What Andrew Lincoln's departure means for The Walking Dead

If there's one thing The Walking Dead has proven over its run, it's that no one is safe. From Lori's (Sarah Wayne Callies) troubling death to the gruesome murders of Sgt. Abraham Ford (Michael Cudlitz) and Glenn Rhee (Steven Yeun), the AMC series has made it pretty clear that in Robert Kirkman's zombie apocalypse, the stakes are high. 

One character that has felt untouchable through it all has been Rick Grimes. From the day he woke up in that Georgia hospital to the exhausting battle with Negan's (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) Saviors, Rick has escaped death multiple times.

On the heels of Carl's (Chandler Riggs) death, it looks like The Walking Dead on the verge of an overhaul. After season 9, Lincoln will leave the series that made him a household name. What will happen when the leader of this group of heroes is taken out of the equation? How exactly will the actor's exit impact the show moving forward? Here's what Andrew Lincoln's departure means for The Walking Dead.

It's about time for a new leader

After hitting a ratings peak in its fifth season, viewership for The Walking Dead has been on a steady decline. There are many reasons, and one of the big ones is actually Rick Grimes himself. Over the past eight years, we've watched as Rick led the group to a new home, only to find that humans are more dangerous than zombies. He's struggled with his own moral compass before making some awful life choices, followed by regret over said choices. And he'd soon reclaim his hero status … only to do it all over again.

Yes, he's lost a lot: his wife's dead, his best friend's dead, his son's dead. But it's hard to ignore the loop of rage and grief he's been caught in. Now that Carl's dead, it feels as if Rick's days on the show should be numbered. Andrew Lincoln has continuously done an impeccable job of playing this character, but it's clear Rick Grimes has become a predictable and damaged man. 

Daryl Dixon take the wheel

Rick Grimes may be leaving, but Daryl Dixon is here to stay. In fact, it's looking like AMC is positioning the crossbow-wielding motorcycle enthusiast to take over in Rick's absence. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Norman Reedus "is in the midst of negotiating a rich new deal that will pay him more than $20 million as he will become the new No. 1 on the call sheet."

For a character that was never in Robert Kirkman's comics, Daryl quickly became a fan favorite. He's proven his worth throughout the show's run, but filling Rick's shoes won't be an easy task. As Forbes was quick to point out, "Reedus barely speaks in this show. How do we go from the strong, silent type to the leader of an entire community and star of a major TV show?"

A Redditor by the name of aurr-au posed an intriguing theory, saying Daryl "couldn't carry the show as a leader, but I think he could carry the show as a lone protagonist." While it's safe to assume AMC won't kill the entire cast off to bring us a zombified version of Kung Futhere's a strong chance Daryl will go through a substantial evolution by the time season 10 arrives. 

A group of heroes, fractured

As the bloody battle between Negan and Rick came to its conclusion, a new conflict presented itself in the final moments of the season: Maggie, Daryl, Tara (Alanna Masterson), and Jesus (Tom Payne) had formed a secret alliance with the end goal of murdering Negan.

It's sounding like Alexandria will be dealing with a fair share of internal conflict, and Negan will be there on the sidelines. What role he'll play during this civil war remains to be seen, but it may be the catalyst to Rick and Maggie leaving. Lincoln isn't the only one making an exit — Lauren Cohan will depart as well. SyfyWire reports the actress will only appear in six episodes of season 9 as she's one of the leads in ABC's new drama series, Whisky Cavalier. Whichever way this happens, here's hoping Daryl is prepared — it looks like The Walking Dead is about to introduce a brand new group of dastardly villains.

A welcome rebrand

There are many reasons why the ratings have continued to dip for The Walking Dead. There's only so much death, destruction, and grief a viewer can subject themselves to before changing the channel, and the network may finally be catching on. Carl Grimes' death didn't just spark the events that transpired in the back half of season 8, it set up The Walking Dead for a rebranding.

"It was always part of the plan. Story-wise, we knew we were going to be here. We knew what season nine was going to be during season seven, probably even before," writer Scott Gimple told The Hollywood Reporter. "It's really how the timing worked out. It worked out in a very cool way. It allows for a new voice to be telling new stories, and really resets the show in a lot of ways."

According to Variety, the voice he's referring to is new showrunner Angela Kang. Gimple's pivot from showrunner to chief content officer is not only a change of the guard behind the camera, it alludes to a new look, feel, and strategy for the long-running series. With Daryl set to lead the charge, a new direction has opened up before us. Here's hoping it's a better one.

