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Major spoilers for The Walking Dead Season 9 Episode 5: “What Comes After” and The Walking Dead comic through issue 184 follow. Read at your own risk!

Since Halloween 2010, The Walking Dead has seemingly dominated television’s horror genre. Unbeknownst to many, however, the series has been failing for quite some time. Only twice has the show managed to top 17 million viewers, with its fifth season premiere four years ago drawing in the highest ratings overall. That episode marked the return of Morgan, played by Lennie James, to the show. The other episode viewed by 17 million: “Who will Negan kill?” Naturally, with all of these viewers coming out of the woodwork to see landmark events occur on the show, this week’s episode – Rick Grimes’s final episode – must have been massive, right? Quite the contrary, as What Comes After only reeled in 5.41 million viewers, just a smidge higher than the series premiere’s minuscule ratings of 5.35 million. But I’m not just here to talk numbers. I want to talk about why barely anybody watched Andrew Lincoln leave the award-winning phenomenon after eight years as the show’s poster child. Furthermore, I want to talk about why barely anybody watches The Walking Dead at all these days, and why this season is the perfect place to jump back onto the apocalyptic bandwagon.

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I’ve been a die-hard fan of The Walking Dead for many, many years. I have read every issue of the comic book, played every iteration of video game – from touchscreen to Telltale – and I’ve even attended multiple years of their annual convention: Walker Stalker Con. Yeah, I’m really into this franchise. But that doesn’t mean I can’t be critical, and when it comes to the television show, I’ve nearly torn that whole thing apart on many occasions. My dad likes to say: “You can’t call yourself a fan of something if you don’t like everything about it.” To me, this is a terrible way to look at things. If one isn’t critical, especially of their favorite things, then how can they possibly be proud when said thing completely changes the game and returns to its former glory? Case in point, if I weren’t critical of the last two to three seasons of The Walking Dead, how could I have been so blown away by this week’s episode?

First off, let me give you a little explanation as to why I’ve been so down on The Walking Dead for about four years. Many of my friends and colleagues have been very outspoken as to why they dropped the show years ago. Most believe it was the prison that did them in, and once the group left – or in some cases, when they arrived – they stopped watching the show regularly. I, however, continued on. As the show began to divert from the comic book storyline, I grew more and more frustrated. I remember the discovery of “Terminus” threw me for a loop. That was perhaps the first time I screamed “I’m done with this show!” and gave up for about a week. This didn’t last, of course, as the introduction of comic book characters and events like Father Gabriel and the cannibalistic Hunters increased my hype meter once again, and I was subsequently reeled back in.

Through the years, I just haven’t been able to stay away. Even though plotlines like Beth in that creepy hospital, Jadis and the junk people, and every time Enid was onscreen made me want to bash my head against a wall, I never gave up. My unbreakable loyalty stayed strong. This made moments like Glenn’s death and King Ezekiel’s introduction so worthwhile, because these comic events were finally being brought to life onscreen; I felt part of the action. So you see, The Walking Dead may have its downfalls, certainly, but it still manages to stay afloat. I may have said that after Andrew Lincoln’s departure there’s no way the show would last another season, but judging by the preview of the next three episodes, I will gladly eat my words. The Walking Dead is not just another sinking ship.

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Since we’re here because of Rick Grimes, let’s talk about why he’s gone, and what exactly happened in this week’s episode. Following the death of his son Carl last season, Rick’s dejected attitude has really affected morale within the group. Maggie hasn’t gotten over the imprisonment of Negan – rather than killing him – and the Saviors are refusing to cooperate under Rick’s leadership. Fortunately, Rick has Michonne to keep him positive, and looking toward the future. Granted, I absolutely despise the Rick/Michonne romance. I think it completely demeans her strong independent character, which the show has established through numerous seasons. Yes, her relationship with Ezekiel from the books has been given to Carol in the show, but it’s impossible to see Michonne in Andrea’s comic book role as Rick’s new love interest. I never believed in it, and frankly I’m glad it’s over now.

Shifting back to the story at hand, Michonne and Judith, Rick’s daughter, have helped keep him in a semi-upbeat mood. Unfortunately, Maggie and Daryl’s interference in last week’s episode put Rick in quite a terrifying scenario: impaled on rebar while two walker hordes are bearing down on him from different directions. This week, just as we thought it was over, Rick used his belt to pull himself off the rebar – being the hero he is – and mount his horse to redirect the hordes and save his family. Throughout the episode, he is met by old deceased friends while drifting in and out of consciousness, from Shane, to Hershel, to Sasha. In the end, Rick meets back up with his present-day family, but seeing he’s the only hope in stopping the walkers from destroying all he’s built, Rick sacrifices himself by shooting his gun at dynamite to blow his beloved bridge sky high and send hundreds of zombies into the flowing river beneath. I’ll admit it, I cried. Rick was given a true hero’s death, complete with a close-up shot of his signature revolver pointing downward – his trademark execution move. Any fan would have been proud of the way he went out, and the fact that Jadis ended up finding his body and airlifting him out of there not only gave some “thank God he’s not dead” hope to the situation, but it also opened up a brand new mystery for the series, to be later explored in three upcoming television movies, starring Andrew Lincoln’s Rick Grimes.

