Well, they had their chance. Chief content officer Scott Gimple, showrunner Angela Kang, and the rest of The Walking Dead staff promised us the end of Rick Grimes weeks ago and, shocker, Rick Grimes doesn't die. Not only that, Andrew Lincoln will reprise his role as Grimes in a new series of AMC Original Films at some point in the near future. At least, that's what they're telling us now.
No fanbase gets kicked around as much as those devoted to The Walking Dead. The show earned its followers legitimately by creating the greatest apocalyptic television series of all time, but that was many seasons ago. Since then, TWD has been playing out the string, wandering in the narrative darkness like all those zombies the show is centered around. They have no idea where they're going, and that's fine for sitcoms and reality shows, but drama is something different. The great shows have plans. They may not always be perfect, but they're the result of a vision (The Wire, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad to name a few).
The Walking Dead has no plan. Kang, the new Season 9 showrunner, had to deal with the departures of Lincoln and co-star Lauren Cohan this year. These events were beyond her control, but it's up to the writers to figure out how to make things fit, or dispense with the series altogether. And all this amidst downhill ratings and plenty of fan griping. The audience is sick of being yanked around. The Walking Dead leads the league in gotcha moments — the cheap jump scares of horror TV — and seems to revel in disappointing people.
TWD fans who are also readers of Robert Kirkman's source comic book have been dealing with this for years. The show was a mostly faithful and fantastic adaptation of Kirkman's work for the first few seasons — an exemplary cable TV answer to the ruler of all television: HBO's Game of Thrones. When the series diverged from Kirkman's story, it usually made sense. Hell, it was sometimes better. But somewhere along the way, TWD lost sight of what made the show work. It introduced too many new characters and couldn't go back.
None of this would really matter if it weren't for AMC's continual bullshit hype. Character deaths have been played out to maximum exhaustion. (Remember Glenn under the dumpster?) Huge moments have been cut mid-action in order to end full seasons with a silly cliffhanger. (Remember Negan beating the POV camera, blood oozing down your screen?) And, now we have our latest example. After Lincoln confirmed he was done and Season 9 would be his last, the show started tweeting about his last episodes a few weeks ago. We now know it was hype to drum up ratings — lies to stir the base.
Lincoln isn't done. Rick's not dead. Last night's episode, "What Comes After," was hyped as Rick's farewell, but the character doesn't die. After predictably leading the walker horde to the bridge, Rick survives and is airlifted out of the series by a mysterious chopper. Presumably, his story will continue in the aforementioned movies AMC has planned. It's not a farewell. It's a "see you later."
Some fans might welcome this kind of surprise, but I'm not one of them. The Walking Dead isn't a good enough show anymore to care what happens without Rick. It was barely good enough to care about what happened with him. Instead of kissing the hero goodbye and writing a sendoff worthy of the character, the series cops out. Just throw him on a helicopter and deal with it another day. This is weak storytelling — the kind usually reserved for soap operas and bubblegum high school dramas. The Walking Dead has become tabloid horror, in love with its own reflection.
Oh, and last night's episode was Maggie's last also. Didn't you know? "That's the last of her for this season." Kang told THR. After deciding not to kill Negan, an event that happens later on in the comic, Maggie goes... somewhere. Who knows? We don't see her again. The episode ends with a flash-forward where we learn Judith has become a pint-sized badass, and not much else has changed. Daryl looks the same, Carol doesn't, and everyone is still hacking it out in the wilderness for survival. Spoiler alert, the apocalypse doesn't change much in the coming years. Rick and Maggie are gone but the struggle endures.
Kang obviously sees the future as belonging to Rick's daughter and whoever's left of the original cast. Daryl was apparently never going to be handed the keys to the series — something fans have hoped for — but he'll presumably take on a larger role. Perhaps the Whisperers will show up. They're great villains in the comic, but with this new timeline, it's anyone's guess. Perhaps last night's future flash is just a one-off and the series will return to the bridge next week (previews seem to confirm this). Perhaps the time jump is real and will happen next season. Who knows? The audience doesn't, and I'm guessing the writers don't either. They're just winging it, and betting on their fans to remain faithful to the end.