andrew lincoln leaving the walking dead

UPDATE: We’ve got new details on how The Walking Dead will continue without Andrew Lincoln. Our original story from May 29 with updated information follows below.

All long-running television shows eventually start shedding their leading characters…and AMC’s The Walking Dead has never been shy about shedding them directly into a meat grinder. The ever-popular zombie series has killed plenty of folks over the years, but Andrew Lincoln‘s Rick Grimes has always seemed untouchable, the one person on the buffet who would avoid becoming zombie chow.

But it seems that Lincoln is looking to exit the series after season 9, which means his license to survive is about to expire.

This report comes our way via Collider, and while it has yet to be confirmed by AMC or anyone attached to The Walking Dead, they’re an outlet not known for making this kind of stuff up. At the very least, something is rumbling behind the scenes of the series. After all, Lauren Cohan, who joined the series in season 2 as Maggie, recently held out returning to the series until she received a better deal. It’s now confirmed that she will return for six episodes of the upcoming season 9…after which she will presumably become zombie food as well.

Collider reports that Andrew Lincoln will see a similar deal, appearing in six episodes of season 9 before exiting the series. Whether the show will let him depart gracefully or see him torn apart by the undead or human enemies (theĀ realĀ walking dead!) is the big question mark. However, Collider says that Norman Reedus‘ Daryl Dixon will step up and become the show’s new leading man following Lincoln’s departure.

UPDATE: The Hollywood Reporter says Norman Reedus will be paid more than $20 million to become the main character on The Walking Dead. It’s not a done deal yet, but the finer details will be sorted out in order to keep the fan favorite character Daryl around a bit longer.

While The Walking Dead has killed off plenty of key characters in the past (including Chandler Riggs‘ seemingly un-killable Carl in season 8), losing Lincoln feels like a huge blow. His Rick Grimes was the face of the show and his consistently intense and unhinged work gave the show a backbone through its darkest moments. Quite frankly, Lincoln was always better than the material offered to him and he revealed a TV star magnetism that was vital to keeping audiences on board the show’s increasingly nihilistic journey.

But honestly, after nearly a decade of shooting zombies in the face, can you blame an actor as skilled as Lincoln for wanting a change of pace and scenery?

There are several huge questions lingering in the air here. First: how will fans respond? While ratings aren’t exactly plummeting, viewership is definitely down and even longtime watchers have not responded well to the most recent storylines. Losing Rick certainly won’t help, especially after the deaths of Carl and Glenn led to vocal outcries from angry fans.

Second: how will the show respond? The Walking Dead still follows the basic template set by the comic book and writer Robert Kirkman and artist Charlie Adlard. Rick (and Maggie and even Carl!) are still very much alive in the pages of the source material. In fact, Rick is still the central character and vitally important to upcoming storylines. The show could just swap Daryl (a character who doesn’t exist in the comics) in his place, but that’s easier said than done, especially since the characters are so different.

The Walking Dead season 9 is expected to premiere later this year. Meanwhile, the comic series is sprinting toward issue 200.

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