Rick (Andrew Lincoln) takes a nap.
Image: All images: Jackson Lee Davis (AMC)

Guys? Guys. I barely know what to say about tonight’s The Walking Dead, which was highly touted as Andrew Lincoln’s final episode, but ended up being much, much more. I fully expect this episode to be very divisive, but I loved it. Call it bold, crazy, stupid, fantastic, infuriating, whatever—I can’t remember the last time a Walking Dead episode ended with my jaw on the floor.

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Here’s how crazy “What Comes After” was: I’m putting another spoiler bar. Because if you haven’t seen it, but have any plans to, I beg of you to stop reading, go watch, and come back. You do not want to have the surprise spoiled for you, I assure you.

Okay, ready?

So you know how we all assumed Rick was going to die? It being Andrew Lincoln’s finale episode and all? Yeah… not so much.

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…maybe?

Let’s just start at the end and discuss the final few minutes, because that’s all anyone is going to talk about anyway. So, after spending the full hour in what is basically one giant death scene, Rick heroically sacrifices himself to blow up his beloved bridge by shooting some conveniently placed dynamite, preventing that mega-herd from heading to Hilltop and destroying it. Michonne, Daryl, Carol, and others arrive just in time see the explosion, and then see all the remaining zombies fall into the river (many on fire, which was fun), where they are swept away. Hilltop is saved. Rick is dead. Tears ensue.

Except Rick didn’t die.

Anne/Jadis (Pollyanna McIntosh) asks for a favor.

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He got blown into the river as well, and conveniently washed ashore right next to where Anne/Jadis was waiting for her helicopter pick-up. She tells the mysterious dude on the walkie-talkie that she has a “B,” not an “A” (of course she didn’t have an “A” either, after she let Gabriel live; she was hoping to ambush the helicopter pilot) and begs the dude to help save her friend. When Rick wakes yet again, he’s on a gurney inside the copter, and it takes off. Anne assures him that he’s going to be okay now, and tries to comfort him by saying, “They’re going to fix you” which ends up being not particularly comforting but very ominous. But when the scene ends, in his final shot, Rick is very clearly alive.

Also? While this scene is happening a goddamned Wang Chung song is playing. Not “Everybody Have Fun Tonight,” thank goodness, but “Welcome to My World,” which is the poppiest song that’s even been played on the show and just makes everything so much weirder.

And then things get crazier. We cut to five all-new survivors in the woods, surrounded by zombies. Just when they’re about to be munched, someone fires a gun and headshots a bunch of the undead, clearing a path for them, and a young girl yells at them to run her way, which they do.

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As always, I’m terrible with kids’ ages, but I think the girl is about eight or so? She’s armed and alone, which means she’s definitely the one who took out the zombies, and is clearly one a hell of a shot. She also has Michonne’s katana on her back. The new people ask who she is. The girl, of course—of course—picks up Rick’s sheriff’s hat, puts it on, and says like the tiny, badass Lady Mormont of the zombie apocalypse that she’s become: “Judith. Judith Grimes.”

It’s a timeskip! Perhaps four or five years! Which raises a million questions about what’s changed in the colonies and for the characters over that time, because that’s a long, long time—the jump between season eight and season nine was only a year and a half—but it also makes Rick’s status about 900 times more mysterious, and it was already mysterious as hell.

Rick needs a nap.

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Is Rick still alive? Surely, because it would be terrible and terribly idiotic for the show to have him die off-screen, and I don’t think even TWD is that foolish. So let’s assume he’s alive; he must be trapped wherever he was taken because otherwise he would have gotten back to Alexandria. But why are they keeping him there? Who are they, anyway? What’s their whole deal? What have they done to Rick? But the biggest question is this: Is this really Andrew Lincoln’s final episode?

Maybe AMC will be announcing something shortly and offer some clarity here, but I just can’t imagine this is really it. The show can’t leave Rick’s fate open-ended forever, because that would completely deny TWD’s dwindling audience closure for the most important character of the series, which would be insane and infuriating (I’m sure it already is infuriating for some people). I know AMC claimed that this was Lincoln’s final episode, but I really wouldn’t put it past the network to lie, or making the announcement since this is Lincoln’s final episode for the foreseeable future. I don’t think the show needs to reveal Rick’s fate anytime soon; even a few seasons down the line would be okay, and honestly, the heroes learning that Rick is alive and trying to figure out what the hell happened would go a long way toward keeping viewers watching.

AMC may just want to keep the character alive off-screen in case the network manages to talk the actor into coming back, which makes this an incredibly risky move. I think it more likely there’s a plan in place for Lincoln to come back at some point, although that doesn’t mean there’s anything set in stone. I personally can easily imagine Lincoln returning for a single very special episode some point in the future, or even a brief arc after a few years off. Besides if Lincoln wanted to be completely gone forever, I don’t think he’d be excited about his character to going out on a huge, dangling plotline—and if AMC had forced him to accept that end for Rick, he presumably wouldn’t have agreed to direct a future episode...an episode that now, of course, may include a certain guest appearance?

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And hey, the word was Lincoln was leaving after six episodes, but this is just the fifth of the season…so that sixth episode has to fit in somewhere, right? So even if there are no plans to bring Rick back for now, I can’t imagine The Walking Dead would pull this stunt without at least a handshake deal with Lincoln for an appearance down the line to actually wrap this storyline up.

Zombies don’t want to let Rick nap.

