Last night, The Walking Dead dealt with the heavily marketed departure of series star Andrew Lincoln in a startling, unexpected way. The way the episode handled the event didn’t make sense from a story or audience perspective, but a story from The New York Times clarifies that it did make sense from a business standpoint, because the series’ network, AMC, is preparing a trilogy of Walking Dead spin-off movies that will bring Lincoln back in his role as series star Rick Grimes.
Warning: Major spoilers for The Walking Dead season 9, episode 5 below.
As those who watched the episode “What Comes Next” discovered, Lincoln leaving The Walking Dead turned out to be the biggest bait-and-switch in the show’s history. The promotion of this season has focused heavily on the departure of the actor, with the show promising online that Rick had just “two episodes left.” The careful phrasing led most to assume Rick would be killed off, much like the show did with other major characters like Glenn Rhee, played by Steven Yeun. The episode appeared to do just that, with an hourlong send-off that had an injured Rick talking to departed friends and allies while in a state of delirium, before blowing himself up next to a bridge filled with zombies. However, in the episode’s final moments, the show pulled the punch — and showed Grimes being rescued and helicoptered off to destinations unknown.
According to the Times report, those new destinations will appear in a series of three films that will run on the AMC network. The films will tell what is described as “an original Rick Grimes story,” the first of which will be written by former series showrunner — and current franchise chief content officer — Scott Gimple. The films will have a higher budget and production value than the individual episodes, Gimple tells the Times, and the first will go into production next year.
While the entire Rick Grimes death fake-out seems like a stunt, these kinds of gimmicks were a hallmark of Gimple’s tenure as Walking Dead showrunner. Under his stewardship, The Walking Dead faked Glenn’s death for several episodes, only to bring him back unharmed. When the show did kill off the character, it did so in a teasing season cliffhanger, which culminated in an act of such remarkably gratuitous, unnecessary violence that it made headlines — and drove viewers away from the show in significant numbers. (That was when I stopped watching and writing about the show.) The show also slow-played moments of conflict between Rick and long-running villain Negan, becoming known more for its tricks than the kind of honest drama it displayed early in its run. The changes have led to steadily dwindling ratings, with the show hitting yet another series low earlier this season.
Despite that, plans are in full swing for even more expansions of The Walking Dead universe. Along with the movie trilogy, Gimple recently told The Hollywood Reporter that new TV shows, specials, and “high-quality digital content” are also in the pipeline. It’s an ambitious bet that, no matter how TV ratings wax or wane, interest in the world that comics writer Robert Kirkman created will continue to fuel interest. Whether that ends up being sound logic, however, will likely depend on whether audiences are still interested in following a franchise that seems much more interested in tricking them than entertaining them.