[Major Spoilers from the Walking Dead Mid-Season Finale Ahead]
After the heartbreak and destruction of last night's Walking Dead mid-season finale, "Too Far Gone", showrunner Scott Gimple didn't just break up the relatively secure prison, splintering the survivors into small groups that are now seemingly headed in a separate direction; he smashed the show to smithereens, challenging himself and the rest of his staff to rebuild on the run.
For fans, it's exhilarating to see someone walk up to an intricately laid out puzzle, flip it over, and start again - especially when that person sits at a desk that is built atop a trap door (four seasons, three showrunners) - but Gimple has thrown the gauntlet down, and now we find ourselves wondering where he will drive the series as it heads toward the second half of its fourth season.
As is always the case, the early trailers give us little indication (save for one instance), but logic, educated guess work (thanks to the source material), and a few tidbits from earlier in the season make it possible to theorize five directions The Walking Dead could take when the show returns on Sunday February 9th.
1) Rick Gets Down with the Sickness
Though the series often veers away from the comic, switching one character for another (Hershel died in the prison stand-off in the comic, but in the show, he lost his head as a substitute for another character who still lives) and ignoring plot lines from the book entirely, the final moments of "Too Far Gone" and the second half trailer point to a faithful direction for two characters - Rick and Carl.
Last seen fleeing the prison - which has been overrun by walkers - Rick is physically battered and emotionally dejected thanks to the loss of both their home and Judith (more on that later), but somehow he keeps going, but for how long? In the trailer, Carl is seen shaking Rick and yelling for him to wake up, so something clearly happens.
Is this the post-prison story in the comic where Rick is near death and Carl is alone and full of anger? It's a key story and it would be smart to go there. Rick has fought against Carl's ascension to adulthood forever, but that can't go on and we need to see Carl stand on his own while Rick accepts it, remembering his physical vulnerability, and the urgency with which he needs to truly prepare Carl.
2) Judith Lives
Judith's empty, blood stained carrier was one of the more shocking moments in the mid-season finale, but while Judith did die in the comic (while being held by a fleeing Lori during the prison siege), killing her feels too aggressive for a show that has previously stayed away from copying its source material's most gruesome and less TV friendly moments - like Michonne's full torture of the governor.
It seems more likely that someone has Judith, and since we saw the team-ups at the end of "Too Far Gone" - Team Glenn and the School Bus of Woodbury Redshirts; Sasha, Bob, and Maggie; Daryl and Beth; Tyresse and maybe Mika and Lizzie; and of course, Rick and Carl - that doesn't really leave anyone besides Michonne, who we didn't see leaving the prison, but whose popularity makes her practically un-killable (for now).
Besides , while we still know little about Michonne, her interaction with Judith earlier this season (and her initial effort to get formula to the prison) gives us reason to think that there is some kind of small child related heartbreak buried deep within her. What better way to explore that and flesh out Michonne than to make her Judith's protector?
3) Stay Clear of Morgan
The events of the season three episode, "Clear", didn't really follow the comic, but making the early turn to rediscover Morgan as a sad and crazed man proved to be a vital and well executed detour that rebooted Rick's mental state, brought Michonne further into the group, and showcased the brilliance of Lennie James. It also bolstered a lot of people's confidence in Gimple, who wrote the episode.
In the comic, Morgan's return is less impactful, occurs after the prison, and lasts longer. But though Morgan may return to the show at a certain point (flashback?), the writers have to stop teaching and re-teaching Rick the same lesson about the dangers of being mentally too far gone that he has learned from Morgan, Clara (the girl in the woods from "30 Days Without an Incident" who seemed to have re-appeared as a walker at the end of last night's episode), and the Governor.