I expect many of you are irritated, if not downright infuriated by the switcheroo, but I’m fine with it. I often hate when networks and studios pull this sort of stuff, but AMC never said Rick would die, just that it was Lincoln’s final episode; even if this doesn’t turn out to be true, I’m fine with the lie because the fact that Rick has gone to Helicopter Land is so intriguing. Also it was genuinely funny to me to watch Rick nearly die about a hundred times in the episode, and just be waiting for him to finally kick the bucket, but then for him to live despite all the nonsense he went through. I think, mainly, that I’m so impressed by the audacity of the show to hook Lincoln’s departure to its biggest mystery that I enjoyed the shock, and I enjoyed it even more when the show doubled-down with the timeskip. But given all the other shit The Walking Dead has piled on its fans over the last few years, I imagine this will be a breaking point for more than a few of you.

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There’s a lot of other things you can dislike about the episode, anyway. As I mentioned, it’s mainly one comically long death scene for Rick, who manages to pull himself off the rebar he impaled himself on last episode, climb on his horse, and try to lead the zombie herd away while continually passing out and waking up in the nick of time. Honestly, it happens so often it actually gets ridiculous because he seems like he’s mere seconds away from dying from his wound for the entirety of the hour-long episode, and that’s not counting all his last-second escapes from the million or so zombies walking about six feet behind him at any given moment.

Then there are the visions he has when he’s passed out, which are all vague and portentous, and mainly about him letting go, and how he’s done his part and he’s made everyone stronger and better, and so forth. It’s weird for Sasha to come back to give him one of these ghostly pep talks, when Carl or even Glenn would have been a much more powerful choice. But seeing Rick have a conversation with Shane, who congratulates him on being such an asshole was cool, especially because it reminded me of something I had forgotten completely: Judith isn’t Rick’s daughter. Rick and Shane talk about how she looks like her father, and thus it makes Tiny Badass Judith’s appearance at the end of the episode even more impactful.

Rick takes another nap.

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And then… there’s Herschel. Rick envision him at his farm, and they enjoy a sunset. Just seeing a proud Herschel tell Rick he’s done well would have brought a tear to my eye on its own, but given that actor Scott Wilson passed away less than a month ago made this scene a hell of a gut-punch. It was really wonderful, and his appearance alone pretty much gives the episode all the emotional heft it needed. It’s certainly all I needed to get so sucked in I didn’t think about why the hell there was dynamite just hanging out on the bridge, or why Rick felt he had to be so close to the blast to shoot it, until well after the episode finished. (To be fair, Daryl’s quiet devastation at seeing Rick’s “death” also had me completely rapt.) As always, I don’t mind plot holes as long as I’m so entertained I don’t have time to think about them while I’m watching—and “What Comes After” absolutely did that for me.

The wildest thing about all of this is that the show has bet all its chips. It’s completely upended the status quo and lost its main character, so if people don’t like or don’t get interested in the new world it’s presenting next week, it is totally screwed. Or, the show could be so dumb that Rick’s fate will be completely unsatisfying and infuriating because it’s either idiotic or never referred to again, which will absolutely destroy all remaining goodwill people are clinging to for the series. There’s also a decent chance that Rick’s bizarre departure to helicopter heaven has pissed off so many people on its own that the show is already doomed.

On the other hand, I can also see a future where people start tuning in again to see “what comes after” (see what I did there) these huge, huge twists, and sticking around if they like what they see. The show has been so good so far this season, I am shocked to discover I think there’s a chance it may actually know what it’s doing here. Either way, this decision is bold as hell, and whether it works or fails spectacularly, I appreciate the hell out of it.

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The future of The Walking Dead TV series depends entirely on what the show does now. Given that I’m absolutely dying to see next week’s episode and find out what that future is, I can’t help but feel the show’s done something right.

Maggie (Lauren Cohen) helps a zombie take a nap. Forever.

Assorted Musings:

  • Oh, yeah, the other main plot: Maggie arrives in Alexandria with a crowbar to finally kill Negan, because she simply can’t live without getting the closure of vengeance for Glenn. Michonne tries to stop her, but when Maggie points out that if Negan had killed Rick, Michonne couldn’t let him live either, Michonne gives her the key. Inside, Negan immediately provokes Maggie, telling her how much he loved killing Glenn, almost as if Negan is trying to get himself killed.
  • This is because Negan is very much trying to get himself killed. On a dime, Negan turns from assholery to sobbing wretchedly and begging her to kill him so he can be with his beloved wife Lucille. Negan is truly pitiful here, and confesses that he doesn’t have the courage to kill himself. “I can’t feel like this. Please don’t let me stay like this,” Negan begs Maggie, who realizes he’s in utter agony because of the loss of his spouse, and Maggie is not happy to discover this similarity between them. She eventually leaves and lets Negan rot in his cell, because the leader of the Saviors is already dead—the person stuck inside the cell is someone else entirely, someone completely broken.
  • All the visions harkening back to the early episodes were nice, but I was most happy to see the return of the “Don’t Open Dead Inside” door.
  • There was so much of Rick’s blood on that horse, guys. Seriously, Rick should have died about a hundred times this episode.
  • Also, Rick’s hobbling in front of the zombie herd, walking exactly like they were, was a bit on-the-nose. We get it, guys.
  • Ghost Sasha’s belief that humanity is always slowly creeping towards goodness was a bit contradicted by the fact that she and Rick are standing in a sea of corpses. Thanks for trying to make Rick and me feel better and humanity, though.
  • Seriously: What the hell?

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