The Walking Dead Rick

The Walking Dead is reaching a crossroads, but can it survive what comes next?

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May 30, 2018, 6:30 PM EDT

Could The Walking Dead be on the verge of becoming a walker itself? If there's any franchise with a concept built to survive cast shake-ups, it's The Walking Dead — characters die practically every week, and new survivors always cycle in to take their place.

But AMC's undead hit has never faced a crisis like it will this fall.

The show, based on Robert Kirkman's still-running comic of the same name, has always drawn quite a bit of inspiration from its canon. Sure, a few things get remixed along the way, but the broad strokes have always been there. The Prison. The Governor. Alexandria. Negan. All Out War. For eight years, Kirkman's comic has provided the guideposts for the story as things followed along a path, at least for the most part. And the throughline that has kept that tapestry together has always been Rick Grimes, the hero of both the comic and the television series.

The Walking Dead Maggie

Source: AMC

That all looks to change in Season 9, where the show is poised to lose or significantly reduce the roles of Andrew Lincoln (Rick Grimes), who will be following longtime star Lauren Cohan (Maggie Rhee) out. The phrasing is that they'll apparently be "phased out," so no matter how they do this (death or simply writing them off), the duo is on the way out. Lincoln is only attached to appear in six episodes next season, while Cohan has cut a similar deal. Lincoln is a London native, and has been making the annual trek to Georgia to shoot the series for nine years now, while Cohan has parlayed her success into a starring role in ABC's midseason spy dramedy Whiskey Cavalier. Ratings have already been dipping with the main cast intact, how will viewers respond once the most familiar faces are gone, too?

Both have become featured players on The Walking Dead over the years, and just as importantly, their characters remain major factors in the comic to this day. Couple those exits with the surprise death of Chandler Riggs' Carl Grimes last season (Carl is also still a major character in the comics), and the Walking Dead of Season 9 and beyond could bare little resemblance to what fans have come to know and love over the past decade.

'Walking Dead: The Daryl Dixon Hour'?

The Walking Dead Daryl

With the first half of Season 9 seemingly poised to wrap up those major characters and set the tone for what comes next, contract negotiations have given fans one major inkling of how the series might look without both Lincoln and Cohan in the line-up. Norman Reedus, who plays fan favorite Daryl Dixon, is reportedly ironing out a deal that would pay him north of $20 million to stick around on the series and essentially become its new de facto male lead in the wake of Lincoln's exit. Despite being a new character created for the TV series, Reedus' Daryl has become one of the most popular on the show (See: If Daryl Dies, We Riot). He's an obvious choice to pick up the baton from Lincoln, and the move would certainly be giving fans more of what they love.

That said, it still raises quite a few narrative questions. Daryl is a very different character than Rick, and it'd be hard to push him into that role as a surrogate for the stories that have been told in the comics over the past few years. In the comics, Rick becomes the leader of a newly unified group of colonies and settlements. It's hard to imagine the roguish Daryl sliding into that role easily. Not to mention the fact that Maggie is the leader of the Hilltop community in the comics, arguably almost as influential and powerful as Rick in this newly formed order. With both those characters gone, it'll take more than the often cited "remix" approach to make it all work across mediums — they'll have to throw things into a blender to try and figure out how this will all work.

Even then, the show's record when it deviates from the comic canon is mixed at best. At its best, The Walking Dead can be one of the most thoughtful and creative shows on television. But as fans know, it's not always at its best. Season 2 was a slog; the journey to Terminus drug on for far too long; that Grady Memorial Hospital arc in Season 5 was mostly a waste of time; they slow-rolled Negan's introduction to the point it was just painful to watch (for many reasons); and Jadis' garbage people still don't make a whole lot of sense. Not surprisingly, the majority of those largely panned diversions were not borrowed from the comics. We've already seen what happens when The Walking Dead skews too far from the comics, and the results have often not been great.

With Season 9 and a potential Season 10 forced to go even further off script due to cast shake-ups, fans have a reason to be worried about what this show could look like in a year or two.

The 'Fear the Walking Dead model'

The Walking Dead Morgan

If The Walking Dead is looking for a template to follow as it transitions away from some of its best-known characters, it doesn't have to look very far. Spinoff series Fear the Walking Dead started slow but eventually found its footing, telling a story completely removed from the comic canon in corners of the world not explored by the flagship story of Rick Grimes & Co.