A New Beginning

In the finale's final moments, after showing leniency to Negan and his Saviors, Rick spoke of "a new beginning." This wasn't mere symbolism, but a signal to diehard fans that a threat from the comic book series was on its way.

It's worth noting that season 9 will begin after a two-year time jump, which is also significant to the comic book story. What does this mean for the show? For one thing, new characters. "What [the writers] have planned… it just feels new. It feels like an evolved show," Gimple told Digital Spy. "[The past eight seasons] very much lived in the world that Rick began with. It was so informed by the pilot," he added, "[and] it just takes this quantum leap forward in the stories we're telling." More importantly, if the AMC series is following Robert Kirkman's "A New Beginning" comics arc, then it looks like the Whisperers are definitely on their way.

The Whisperers are coming

Negan's violent acts pushed the envelope yet again for what can be done on TV, but his brutality might be nothing compared to the program's next big bad: The Whisperers. According to TV Line, "Season 9 casting is underway for girlfriends Yumiko and Magna, future Alexandrians who are not only prominent protagonists in Robert Kirkman's comic-book series but in the war with the Saviors' Big Bad successors, the Whisperers." The Hollywood Reporter describes The Whisperers as "a dangerous new group of survivors who flourish in the zombie apocalypse by wearing the skins of the dead."

The Walking Dead will take its time introducing the threat. "I would not expect we're jumping right to that," Gimple told The Hollywood Reporter. "As a viewer, I wouldn't expect that we're necessarily jumping to anything, but if you're just asking me as a comic book reader … they were a very unique style of survivors that felt that the world had told them the way, and that they listened. There was a great deal to do with nature, and even the nature of man as an animal. That sort of hard philosophy they bought so hard into was incredible to see our people come up against."

To Negan or not to Negan

It's clear that Negan changed the game for The Walking Dead. His name was first heard in the middle of season 6, but audiences weren't subjected to his ultra-violent tendencies until season 7's heart-wrenching premiere. That's a lot of investment to put into a character who has seemingly broken the mold on how the show handles its Big Bads — Shane's (Jon Bernthal) dead, The Governor's (David Morrissey) dead, Gareth (Andrew J. West) and his Termites of Terminus are gone. The fact that Negan's still alive leaves us wondering what role he'll play in the upcoming episodes.

Negan's torturous violence, profanity-filled scenery-chewing, and overhyped expectations helped to ruin The Walking Dead. But keeping him around is an interesting choice. Could it be possible that a redemption will be coming to the Saviors' former leader?

If season 9 ends up delivering on the civil war storyline, it may be possible that Negan could prove himself useful. Is it possible that Negan could team up with Rick … or even Daryl once the Whisperers make themselves known?

Michonne goes dark

If we're to assume that the show will closely follow the "A New Beginning" story from the comics, then Michonne (Danai Gurira) may go it alone in the new episodes. According to Den of Geek, "Michonne has quite simply run away after the traumatic events of All Out War. She now lives in Oceanside and spends her days fishing for the network of communities." While that sounds like more of a move that Carol would make, it's not out of the question that Michonne could separate herself from the rest of the Alexandria gang.

Rick is the first person she's been romantically involved with since the trauma of losing her boyfriend and son. Their progressive relationship added new layers to the series, giving Rick a welcome sense of hope, deconstructing The Ricktatorship in the process. And while we're not necessarily wishing that type of grief on everyone's favorite sword-wielding badass, Rick's death — if he dies, instead of simply walking away from it all — could easily be the catalyst that brings back the mysterious, formidable Michonne fans first laid eyes on in season 2.

The undead universe continues to grow

After AMC upgraded Scott Gimple's status from showrunner to chief content officer of The Walking Dead universe, speculation soon turned to what that job title actually means. Gimple has proven himself to be a devoted storyteller on the series, maintaining showrunner responsibilities longer than Frank Darabont and Glen Mazzara before him. 

Now that Angela Kang has stepped in to helm the show, THR reports that Gimple and AMC are working to bring more Walking Dead projects to life. "We're going to be doing traditional stuff, non-traditional stuff, stuff people don't expect," Gimple explained. Adding fuel to speculation, Greg Nicotero told Fandom he's partial to a specific idea for a new series: "I think that our hopes are — my hopes — would be that we would get into an entirely different location, like a cold weather scenario. Because frozen zombies are f–ing awesome."

"Fear the Walking Dead was the first step," noted Forbes, "and … it seems much bigger things are afoot." With Lennie James' move to Fear the Walking Deadwe have to wonder if Rick or Maggie would make a cameo in future spinoffs. If they survive the events of season 9, anything is possible.