[Warning! You are now entering a Walking Dead Spoiler Zone! Read at your own risk!]
The Walking Dead ended Rick Grimes' (Andrew Lincoln) second-to-last episode on a cliffhanger that directly sets up his final episode, and it looks like this is the end. It's hard to imagine how Rick gets out of this one alive. On the other hand, though, the fact that all seems lost right now could mean there's a twist coming up that spares him. Because falling off a horse onto a pile of rubble and getting impaled through the abdomen on a piece of rebar seems like kind of a random, anticlimactic way for Rick Grimes to die. But one way or another, Rick Grimes is leaving.
At the beginning of "The Obliged," Eugene (Josh McDermitt) advises Rick that two walker herds near the bridge camp aren't going to converge. But thanks to the Saviors' walkoff last week, Rick's dream of rebuilding the bridge is washed out, and Eugene — who still hasn't explained why he switched out his iconic mullet for a ponytail — says that he's sorry for not doing more to help. Rick cuts him off and absolves him of all his past sins, of which Eugene has many, though he's also done much to redeem himself.
"You got us here," Rick says. "After everything, that's everything." What Daryl (Norman Reedus) says later in the episode is wrong; Rick does believe in his people.
Jerry (Cooper Andrews) relays a warning that Maggie (Lauren Cohan) is on her way to Alexandria to kill Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and finally get her revenge for what he did to her husband Glenn (Steven Yeun), and Daryl says he'll take Rick back on his bike so he can stop her. But Daryl is in on it with Maggie and instead takes Rick farther away from Alexandria. "It's time, man," Daryl says. "It's gonna go the way it was supposed to." They fight and end up falling into a pit.
In the pit, they hash out their differences. Rick says that keeping Negan alive symbolizes the civilization they're building, where eye-for-an-eye brutality no longer has to be the rule. But Daryl says that he and Maggie and Oceanside just can't coexist with the Saviors and can't let Negan live after what he did to them. It's just too unjust to them. Daryl reminds Rick that he wouldn't be alive if it weren't for Glenn. The two of them wouldn't have met. They wouldn't be trapped in that pit together at that moment. Rick starts crying and says that if Negan becomes a martyr, Carl (Chandler Riggs) would have died for nothing. It's still hard for Rick to talk about Carl, but this civilization he's building is for him. This is Carl's vision that Rick is enacting. If he abandons the plan, he will lose his boy.
"I'd die for you," Daryl says. "And I would have died for Carl. You know that. But you gotta hear me. You're chasing something for him that ain't meant to be, man. You just gotta let him. Let him go." This is setting up Rick's final reckoning. As he's baking in the sun, he'll come to terms with the loss of Carl.
Rick makes it out of the pit first, and then pulls Daryl out, saying "Brother, brother, take my hand." They separate, because Rick is not ready to give up on the bridge, and he's going to lead the walker herd that swarmed on them while they were in the pit away from the camp. So he gets on a horse that conveniently appears and tries to draw it away, but he gets caught in the convergence between the two herds. The horse gets spooked and bucks him off, and down he goes, impaled, as the walkers stream toward him.
Here's how I predict the next episode will go: Rick will have visions not unlike Tyreese (Chad Coleman) had in his death episode, and he'll hallucinate Shane (Jon Bernthal), Hershel (Scott Wilson) and Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green), and then Daryl will rescue him, because Daryl will know that something bad happened to his brother. Norman Reedus told TV Guide during a visit to the set that in the last scene Lincoln shot, he was laying on a bed and had to smile even though it "wasn't a smiley moment," and so Reedus tickled his feet off-camera to make him smile. We're not going to see that scene if Rick dies on a pile of rubble (unless Reedus was fudging the details, and by "bed" he meant "bed of rubble").
Getting impaled does seem to refute the theory that he'll get in Jadis' (Pollyanna McIntosh) friends' helicopter and fly away from the show. So if he survives, that won't be how. There's no hard evidence to suggest he survives, but there have been some vague hints. Lincoln said in his farewell address at San Diego Comic-Con that his "relationship with Mr. Grimes is far from over," which some people took to mean that Rick doesn't die, though Lincoln also said "a sort of large part of me will always be a machete-wielding, Stetson-wearing, zombie-slaying sheriff's deputy from London, England," so he may have been talking figuratively. And, again, this doesn't seem like a death befitting the respected lead of a show whose character is brave and self-sacrificing.
If this is how Rick dies, fans will be even angrier than they were when Carl died. Carl's death-by-walker felt random and sudden in an unsatisfying way, and for The Walking Dead to kill off two major characters in anticlimactic ways in less than a year would be inept. Season 9 has been much better than Season 8 so far, and unless this next episode is an emotional tour de force, killing Rick like this would be misstep the show never recovers from. The Walking Dead has always been a show where any character could die at any time, but it still has to make those deaths feel significant. Hopefully whatever happens in the next episode, death or not, feels like the only way Rick Grimes could have left The Walking Dead.