With its lead Rick Grimes gone, can The Walking Dead trudge on?
The following story includes spoilers from Season 9 of AMC's The Walking Dead
Life in the zombie apocalypse was never a picnic, but now, the fictional universe of The Walking Dead could get even more disorienting: main character Rick Grimes, played by British actor Andrew Lincoln for the last nine years, is set to exit the show on Sunday.
It's an end of an extraordinary arc that started with him opening his eyes in a hospital bed to learn the world as he knew it was gone, including the loss of family, friends, and faith in his moral compass.
But Rick's departure won't just be stressful for the show's fans. AMC's zombie drama, once a juggernaut with 18 million viewers per episode, has been steadily losing its audience over the last two years. It started this season with ratings down by more than 50 per cent from their peak. Can the show hobble on without its lead?
Rick Porter, staff writer for The Hollywood Reporter, says losing Grimes poses an "inherent risk."
"He's so identified with the show and has been from the beginning, from being central to the story lines to being the guy on all the posters, it runs the risk of people wondering if they still want to watch if he's not there anymore."
The stakes for AMC
By all accounts, AMC did not choose to dispatch with Sheriff Grimes of its own volition. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly radio, Andrew Lincoln said he wanted to spend more time with his children in England after nine years toiling away on the show's set in Georgia.
From Lincoln's penultimate episode, it seems pretty clear that his character will, in fact, die. Episode four saw him speared through the abdomen, bleeding profusely, and surrounded by "walkers" (zombies in the vernacular of The Walking Dead). And given his leadership role and family ties to other key characters — partner of Michonne, father to Judith — the likelihood of him just going away to some other community seems slim.
Since fans knew of Lincoln's departure for a while, AMC made an unusual decision to heavily promote the episodes as the last time for viewers to see Rick Grimes. It may seem like a cynical strategy, but Rick Porter says it just might work — in the short run at least.
"I think probably, that episode, more people will tune in," says Porter. "And then after that, it's going to be really interesting to see what happens."
What happens after may well depend on how Rick Grimes' death is handled.
Deaths done badly
One of the reasons it's so crucial for The Walking Dead to handle Grimes' death properly is that at least a part of the show's audience attrition has to do with previous character deaths that fans felt were manipulative or done purely for shock value.
It began with fan favourite Glenn Rhee (played by Steven Yeun), who appeared to be killed in season six only to be revealed as alive many episodes later. Then he was brutally killed by villain Negan at the beginning of season seven (but not before making the audience wait the whole summer to find out who was on the receiving end of Negan's barbed bat).
Then, last season, came the zombie-bite death of Carl Grimes, Rick's teenaged son, who had literally grown in front of the audience's eyes.
That death came as a shock to many, as Carl remains alive and well in the ongoing comic book version of The Walking Dead. In fact, he has replaced his aging father as the leader of a new civilization. Critics once again agreed that the death seemed unnecessary — included only for shock value — and many fans took to social media to express their outrage.
I’m getting really heated about <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/TWD?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#TWD</a> because I’m a huge fan of the comics and it’s been one of my favourite shows since it started. It kills me to have to watch it be turned into a show full of lazy writing and cheap schticks. <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/TheWalkingDead?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#TheWalkingDead</a>—@AnnieDPietra
<a href="https://twitter.com/ScottMGimple?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@ScottMGimple</a> no one likes you right now. I don’t like you right now. <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/TheWalkingDead?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#TheWalkingDead</a>—@starmlw
Hope in the zombie apocalypse
If Rick Grimes' death is handled with a modicum of satisfaction to fans, The Walking Dead just may, against all odds, go on to season 10.
The current season has been almost unanimously praised by critics for returning to the values that made it a hit in the first place: a focus on interpersonal relationships, loyalties and betrayals. Many attribute this shift to the new show runner, Angela Kang.
The show's ratings may be bad compared to its peak seasons, but they're the envy of other programs.
"Unless literally everybody stops watching after Andrew Lincoln leaves, I'm still fairly certain it would be renewed," says Porter. "It's still, despite all of its losses, easily the biggest show on AMC and other than Game of Thrones, the biggest scripted series on cable."
At one point, the idea that a show about a zombie drama — a niche subject if there ever was one —could be one of the top-rated shows on television, seemed impossible. Maybe The Walking Dead is about to pull out another ace from its tattered, zombie-bitten sleeve.