Warning! MAJOR SPOILERS ahead for The Walking Dead season 9, episode 5!
Tonight's episode of The Walking Dead brings huge changes to the AMC series, but it isn't just the departure of Rick Grimes - it's also the roughly five-year time jump teased by the episode's surprise ending. Season 9 is a vast improvement over recent seasons of The Walking Dead, and the two-year time jump between seasons 8 and 9 is a big reason why. Advancing the story so far ahead has let season 9 dive right into the survivor's rebuilding efforts rather than stew in the war's immediate aftermath, and it's a move that's breathed new life into the show. Now it appears The Walking Dead will jump even further into the future, putting more distance between its recent downturn and where it's heading.
The most recent episode, "What Comes After", is most notable for being Andrew Lincoln's final episode, and it's only after he's airlifted away in the helicopter that The Walking Dead establishes its new setting. As the helicopter flies away, the screen dissolves into a scene where a new group of survivors are being overrun walkers. These characters are a few of the new faces joining The Walking Dead this season: Magna (Nadia Hilker), Yumiko (Eleanor Matsuura), Kelly (Angel Theory), Connie (Lauren Ridloff), and Luke (Dan Fogler). They're soon completely surrounded - but, just before they're set upon by the walkers, gunshots ring out, clearing them a path to escape.
Magna's group then hears a voice calling them from the nearby tree line and they make a break for it. When they reach their rescuer, they see she's a young girl about 8-10 years old. She holsters her pistol, leans down to pick up her cowboy hat, and introduces herself to them as... Judith Grimes.
In between Rick flying off in that helicopter and Magna's group of survivors being saved by Judith, anywhere between four to six years have passed. It's a huge and entirely unexpected time jump, and when combined with the previous two year time jump, it fast forwards the show roughly seven years. Setting The Walking Dead so far ahead in the future brings wide-sweeping change to the series, and seeing as there was previously some talk about the show rebooting in Rick's absence, this dramatic shift in time is sure to accomplish exactly that.
Jumping ahead in time does a lot more than age Judith up, though that reveal is tantalizing since it appears she's grown into quite the little sharpshooter. Moving so far into the future means that the survivors will have come further along in their rebuilding. The bridge that Rick blew up in his sacrificial play to destroy the herd is likely rebuilt (and probably named in his honor) and their farming and manufacturing endeavors will be better established, as well. There's also sure to have been more communication with Georgie and her mysterious community, and that means The Walking Dead may feature a far more developed and advanced hub of communities when it returns in the next episode.
Most of all, this time jump is going to have a huge impact on the characters. Lauren Cohen is already set to exit the show this season, and it's possible Maggie is already gone when the series returns. That's unlikely since they'll surely want to give her an appropriate send off, but it isn't impossible. Negan was in the midst of a total breakdown last we saw him, so it's possible that following a roughly five-year time jump, he may have become a very different man. Similar to what happens to him in the comics - which does not include this second time jump - Negan may have reformed, and while not accepted into the community, is allowed to live on the outskirts of their established territory. Either that or he's still imprisoned, turning in to something of a boogeyman who's kept locked away in the basement. And what of Michonne and Daryl and all those closest to Rick, how will the have changed in all these years?
No matter what exactly may have happened in these four to six years, The Walking Dead jumping ahead in time again means there are big changes ahead. Next week, when audiences see Judith introducing Magna's group of newcomers to the community, there are sure to be all sorts of surprises.
The Walking Dead season 9 continues Sunday, November 11 with "Who Are You Now" on AMC.