When The Walking Dead wrapped up its eighth season in April, there were a few assurances that the series would reset itself in the way most shows that’ve eclipsed 100 episodes need to in order to keep things fresh. Longtime scribe Angela Kang was coming in to be the ninth season showrunner; Negan was defeated (though not dead) and a new adversary would finally take his place; and most shockingly of all, the series would continue without Carl Grimes, who might’ve been The Walking Dead’s most untouchable character. There was only one other character you could argue was more untouchable—and now he’ll be gone soon too.
According to a report from Collider (which was subsequently confirmed by Entertainment Weekly) Andrew Lincoln, the man who plays The Walking Dead’s main character, Rick Grimes, will be leaving the show in the ninth season after just six episodes. Lincoln’s departure is the headline news in a cluster of developments around the show: Collider notes that Lauren Cohan, who plays Maggie Greene, is also returning for just six episodes—though it’s unclear if that’s a permanent dismissal or a way to make room for Cohan’s new ABC series Whiskey Cavalier—and that AMC plans to offset losing Lincoln by offering Norman Reedus the leading role, effectively turning the series into Ride With Norman Reedus (With Zombies). When all of the dust settles, the only remaining characters from the first season will be Daryl and Carol (and Morgan, technically, though he’s moved to the spinoff series Fear the Walking Dead).
The Walking Dead has entered genuinely uncharted territory for the first time in its history. Leaning on Reedus to carry the load is sensible, but make no mistake: This will be a different show seven episodes from now. And while AMC has happily and unironically embraced the idea of continuing The Walking Dead for another 100 episodes, losing Rick could be the first time the show’s endgame is seriously considered. The Walking Dead has always been The Grimes Show, and now it’ll be forced to find a new way to tell a story. After seasons of drudgery, it’s hard not to look at that as a positive.
A frequent complaint about The Walking Dead in years past has been its over-reliance on story lines from the comics, the way the show follows them beat for beat with a few minor improvisations here and there—like when Negan killed two characters (Abraham and Glenn) with his barbed-wire-covered baseball bat instead of one during his gruesome introduction. But in the comics, Rick and Carl are still alive; Maggie is too.
Obviously, the series is going to have to go another way—in terms of Rick and Carl, at the very least—and it’ll have no chart to follow when installing Daryl at the show’s center. While he shares some traits with the comics’ version of Dwight, Daryl’s a character who was specifically created for the screen. Carol has effectively been created from scratch, too: She died much earlier on in the comics, having never done anything as badass as blowing up a cannibalist outpost.
A good template for The Walking Dead could be Game of Thrones. While David Benioff and D.B. Weiss still have a pretty good outline of where George R.R. Martin’s story is headed and how it will end, Game of Thrones eventually eclipsed the books and began to tell its story on screen before it was ever realized in what used to be the source material. What was once a retelling of a fantasy series has turned into a fairly disparate story, told through a different medium—only the fantastical universe is the same. That’s the hand The Walking Dead has been dealt, only the show has even more free rein because it isn’t tethered to certain characters in the same way Thrones must orbit around Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen.
That doesn’t necessarily mean The Walking Dead will improve—while Thrones has had memorable episodes post–A Dance With Dragons, the off-book seventh season was largely a disappointment with too many narrative loopholes (since when was traveling across Westeros as easy as hopping on an express train?). With a few exceptions, like Carl’s emotional send-off and Morgan’s standalone episode with pacifist John Carroll Lynch (no, really), The Walking Dead hasn’t been good in several years. The series’ formulaic approach—Rick leading his group to a new safe haven, a place that will be undone through some calamitous means before everyone packs their bags, moves on, and tries to avoid becoming zombie chow—has even transcended its split-season, episodic structure. You could solely watch the premiere, midseason finale, midseason premiere, and season finale, and not miss anything important—that’s how The Walking Dead has operated since 2011. This narrative stagnancy—along with gratuitous violence that sometimes teeters on torture porn—has seen The Walking Dead bleed viewers for a couple of seasons now, unable to suture the wound. A CGI tiger and a zombie gladiator were only temporary salves to an otherwise predictable framework; flashy spins on the same narrative beats.
Some ideas going forward: The Walking Dead could spread out its characters across the post-apocalyptic wasteland for standalone stories, echoing the critically acclaimed first half of the fifth season. The series could embrace other dystopian tropes, like how Fear the Walking Dead suddenly decided Mad Max–esque SWAT vehicles were very cool (that’s correct!). What if The Walking Dead went full-blown horror with the Whisperers, a group from the comics the show has hinted at whose members disguise themselves as zombies and wear their skin like a mask. What if Daryl … got a haircut?
In order to grow, The Walking Dead needs to change, and losing the actor who’s played the main character for eight years is one hell of a change. But it also might be a blessing in disguise. In Walking Dead parlance—and in loving memory of Hershel Greene—the series can chop off an infected limb and still live to fight another day.