AMC’s The Walking Dead has been on the air for nearly a decade, but it’s ready to become a whole new show in season 9. Following in the footsteps of the comic that inspired it, the newest storyline is something of a soft reboot, a new foundation on which to give the entire series a new coat of paint. A jump forward in time will take the characters to a new place. A new showrunner will guide the whole thing. And it’ll all have to happen without Rick Grimes, as Andrew Lincoln has confirmed that he’s leaving the series.

It was a bittersweet Comic-Con panel for The Walking Dead fans: the show is setting itself up to continue for a long, long time, but it’s leaving behind its leading man. Here’s what you need to know.

The Walking Dead Comic-Con Panel

The panel began with a new trailer that revealed a new status quo: Rick and his people have won the war with Negan, and Negan himself now lives in a prison cell. Rick oversees a number of new communities – homes are being built, farms are being tended, and babies are being born. The Walking Dead is no longer a show about pure survival, but a show about how messy rebuilding civilization in the wake of total devastation can be.

For readers of the comic, this will be familiar. This is the current setting on the page and it’s been a refreshing change of pace after nearly 200 issues. But unlike the comic, this story will have to continue without Rick Grimes.

The Departing Rick Grimes

Months after the initial reports, Andrew Lincoln informed the aghast Hall H crowd that he was leaving the show.

“There seems to be an elephant in the room,” Lincoln noted, choosing his words carefully. “This will be my last season playing the part of Rick Grimes.” The capacity crowd gasped (although surely everyone knew this by now?) and Lincoln assured the fans that this was an experience he would carry with him forever: “My relationship with Mr. Grimes is far from over […] There are two episodes [this season] that are my favorite episodes since the pilot.”

Acknowledging the large ensemble that has been built around him, Lincoln said, “No one is bigger than the story and the story is unbelievable.”

So that leaves everyone with a big question: how does The Walking Dead continue without its leading man, the actor who has anchored this whole thing through thick and thin? Early reports have suggested that Norman Reedus will be promoted to the show’s lead, but his Daryl (a clear fan-favorite) has always functioned best as a supporting player. This panel was all about reinvention, about building a new world, but it remains to be seen what that world will look like without its biggest and most important piece.

New Blood

Angela Kang has been a writer on The Walking Dead since the seventh episode, joining the writing staff after FX’s Terriers was cancelled. A big fan of the show and the comics, she submitted a script, got the job, and slowly worked her way up the ranks. Now, she’s the showrunner. She’s calling the shots. Executive producer Gale Anne Hurd called her work “visionary” and made it clear that she is “one of the most beloved people” on staff, a statement the rest of the panel backed up.

The Walking Dead has had an infamous revolving door of showrunners over the years, but Kang’s promotion can’t help but inspire confidence. She’s a veteran of the show, but she looks to bring a much-needed female perspective to a series that often leans a little too hard on macho nihilism. If this is now a show about rebuilding rather than surviving, a fresh touch feels necessary.

That Time Jump

While the time jump on The Walking Dead isn’t as extreme as the one in the comics (it looks to be about six months to a year, rather than the few years on the page), but a lot has changed. Maggie has had her baby. Rick oversees a thriving community with its own trade network. “We are starting with a time jump,” Kang told the Comic-Con crowd, “It’s been a little while since the war ended.”

The old world is crumbling. Buildings and bridges are falling to rubble and the walkers are more rotten than ever. Rick and his crew now get around on horses, utilizing medieval-style weapons handcrafted by blacksmiths (you can only scavenge so much ammo in the post-apocalypse, after all). One scene in the trailer revealed the characters trying to move an old covered wagon from a history museum – artifacts are now of value in this new world.

Executive producer Scott M. Gimple emphasized that this is a new beginning. “The first eight seasons of the show were one chapter,” he said. Season 9 the start of chapter two. “We did two years of All Out War. This couldn’t be more different than that.”

But not everyone agrees what this new world should should like and not everyone is on the same page. “Not everyone wants to be civilized,” Gimple said.

New Characters

Naturally, a new season of The Walking Dead needs fresh meat for the grinder. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them star Dan Fogler has joined the cast as a character named Luke, but another Wizarding World veteran can’t help but be more intriguing. Samantha Morton has joined the show as Alpha, the new “Big Bad” who arrives to tear down everything Rick has built.

But who is Alpha? Comic readers can answer this question. (So consider this a spoiler warning.) Alpha is the leader of a group known as the Whisperers, human survivors who have rejected the notion of society and wear the flesh of the undead to blend in with the walkers and coexist. Their ability to hide in a horde of the undead makes them a huge threat and they can become skilled at manipulating entire hordes. The presence of the Whisperers is teased in the final moments of the new trailer, but Morton remains unseen.

***

It’s an…interesting time to be a fan of The Walking Dead. Ratings are still strong, but they’ve been steadily dropping. Reaction to the past few seasons has been mixed, at best. The whole show needs a refresh, and everyone on the panel seemed to agree. The comic found a second wind with that time jump. Will the show follow suit?

The full Walking Dead panel featured cast members Andrew Lincoln, Norman Reedus, Lauren Cohan, Danai Gurira, Melissa McBride and Jeffrey Dean Morgan. They were joined by executive producer and showrunner Angela Kang, executive producers Scott M. Gimple, Robert Kirkman, Gale Anne Hurd, David Alpert, and executive producer, director and special effects make-up supervisor Greg Nicotero.

The Walking Dead season 9 premieres on October 7, 2018 on AMC.

Cool Posts From Around the Web: