Warning: MAJOR SPOILERS ahead for The Walking Dead season 9, episode 5!
Tonight The Walking Dead said goodbye to Rick Grimes - but his exit from the series did not go down as expected! In a twist ending, Rick doesn't die in tonight's episode and is instead taken away in the helicopter by Jadis to some as-yet unknown location.
Since the news that Andrew Lincoln was leaving The Walking Dead this season first broke it's been widely assumed his character would be killed off. Dying is the usual way an actor exits the series, after all, though Rick is one of those few many thought was immune to such a fate. Then again, Rick's son, Carl (Chandler Riggs) was just killed off last season in a move that's almost as big a departure from the comics as killing Rick. But now we know The Walking Dead didn't kill Rick, though his removal from the story is so open-ended it may prove to be just as permanent in the long run.
"What Comes After" picks up the story right where last week's episode left off, but Rick soon manages to pull himself free of that rebar impaling his side. He's losing blood fast, though, and as he climbs back on his horse, he starts experience hallucinatory visions in which he talks with Shane, Herschel, and Sasha - as well as visits his hospital room from season 1. Rick continues to fade in and out of consciousness as he desperately tries to lead the herd away, eventually deciding to lead the walkers across the bridge in the hope their weight will collapse it and send them into the river below. Unfortunately, as they begin crossing the bridge it becomes clear the structure will hold. As Rick despairs at being unable to halt the herd, Daryl, Michonne, Maggie, Carol, and the rest arrive to help.
The arrival of the other survivors isn't quite as dramatic (or cheesy) as the version Rick imagines when he first reaches the bridge, but it drives home the point that it doesn't matter if they disagree or argue, they will always have each other's backs. When Rick is in trouble, everyone comes running. But Rick doesn't want anyone else dying on his behalf, and when he notices a case of dynamite on the bridge, he aims at with his pistol and shoots. The bridge explodes, taking the herd and Rick along with it. Rick's sacrifice shocks everyone, and leaves Michonne and Daryl especially devastated.
But then, The Walking Dead isn't a show that will ever let things be that simple. Just when it appears that Rick Grimes has gone out in the most explosive blaze of glory of any character yet, it reveals he was actually washed away in the river and survives. Jadis - who throughout tonight's episode has been trying to rendezvous with that helicopter - spots him. She radios her "friends" and negotiates with them to let her bring Rick, saying he was a friend who saved her and she wants to return the favor. They agree, and the last we see of Rick he's being airlifted away and Jadis is promising he'll receive the medical attention he needs.
Rick lives, but still leaves The Walking Dead in dramatic fashion. Everyone back in Alexandria, Hilltop, and the rest of the communities will continue to believe he's dead, and seeing as so little is known about this place Jadis comes from, there's no hint of when or if he will ever return. It's hard know exactly what impact Rick's "death" will have, but when The Walking Dead returns next week, the Michonne, Daryl, Maggie, and Carol we see could be very different people - especially since the show's include yet another time jump. And obviously, choosing not to kill Rick means it's possible for him to come back, but with this time jump, it won't be for many years.
We do, however, have an idea of where Rick will be. In news that broke immediately after the episode, it was revealed that Lincoln will return in three feature-length movies about Rick Grimes' exploits!
In the meantime, when The Walking Dead returns next week it will likely show how the world has been getting on without Rick. Are the survivors galvanized by his sacrifice, choosing to work together all the more in order to achieve his dream of a better future? Or will they be divided without him to unite them? In Rick's absence, new leaders will likely have taken up his place, but even if they manage to keep the peace and guide the survivors towards a better future, there never will be another Rick.
The Walking Dead season 9 continues next Sunday, November 11th with "Who Are You Now" at 9:00pm/8c on AMC.