The Walking Dead has been around for so long at this point—on screen and on comic book shelves—that you can almost count on one hand the remaining elements of the series that were there from the very beginning and are still enduring what came after the zombie apocalypse. But this week’s issue reveals one of those stories has indeed come to an end.
The current arc of Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, Stefano Gaudiano, Cliff Rathburn, and Rus Wooton’s The Walking Dead has seen tensions simmering in the Commonwealth—a 50,000-strong, well-guarded civilization in the American Midwest that represents the closest thing to the pre-apocalypse Rick Grimes and The Walking Dead’s survivors have ever encountered—after the Hilltop and Alexandrian survivors entered the scene, amid brewing troubles in the society’s tiered, class-based structure helmed by the Commonwealth’s governor, Pamela Milton.
The prior issue saw Milton order her forces to engage Rick and Michonne’s people, only for Rick to pull everyone back from the brink with an impassioned speech about the hope he now feels for the future of humanity in the wake of everything he and his friends have been through—with a rallying subversion of his infamous “We are the Walking Dead” cry from the comic’s iconic prison arc. While Milton’s forces and Rick’s group stood down because of it, the uneasy peace was shockingly, seemingly disrupted almost immediately when—the same night Rick pulled the Commonwealth away from potential civil war—Milton’s son Sebastian snuck into Rick’s room and shot him, blaming him for his mother’s loosening grip on power in the Commonwealth.
The issue ended with Rick’s fate unclear, if, well, clearly very grim. There was always the possibility that, just as he had recently in The Walking Dead TV show, he could escape a seemingly dire fate and live to survive another day, as he has time and time again. But as today’s Walking Dead #192 replays those fateful moments and continues to linger, it becomes clear:
After 16 years, Rick Grimes, one of modern comics’ most enduring characters, is dead.
The moment is neither grandiose or full of fury, as you might expect out of the final end of the man who has basically been The Walking Dead’s protagonist from the get-go.
There is no dialogue, no last stand, no hero’s end—it’s quiet and it’s messy, as Sebastian flees into the night and Rick bleeds out alone, no family or friends by his side. Instead, the comic slowly follows as night turns to day, the world still turning even as Rick stays still. Walking Dead #192 saves the ultimate tragedy for Carl, who, waking up and walking over to his father’s lodgings in the Commonwealth to pick him up for breakfast, gets to be confronted with the sight of the zombiefied Rick shambling about the room, putting him down before he can realize what’s happened.
It’s the end of an era for The Walking Dead—Carl is as close to a reminder of the series’ original premise the book has left, although a few mainstays from the early days like Michonne and Maggie are left with him as the handful of the cast of a comic that has waxed and waned for the better part of two decades. The issue also teases readers with the tragic possibility that not even Carl may stick around. Having shown a Negan-esque spirit in confronting Sebastian and warning him that, instead of killing him in turn, he will ensure he instead rots in his cell in the Commonwealth for the rest of his life, the issue ends with Carl breaking down on the road to his father’s funeral declaring that he has no idea how he can even consider going on in a world without Rick Grimes.
Whether or not Carl chooses to navigate that world remains to be seen, but whatever the choice he makes, it’s a world The Walking Dead itself now has to navigate regardless. It’s a series that has come to be defined by its cyclical change, its survivors meandering from one perpetually temporary safe haven to another, much like its zombie hordes shamble along in endless pursuit of them. The loss of stability that Rick’s death brings opens up a remarkable wealth of opportunities. Not even AMC wanted to consider the possibility of a Walking Dead without the character—when Andrew Lincoln announced his departurefrom the role, the network saved Rick from his heavily-assumed death for a series of spinoff movies. Its source material doesn’t have that option, and now has to confront just what this new version of itself can possibly look like.