It took a couple seasons to find its footing, but Fear is arguably a whole lot more compelling than The Walking Dead at this point, and is enjoying a creative renaissance in its fourth season. It's found that success by bringing over The Walking Dead alum Lennie James as Morgan Jones, while also adding some compelling new characters to mix in with a few survivors from the show's earlier seasons.

The Walking Dead Carol

Fear has finally figured out that the world is a big place, and untethered from the need to follow any pre-planned story, there's no rulebook for how people might act when all hell breaks loose and the dead start walking around. That's an attitude The Walking Dead might need to embrace. And sooner rather than later, with so many characters seemingly on the way out. It's risky business to start throwing away entire chunks of the comic stories that made the series so successful in the first place, but trying to follow those stories without the characters needed for them to actually resonate could be an even worse proposition. If The Walking Dead really is to reorient around Daryl Dixon and whoever else will make up the rest of the ensemble once the dust settles, it needs to become something different along the way.

Daryl isn't Rick, and he shouldn't have to be. If The Walking Dead is to survive creatively, it'll have to become something different at its core. Because Rick Grimes is The Walking Dead. He always has been, and for a whole lot of fans, almost certainly will be. A writers' room is already a pressure cooker, but the folks having to come up with The Walking Dead 2.0 will be sitting in a flaming frying pan next season. The pressure is on, and the trajectory of Season 9 will likely spell out if there really is a creative path forward for the flagship series or not. If not, AMC will have to do some soul searching to figure out exactly how it will keep its golden goose laying eggs.

Which begs the question: Should it even be The Walking Dead anymore? AMC has proven the franchise can support a spinoff already, and the network has experimented with web-based short-form storytelling for years within the Walking Dead universe. Instead of carrying on with The Walking Dead proper, could the solution be zeroing in on the strongest components and relaunching as a "different" series altogether?

Perhaps a Daryl-focused series that keeps some fan favorites moving forward with him? Or even spin off into some larger form anthology storytelling within this world, all tied in under The Walking Dead brand? AMC has been adamant that it sees this franchise as something with unprecedented legs, to the point it moved former Walking Dead showrunner Scott Gimple into a higher-level position overseeing the entirety of the Walking Dead "brand." With so many key cast members exiting anyway, what better time to implement that plan and try something new?

The ratings question: Will anyone be there to see it?

The Walking Dead episode 816 - Rick and Michonne head to battle

Gene Page/AMC

The creative questions of a new-look Walking Dead are all worth exploring, but this is television after all, so it'll always come back to one thing: money. The Walking Dead's ratings peaked during its fourth and fifth seasons with around 14 million viewers, and have steadily been trending downward ever since — with one of the most precipitous drops coming between Seasons 7 and 8 (falling from 11.3 million to 7.8 million on average). To be clear, even with ratings down, The Walking Dead is still a massive hit. That's down from being a monster hit, but still, most networks (cable or broadcast) would kill for these numbers, regardless. That might not always be the case, however.

Looking back at Fear the Walking Dead as a case study, the spinoff launched with an average of 7.6 million viewers during its first season, but those numbers have declined to around 2-3 million for its ongoing fourth season run (currently airing on AMC). Even numbers that "low" are still good for a cable series, but they pale in comparison to what The Walking Dead pulls in — especially the 14+ million during its heyday. Are fans tuning out of both shows due to zombie fatigue? Has the franchise simply moved out of the zeitgeist? Or is The Walking Dead simply stabilizing and those declines will start to level out at some point?

Right now, no one knows. But the only thing that is clear is that less and less people are watching The Walking Dead — and losing two of the show's biggest stars is almost certainly not the way to stop the bleeding. This franchise has been an unstoppable juggernaut for the better part of a decade, but that era has slowly been stumbling to an end. With Lincoln leaving, it's not just a change — it's a seismic shift. The Walking Dead stands at a crossroads, and whatever happens next season, it will almost certainly define the future of the franchise itself.

What does this world look like without Rick? We have no idea, but we're at least a bit curious to find out. But after that, The Walking Dead better get real good real fast if it hopes to survive.

Let's just hope they don't go with that "it was all a dream" theory.

The Walking Dead Rick and Carl

Source: AMC