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So what does this all mean? Well for starters, The Walking Dead is about to undergo some major changes, the likes of which we’ve never seen before. You see, in the comics, Rick is still alive! By giving us a world without Rick Grimes, albeit only on television, we’re given a glimpse at an apocalypse without a plan. For once, the group is left with no true leadership. Sure, there’s still Michonne to carry on Rick’s legacy, and other leaders in the form of Maggie and Ezekiel at the Hilltop and the Kingdom respectively, but without Rick, all of the plans put in place are now up in the air. Where do we go from here? What Comes After?

Well in real life, Andrew Lincoln is heading back to his family in England. Simply, he’s tired of being away from them and he just wants to go back and take a break from it all. Fortunately, the show wrote him out in such a way that he can return at any point. As we know, he’s coming back for three films, but his return to the show would be far in the future. So don’t expect Mr. Grimes to grace Alexandria with his presence for quite some time. As for the rest of the crew left behind? Well, they’re left with their misery and their guilt. The crestfallen band of survivors is now forced to trudge on through Armageddon without a steady chain of command. Granted, this season so far has been full of shortfalls, what with the Saviors going rogue and giving up production on the bridge, to the Oceanside girls seeking vengeance on new recruits for past grievances. Not to mention, Aaron lost his freaking arm! That being said, the rest of the group can most likely pick up the pieces and move forward – save for the bridge because, you know, it exploded. Everything else is salvageable, however. Yes, it’s different than what happens in the books, but hey, Carl is still alive there, too.

Much like the books, the show must go on! Literally. But how does one take a seemingly crippled group and make them strong again? Well, obviously they introduce some new fan favorite characters from the comics and pit them all against the most ruthless and disturbing enemies The Walking Dead has ever proposed: The Whisperers. All I can say is that I was on the edge of my seat during this episode’s final moments. Rick is surviving, Magna is finally here, and… Judith is a little badass?! My heart instantly filled up thinking “This is our live-action Clementine!” I’m typically not okay with gender-swapping characters for views or praise, but I don’t think that’s what this is with Judith. It seems this is the way to continue Carl’s legacy in the books, through a previously unimportant side character in the show. Michonne will take Rick’s role – grieving for him as he did with Andrea in the comic, Judith will take Carl’s, and each character will fall into place thereafter.

As time goes on, it seems the Whisperers will cause trouble for the group, bringing devastation and increasing cause for concern in their wake. From the trailer I can deduce that Magna will set Negan free, Eugene’s radio will finally be introduced, and the Aaron/Jesus romance will (finally) flourish. All in all, there’s some real fan service happening here. Just throw in a Whisperer love interest for Judith and a massive main character massacre to leave Carol devastated, and you’ve got a comic book parallel that’ll keep me entertained for seasons to come. The Walking Dead‘s future isn’t just for the comic fans, though. The sheer amount of action and gripping story on the horizon is sure to be satisfying for any horror junkie. Just look at the Whisperers; a group of humans who wear zombie carcasses as suits to blend in and control hordes. From a horror standpoint alone, these visuals will be terrifying and captivating. On top of this, the story at hand focuses more on zombies and survival than the human condition in a post-apocalyptic world. This could draw back in those viewers who gave up because “The Walking Dead isn’t a show about zombies.” Surprise! Just like Game of Thrones‘s dragons, they’ve finally arrived in full force, and shit’s about to go down.

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So what does a world without Rick Grimes entail? It involves change, and acceptance, and perseverance. It requires belief in oneself to carry on through hardship. It calls for some tears to be shed, and that’s exactly what happened in my household. As a die-hard fan, I couldn’t have asked for a better sendoff for Rick Grimes. “Dying” a hero’s death, sacrificing himself for his family, and ultimately carrying on to start a new journey elsewhere. It’s the end of one era, but the beginning of so many more. So thank you, Andrew Lincoln, for teaching us all what it means to stick with something even when it’s difficult to go on, whether that be a zombie apocalypse, or a television show that’s gradually fallen from greatness. You’ve taught us so many lessons with your tear-jerking departure. What I’ve learned in this episode is that sometimes it’s okay to divert from the source material, especially when things are past their prime. Change is good, and change can bring about a newfound excitement for your favorite things. Furthermore, letting go can be hard, but sometimes it’s necessary. As Sasha said herself in What Comes After, “Little things do end. But it’s never the end of everything.” That foreshadowing alone left a smile on my face, and a tear in my eye. This reaction was fairly different from the preview for the next three episodes, which had me screaming like a prepubescent girl at a One Direction concert. Speaking of which, if one of them ever shows up in a Walking Dead episode a la Ed Sheeran in Game of Thrones, I’m giving up on the show. Again.

Or am I?

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