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The moment Walking Dead viewers have long dreaded will soon arrive: Andrew Lincoln’s exit from the iconic role of Rick Grimes.
At some point in the season ahead, Lincoln will take his last bow as Rick, the man at the heart of the AMC drama since its very first episode. Lincoln, who will leave the series in season nine in order to focus on his family (the series films in the Atlanta area; Lincoln and his family are based near London), gave new showrunner Angela Kang enough advance notice of his decision for the writers to tell a final story that’s worthy of Rick’s legacy.
“There were a lot of conversations about the ways in which we create a satisfying story for Rick,” Kang tells The Hollywood Reporter. “What are the important things we’ve seen from Rick in the past? What is his legacy? That was the big conversation we had early on. They took some time to discuss. From there, we jumped into breaking the season.”
Whatever the answer, Kang and her writers’ conclusion will soon make itself known. Until then, the only thing the fandom can do is plot out the disaster scenarios surrounding the way in which Rick will walk off into the sunset — or shamble off, assuming he goes the way of the undead.
Ahead, THR offers five possibilities for how The Walking Dead will part ways with Rick Grimes. Fair warning, comic book spoilers are ahead. Proceed with caution.
1. Death by Rebellion
At the end of season eight, Rick was the champion of “All-Out War,” opting to imprison Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) rather than kill the man outright. Some of Rick’s allies agreed with the decision. Others? Not so much. Among the most high-profile detractors: Maggie (Lauren Cohan) and Daryl (Norman Reedus), both of whom desired Negan’s death. While it’s hard to imagine either character going so far as to kill Rick, it’s a lot easier to envision the scenario where their bloodlust drives Maggie and Daryl into making an attempt on Negan’s life against Rick’s wishes — a decision that could result in a deadly outcome for Mr. Grimes, if only inadvertently.
Indeed, as we’re trying to predict Lincoln’s exit from the series, one also has to wonder how the show will handle the forthcoming departure of Lauren Cohan, who will only appear in a handful of season nine episodes due to her commitments to ABC’s Whiskey Cavalier. Folks involved with the show, Kang included, stress their desire to keep the door open for Cohan’s eventual return. Perhaps Maggie making a move that results in Rick’s accidental death would explain the need for the last surviving member of the Greene family to take some time away from the Alexandrians and Hilltoppers.
2. Death by Dismemberment
Here, we’re heading into comic book territory, albeit in a way that’s rather tame, considering what’s still ahead. Anyone with even a passing awareness of the Walking Dead comics from Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard likely knows about one major event in Rick’s life that never quite made it to the TV series: the loss of his hand.
In the comics, when Rick first encounters Woodbury, the Governor (David Morrissey) greets him with a blade to the hand. From that moment forward, Rick moved on with one limb down for the count. Recent issues have seen Rick wearing a prosthetic hand. It doesn’t look like there will be much time for the prosthesis between now and the end of Lincoln’s run, but perhaps the time is right for the iconic comic book moment to come to life. (Those involved with the TV series have thus far resisted removing Rick’s hand due to how it would impact production.) Could Rick lose his hand in the midst of some heroic act, leading to blood loss and ultimately his demise? It could pave the way for an incredibly exciting finish both for the show-only viewers and the comic book crowd alike.
3. Death by Decapitation
In season nine, The Walking Dead will arrive at one of the most notable story arcs from the comics: the Whisperer War. The story sees Rick and his community encountering a group of survivors who walk among the dead, wearing suits made from human flesh as disguises. Even their culture and customs are inspired by the walkers, as the Whisperers become more monster than human.
When Rick and the Whisperers cross paths, these new enemies make their threat level known in horrific fashion — and again, here’s where the huge spoilers come in, so look away now. The Whisperers abduct many members of Alexandria and the surrounding communities, kill them, then skewer their zombified heads on a fence as a means of creating a border wall between the two factions. Two major characters still active on the show are killed in this way; no spoilers on the identities, here. For his part, Rick very much survives the gruesome incident in the comics … but what if the show is a different story? Is there a better way to express just how dangerous the Whisperers are than to have them kill the main character of The Walking Dead, removing his head and displaying it as a declaration of war?
4. Death, Then Assimilation
When you’re bit, you turn. When you die, you turn. Such are the rules of the Walking Dead universe. Can Andrew Lincoln really escape his time on the show without going through the full-blown Greg Nicotero zombie make-up process? For the sake of not traumatizing viewers everywhere, one certainly hopes so. But it’s worth considering the very realistic possibility that Rick will somehow suffer a bite from a walker, or die in some other way in which his brain remains intact, causing him to rise from the dead and continue forth as a walker.
There’s an even grimmer possibility for Rick’s afterlife. Again, this season will introduce the Whisperers, who wear suits made from human skin in order to blend in with the dead. What if Rick provides the basis for such a suit? Could the Walking Dead protagonist’s death lead the way toward our first look at the new antagonists of the season, scooping up Rick’s remains and turning his skin into veritable armor? Talk about traumatizing the audience — and talk about a disturbing visual that Nicotero and his KNB EFX team would knock out of the park.
5. Happily Ever After
After diving into the depths of darkness, let’s step toward the light. Who says Rick Grimes has to die? Why can’t the man ride off into the sunset toward greener pastures, like the classic Western heroes he’s molded after?
There are several practical reasons why fans shouldn’t hope for such a sunny outcome. For one thing, what could possibly compel Rick to leave Alexandria, especially with Michonne (Danai Gurira) and Judith still alive and very much on the show? For another thing, the way in which Lincoln and others surrounding the season have discussed the upcoming exit very much makes it sound like a final story for Sheriff Grimes. It’s not that Rick’s death is absolutely inevitable, but it sure feels likely.
With that said, Rick’s death could lead to its own fair share of happily-ever-afters. A sacrifice play, for instance, could help unify the people he leaves behind. As the man who brought all of these various survivors together, Rick will doubtlessly be remembered forever in the world of the dead. The impact he’s had on his surviving loved ones will surely carry forward as The Walking Dead moves into “a Rick-less world,” as Kang has described it. And given the show’s creative use of visions and hallucinations (not to mention the confirmed return of Jon Bernthal as Shane Walsh for a cameo this season), Rick’s death does not have to be so painful to behold; he may just drift off into a field filled with plenty of sunshine, and a good dose of family for good measure.
How do you expect Andrew Lincoln to exit the series? Sound off with your theories and possibilities in the comments below, and keep following THR.com/WalkingDead for more coverage.