Warning: SPOILERS ahead for season 8, episode 9 of The Walking Dead
The Walking Dead returned on Sunday, only to say goodbye to one of its most important characters: Carl Grimes, son of series protagonist Rick Grimes. The episode jumped around in time a lot - from flashbacks of Carl preparing for his death, to flash-forwards of Rick and Michonne burying his body, to flash-even-further-forwards of Old Man Rick in a peaceful future (though those turned out to be just a dream). But as the episode ended, The Walking Dead found time for one more time skip. The final scene showed Rick leaning against a tree, badly injured, with a wound in his torso (interestingly, in roughly the same place where Carl was bitten). The scene prominently features a framed piece of stained glass hanging from the tree under which Rick is sitting.
This isn't the first time we've seen moments from this particular flash-forward. The first episode of season 8, "Mercy," showed a moment from the some scene in which Rick - looking exhausted, with his eyes red-rimmed from crying - murmurs the words, "My mercy prevails over my wrath."
We first heard those words spoken by Siddiq, the doctor whom Carl was bringing to Alexandria, and who was with Carl when he was bitten. Rick and Carl briefly encountered Siddiq in "Mercy," while searching an abandoned gas station. Siddiq asked Carl for help, saying:
"My mom said that... that helping the traveler, a person without a home... that's everything. I'm sure you've seen and been through things and you don't trust people, I get it! I get it... I don't either. I've been through things. My mom, she also said that, 'May my mercy prevail over my wrath.' It's not all my mom, that one's from the Quran."
As he lay dying, Carl also urged his father not to kill all the Saviors, but instead to try and build a better world for everyone to live in. Between Rick quoting, "My mercy prevails over my wrath," and the profound impact of his son's death and final wishes, many fans have theorized that the flash-forward to Rick sitting under the tree takes place after a final battle with Negan, and that Rick will ultimately show Negan mercy.
Responding to fan concerns that the final scene in "Honor" means that Rick Grimes is going to follow his son into the afterlife this season, The Walking Dead creator (and executive producer of the show) Robert Kirkman offered his assurances to THR that Rick is probably only injured, not dying:
"That's not an intention there. I've said from the very beginning that no one is safe. I do strongly feel like the show could survive without a Rick Grimes. There's certainly a lot of story to tell without that central character. I've talked a lot about how Rick Grimes will definitely die in the comic book series at some point before the series' conclusion, just because I want to make sure everyone knows that no one is safe. But I don't think you should read too much into that."
Furthermore, the actor who plays Rick, Andrew Lincoln, has already renewed his contract through season 9, so unless the character dies and then returns as a very persistent ghost, it's safe to say that Rick isn't on death's door. However, it seems like his decision to show mercy to Negan doesn't end with the two of them skipping off into the sunset and then growing a vegetable garden together, but in Rick getting badly injured.
We can probably expect to see that tree with the stained glass artwork hanging from it in the shows regular timeline at some point soon, and that will cast a little more light on where this flash-forward takes place. Lincoln confirmed to THR that, unlike the "Old Man Rick" scenes, the scene under the tree is definitely real and not a dream. The questions then remain, then, are what is happening, when is it happening, where is it happening, and why?
The Walking Dead season 8 continues next Sunday with ‘The Lost and the Plunderers’ at 9pm/10c on AMC.