WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for The Walking Dead Season 9 episode "What Comes After," which premiered Sunday on AMC.
Fans have known for a while that Rick Grimes, and star Andrew Lincoln, would bow out of The Walking Dead with "What Comes After." The only question remaining was how. The cliffhanger ending of last week's episode might have led us to think he would meet his end while impaled on a piece of rebar as two herds of walkers converge. But this is The Walking Dead, and Rick Grimes, so his departure was bound to be a little more complicated -- although viewers probably weren't prepared for the major twist it finally comes.
Rick pulls himself off the steel rod, and makes his way back onto the horse, then continues to lead the walker herd away from the communities, just as he'd set out to do at the end of "The Obliged." However, he's seriously wounded, and bleeding badly, resulting in the expected hallucinations involving former cast members Jon Bernthal as Shane, Sonequa Martin-Green as Sasha, and the late Scott Wilson as Hershel, and a return to key locations from early in the series.
Fading in and out of his hallucinatory state, Rick is in grave danger not only from his wound, but also from walkers. Close to death as he arrives, limping and now horseless, at the bridge he so wanted to preserve, Rick decides to follow Daryl's earlier suggestion and lead the herd across so the structure will collapse under its weight, and wash the walkers downstream. However, the bridge holds strong, and the walkers close in on a bleeding Rick. Daryl (Norman Reedus) arrives with Michonne (Danai Gurira), Maggie (Lauren Cohan), Carol (Melissa McBride) and the others, and begins to pick off walkers from a distance, but they're on the opposite side of the river, and can be of little more help.
So, spying a case of dynamite that's fallen open on the bridge, Rick shoots the explosives and blows up the bridge, which, takes the walkers -- and him -- with it. It would be a fittingly heroic end for Rick Grimes, except ... that's not the end. Not really.
As the mysterious helicopter that Jadis/Anne (Pollyanna McIntosh) radioed earlier arrives, she is forced to admit she has no one to offer in exchange for passage away from the communities. That is, until she spots Rick's body washed up on the riverbank. He regains consciousness again aboard the helicopter as Jadis assures him he'll be OK. We're then left with a parting image of the helicopter flying away.
It's a nebulous ending that would seem to leave the door open to Rick's return, perhaps sometime down the road, should Andrew Lincoln ever be convinced to guest star. Say, in a series of television movies.
Airing Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on AMC, The Walking Dead stars Andrew Lincoln, Norman Reedus, Lauren Cohan, Danai Gurira, Melissa McBride, Lennie James, Alanna Masterson, Josh McDermitt, Christian Serratos and Jeffrey Dean Morgan.