It's happening. Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) and Maggie Rhee (Lauren Cohan) will be departing The Walking Dead in Season 9. We think it's going to happen in Episode 5, because that one's called "What Comes After" and is written by former showrunner Scott Gimple and Matthew Negrete and directed by executive producer Greg Nicotero, who tends to direct the show's major episodes. Gimple and Nicotero wouldn't be credited on a middle-of-the-season episode unless something important was happening. Also, y'know, it's called "What Comes After." The implication is "What Comes After Rick."
So, we have a pretty good idea of when. How is a little murkier. We do know Maggie will not be dying, because showunner Angela Kang has said that the show plans to bring Maggie back next season, and the show already laid the groundwork for where she'll be going in the meantime: she'll be joining Georgie (Jayne Atkinson), the traveling barterer she met last season. Georgie gave her a book of society-rebuilding knowledge, and Maggie is almost certainly going to travel to her community to learn more. And that community is probably the Commonwealth, a colony already introduced in the comics that's much more culturally and technologically advanced than the Hilltop. In the trailer, there was a signpost pointing toward Toledo, the location of the Commonwealth.
The real mystery is Rick Grimes. Will he be killed off, or will he ride off into the sunset and leave open the possibility of a return/movie spin-off? Here are the best three I could come up with (I already came up with some fake ones).
The Walking Dead has been teasing ~something~ with a helicopter ever since Rick met the Heapsters in Season 7. In the Season 8 premiere, he looked up and saw a helicopter, which at the time almost seemed like a hallucination but may have been foreshadowing of his ultimate fate. That helicopter is somehow connected to Heapster leader Jadis (Pollyanna McIntosh), who is now going by her real name (Anne) and living at Alexandria. When she took Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) prisoner last season, she seemed to be ready to give him over to whoever was piloting the helicopter. The who, where and why of the helicopter is yet to be revealed, but it will have to be revealed. And the mystery of the helicopter has been drawn out for so long at this point that it would have to do something huge -- like taking Rick Grimes away -- in order to not be anticlimactic. Jadis wasn't able to give Negan away, but maybe the chopper people will take Rick instead? This is my favorite theory, because it will leave open the possibility of more Rick Grimes in the future. I don't think the franchise is ready to say goodbye to Rick forever. Give us a movie!
Whispers Into Screams
The skin-suited adversaries called the Whisperers will be arriving at some point in Season 9, led by Alpha (Samantha Morton) and Beta (Ryan Hurst). They made their presence known in the comics by putting a number of beloved characters' heads on pikes. If the show really wanted to go the brutal and traumatic route, they would have the Whisperers show they're not playing around by killing the show's leader. I hope this isn't what happens, because that would be too sudden and upsetting and undignified of a way for Rick Grimes to go out.
Last season, Rick's son Carl (Chandler Riggs) croaked after getting bitten by a walker. The bite wasn't immediately fatal, which gave him enough time to say goodbye to his loved ones. In fact, the entire Season 8 midseason premiere was devoted to saying goodbye to Carl. If the show isn't afraid to go to that well again so soon, Rick could get his own slowly dying farewell episode. Maybe he gets bitten or gets otherwise gravely injured while rescuing someone. Or maybe it's revealed he has a terminal illness that's beyond Siddiq's (Avi Nash) medical abilities. These would be kinda cheap ways to go out, but they would allow for a very emotional farewell.
There's also a distinct possibility it will be something else entirely. The show's writers get paid a lot of money to come up with surprising scenarios, y'know? They don't always do it, but there's a lot riding on this one so they're probably bringing their A-games.
What do you think will happen?
The Walking Dead Season 9 premieres Sunday, Oct. 7 at 9/8c.