to return as a director.)
How can the series withstand such a loss? It’s not as though prominent Walking Dead actors haven’t left the show before, but the idea of this world moving forward without Rick…it’s different. It almost feels unfathomable.
Enter: “A New Beginning,” the season nine premiere, and the official beginning of the end for Rick Grimes. It’s the first new episode of the series since news of Lincoln’s looming departure first spread, resulting in an entirely new watching experience. For one thing, the countdown clock is on; Rick is a ticking time bomb, and there’s no telling when the story surrounding his exit will officially kick into higher and deadlier gear. For another, as fans begin the process of considering the show’s future without Rick in it, the focus now starts to shift toward the characters who will carry the torch forward.
In that regard, five major players stand front and center. The season nine premiere offered insight into what each of them is dealing with this season, and what their lives might look like with Rick no longer around. Here’s the round-up, with some spoilers from the comic books included.
1. Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus)
He served as acting leader of the Sanctuary until he couldn’t stand it anymore. Daryl stepping down from his leadership post puts him on track with a different character’s comic book arc: Dwight (Austin Amelio), last seen riding away at the end of season eight. In the comics, Dwight and Rick’s relationship becomes fraught with tension in the post-war climate; the tension exists on the show, too, as Daryl blames Rick for the way things have changed. Whenever Rick leaves, however Rick leaves, one imagines Daryl changing course and moving forward in a way that honors his old friend’s optimistic vision of the future.
2. Carol Peletier (Melissa McBride)
When Daryl steps down, Carol steps up. The only other season one veteran still on the board is not only moving into a leadership role, but also into a romantic one, just barely resisting a marriage proposal from the great King Ezekiel (Khary Payton). As she becomes more prominent in the Alexandria Safe-Zone hierarchy, Carol could fill Rick’s shoes on the leadership side of the aisle once he’s gone. More distressingly, Carol’s relationship with Ezekiel puts her in line with the Michonne-Ezekiel romance from the comic books — an entanglement that doesn’t end cleanly.
3. Michonne (Danai Gurira)
Speaking of Michonne, the sword-swinging warrior exits the season nine premiere with her eye on a new mission: crafting a charter for the Alexandria Safe-Zone and surrounding communities. More than any other character, Michonne stands ready to pick up the political power when Rick’s time draws to an end. With Gurira’s star on the rise, it makes sense that the show would put Michonne in an even more central role, quite likely as the new leader in Rick’s absence — a governor in her own right, “The Famous Michonne,” as she may come to be known.
4. Maggie Rhee (Lauren Cohan)
Maggie’s arc is a complicated one, due to what we know about her future with the show: Lauren Cohan is starring on ABC’s Whiskey Cavalier, meaning she will only appear in a portion of The Walking Dead season nine. With that said, Maggie’s story in the premiere paved the way for her own eventual exit, however temporary it may be. She’s finally taking a stand against Rick’s style of leadership, executing Gregory (Xander Berkeley) publicly, a far cry from how Rick dealt with Negan at the end of “All-Out War.” Will the clash in leadership style, followed by whatever fate awaits Rick, cause Maggie to move on from the Hilltop for some soul-searching? At the moment, it’s the likeliest avenue on the board — assuming she’s not in for a fatal collision with a walker, or even Negan himself.
5. Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan)
The big bad baseball bat-wielding maniac was entirely absent from the season premiere, except in name. But his ghost looms large over the proceedings, fueling Maggie’s move against Gregory. Based on his continued association with The Walking Dead press events, including the most recent episode of Talking Dead, it certainly seems like Negan’s an active force through the late stages of season nine. Based on his arc in the comics, Negan stands out as a likely power player in one of the biggest storylines still to come this season: the Whisperer War. He already has big enough story material on his own plate from that arc. Could Negan shoulder some of the load left behind by Rick, too?
Follow THR.com/WalkingDead as the stories of Daryl, Carol, Michonne, Maggie, Negan and more continue to play out into the post-Rick era.
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