Rick’s Departure on ‘The Walking Dead’ is, Well, Weird. The Tougher Question is Whattya Do Next, Guys?

Quite understandably, AMC and the producers of The Walking Dead want no spoilers leaking out ahead of this Sunday’s episode, on which Andrew Lincoln’s Rick Grimes is said to be making his final appearance.

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Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), his steed and some of his followers.

The “Rick’s last episode” part isn’t a spoiler. It’s the hook on which AMC has hung virtually every piece of promotion for this whole ninth Walking Dead season.

Since the Walking Dead fan community is a lively and chatty bunch, scenarios have naturally been circulating. Some are quite accurate. Others are not.

Having now seen the episode, which airs at 9 p.m. ET, I can promise that I will reveal no spoilers.

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Because, for one thing, I’m not sure I understood enough of what happens to blurt out a spoiler even if I were so inclined. Which, okay, I’m not.

The departure of Rick Grimes is a big deal on The Walking Dead for a couple of reasons.

First, Rick has been the character around which much of the other drama revolved. Long-running characters like Daryl (Norman Reedus), Carol (Melissa McBride), Maggie (Lauren Cohan) and Michonne (Danai Gurira) have been defined in considerable measure by their interactions with Rick, some friendly, some contentious and some simply dialogue on the nature of human survival.

Second, there’s this: TWD’s spinoff show, Fear the Walking Dead, did something of the same thing this past season when it terminated Madison (Kim Dickens). While that starkly reinforced the promise there are no immunity cards in the Walking Dead universe, it created a TV drama crisis.

It left a hole in the center of the show that Fear scrambled desperately to resolve for the rest of the season and never quite did.

Third, Rick himself left a big loose end last season after he and his allies defeated the evil Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and the Saviors in the heavily promoted All-Out War.

While Rick and Negan had spent two sometimes interminable seasons repeatedly threatening to kill each other, in the end Rick kept Negan alive. For some 18 months Negan has been sitting alone in a jail cell, which inevitably has raised the question of whether the All-Out War wasn’t really the whole ballgame after all and at some point this pendulum could swing back.

Say it ain’t so. But without Rick on the scene, and with many surviving Saviors showing increasing signs of psychotic discontent under the new order, we’re looking at legitimate concern about the long-term viability of the world so far led and symbolized by Rick.

Without Rick, we need a leader and a symbol and we need them fast.

Now sure, the stability of the world in the aftermath of a Zombie Apocalypse has always been always in question. That’s the whole point of the show.

But more than after any other departure, both the survivors and the Walking Dead writing team must now take a step back and think about what could come next. Or what should come next.

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Maggie (Lauren Cohan) at work.

Sunday’s episode itself doesn’t spend a lot of time on the future. Instead it focuses on other times, and while naturally much of the episode also focuses on Rick, it isn’t one of the show’s somewhat infamous single-character studies. Others appear.

A couple of events Sunday grow logically from seeds planted through the opening episodes of this season. Others will come as a surprise. To those of us viewers who perhaps aren’t hard-core enough, there is more than one moment of “Huh?”

In any case, The Walking Dead producers and creators are banking heavily on Rick’s departure, and presumably its aftermath, to reinvigorate a viewership that remains the highest for any cable drama, but has taken a fairly sharp dip over the past two seasons. The Negan years.

Whether Sunday’s episode can have that impact remains, to be honest, a longshot. Fear The Walking Dead dipped after Madison’s departure, and TV intuition suggests that eliminating a well-liked primary character is not the best way to make a show more appealing.

But The Walking Dead has defied conventional TV wisdom before, and apparently the creators feel confident that even in the absence of Rick, it can continue to lurch forward.

David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”

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