Season nine’s latest installment, “The Obliged,” offered insight into what to expect from the AMC drama as it moves forward into the post-Rick era. The bearded cowboy of the apocalypse won’t be around for much longer, but in his absence, several characters are set to step forward as the new power players on the board: Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus), Carol Peletier (Melissa McBride), Michonne (Danai Gurira) and Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), just to name a few.
Starting with the character who was least featured in the episode: Carol, who not only stands her ground against the Saviors when their rebellion begins in earnest, but also spends one presumably final moment with Rick before his inevitable end. Together inside a tent, Carol tells Rick that she and the other members from the Kingdom are abandoning the bridge project; it’s a hard decision to make, especially as it regards someone she cares about as much as Rick, but it’s a decision she makes all the same.
Given her relationship with Ezekiel (Khary Payton), one imagines Carol’s role as a leader is only going to amplify in the episodes ahead. In her final scene with Rick, Carol demonstrates her ability to make a very tough leadership decision, even when it’s bound to disappoint her loved ones.
Then there’s Daryl, who spends more time with Rick in Lincoln’s penultimate episode than anyone else. Their scenes together inside the sinkhole center on the fundamental divide between Rick’s mercy toward Negan and Daryl’s wrath, a thirst for vengeance that remains unquenched. Daryl even evokes the spirits of Glenn (Steven Yeun) and Carl (Chandler Riggs) in trying to get Rick to back down on his feelings toward Negan — but it doesn’t work. By the end of the episode, Rick is the one who pulls Daryl out of the hole, repeatedly calling him “brother,” a very loaded term for a loner like Mr. Dixon. Rick then leaves to save the bridge, making it clear that he’s as dedicated as ever to his dream of forging a more peaceful and unified community than ever before.
Seeing as Rick isn’t likely to walk away from this last stand alive, one can only imagine the emotional damage this is going to wreak upon Daryl in the episodes ahead. It certainly helps inform how Reedus has described his character moving forward as a bit more of a leader, but not without abandoning Daryl’s isolationist instincts.
Finally, there’s Michonne and Negan, who face off against each other in their first extended one-on-one interaction of the series thus far. It’s certainly not going to be their last face-off. The two power players test each other’s psyches from opposite sides of a prison cell, Negan desperate to see Lucille again and Michonne simply wanting to get her prisoner to eat something.
Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter, Morgan has said that much of his screen time in season nine will be spent opposite castmembers he’s rarely if ever shared the stage with before. Look no further than his scenes with Gurira for how that may play out in the episodes ahead; with Rick gone, it certainly looks like Michonne is going to fill in as Negan’s new scene partner.
As for Michonne? Her scenes at the start of the episode, in which she sleeplessly stalks away from Alexandria in order to slay walkers, proves that her warrior spirit is far from crushed. Even as she looks like the likeliest candidate to pick up the mantle as Alexandria’s new leader once Rick is gone, Michonne’s more ferocious side will never be too far behind.
Follow THR.com/WalkingDead for more coverage of Lincoln’s exit from the series, and everything that’s set to come thereafter.