— SPOILERS for The Walking Dead season premiere lie ahead —
The Walking Dead burst back onto the scene last night with an action-heavy season 8 premiere, but a tease of a major shakeup that may lie in store for Rick's group has been largely overlooked amongst all the explosions. Most fans are honing in on the episode's major story developments, reflecting on the latest confrontation between our heroes and the Saviors while trying to figure out what the hell is going on with all those Old Man Rick glimpses. We won't have definitive answers on the fate of Father Gabriel and just who Carl was talking to at the gas station for another week at least, but what we do know is this: Rick Grimes may not be leading this group of survivors for much longer.
Shortly before the premiere hits the halfway mark, the battle-ready residents of Alexandria, the Hilltop, and the Kingdom meet in an open field to prepare for their assault on Negan's home base. We actually get a few nice character moments here -- including a fun bit with the always awesome Jerry, who deserves way more screentime -- but the one to focus on is the brief back and forth between Rick and Maggie. It's a quick one to be sure, and given that stuff starts blowing up left and right for the 20 minutes that followed, this was an easy conversation to overlook. But make no mistake: Rick tells that Maggie that when the war with the Saviors has been won, he'll be looking to follow her lead from there on out.
The pair's possible passing of the torch moment is as brief as it is subtle. After Rick tells Maggie that Hilltop is lucky to have her, she responds in a similarly complimentary fashion: "you taught me to be somebody worth following." He takes a beat to put an assuring hand on her shoulder and lean in for a bit of textbook Rick whisper talk (a surefire way of knowing that what he's about to say is super important) before softly replying, "Good. After this, I'm following you."
It's a touching back and forth, and it's certainly not the first time Maggie's leadership potential has been recognized in recent years. Deanna Monroe, the former head of Alexandria, may have been the first to truly point it out, and the fact that Maggie so quickly took over command of the Hilltop (despite starting out as a refugee there) is telling. The groundwork for her rise to the top has been quietly being laid for a few seasons now, but the big thing here is that Rick isn't just acknowledging her as a leader, but the leader.
As hard as it is to imagine anyone else leading the good guys of The Walking Dead, Rick may not even be around to hand over the reigns. In fact, when you consider the paths that the main three community heads are currently on, an even larger scale changing of the guard could happen sooner rather than later. How soon, you ask? Well...
-- SPOILERS for The Walking Dead comic lie ahead --
Rick Grimes is still very much alive in the comics, though creator Robert Kirkman has made it clear that he doesn't intend for the former smalltown sheriff to stick around forever. (He also implied that the series will continue without him, if that's of any comfort.) And given how chatty star Andrew Lincoln has been on the subject of Rick's death lately -- as well as the character's recent spats with impulsivity and all-consuming vengeance -- it's entirely possible that small screen Rick might not last quite as long as his comic counterpart.
Hell, Carl's scene with the mysterious gas station man (a clear callback to his father's first walker encounter in season one) could even be interpreted as a sign of the beginning of the end for Mr. Grimes.
Rick's erratic behavior could spell his doom, but one death we should definitely prepare for is Ezekiel's. The man may have enough personality to fill an entire Kingdom, though that doesn't save him in the comics from meeting a particularly brutal demise at the hands of Alpha and the Whisperers in the aftermath of the All Out War arc. Of course, whether or not TV's Ezekiel makes it through the full confrontation with Negan and co. remains to be seen, and we still don't really have any idea of when the Whisperers will be making their debut.
In any event, the king is likely on borrowed time. Maggie might actually have to lead all of the good guys within the next season or two, folks, but fear not: she's more than up to the task.
The Walking Dead returns next Sunday at 9PM ET on AMC.