On Sunday, The Walking Dead killed off one of only five remaining original cast members — and they picked the wrong one. If anyone was going to save the zombie epic from stagnation, it was going to be teen hero Carl Grimes. If we had to lose a Grimes man from the series, the infinitely better choice would have been his father, Rick.
Season 8 got off to a rocky start. Where the AMC show’s Season 7 premiere attracted 17.3 million viewers, the Season 8 premiere only drew 11.4 million — that’s quite a drop. The first eight episodes have been a mixed bag too, largely owing to the “All Out War” plot, which has scattered our favorite characters between the Kingdom, Hilltop, and Alexandria communities. When the most beloved characters on the show aren’t given the opportunity to interact very much with each other, The Walking Dead becomes somehow flatter — a fact not helped by the loss of Glenn Rhee in Season 7. When Glenn died, some of the show’s heart did too.
In thinking about the future of The Walking Dead, it’s hard to picture it as a particularly interesting place without Carl. Carl was literally the future of the show, as the youngest of the core cast members. Carl was a child of the apocalypse. Because he was raised in it, not only was he a warrior well before his time, but given the opportunity, he would have become an even greater leader than his dad has been. He’s already survived being shot! Twice! And he had to kill his own mother!
The possibilities for Carl’s future were pretty endless — especially given his romantic coupling with fellow teen badass (and onetime tortoise eater) Enid. Had he been allowed to live, the pair could have easily become the next Glenn and Maggie.
In classic Walking Dead style, episode 8 chose to rub our noses in all of Carl’s potential as a leader, right before the big reveal that he’d been bitten. We saw him single-handedly commanding his neighbors on how to escape, before confronting Negan and his goons in an impressively fearless manner. Not only did Carl attempt to negotiate with Negan — something none of the adults in his vicinity are fond of trying — he then offered to sacrifice himself to save others. Best of all though, Carl finally shamed Negan in a manner no one else has ever managed: “Is this who you wanted to be?” he asked. You could see from Negan’s expression that the kid had hit a raw nerve.
To make Carl’s death sentence even worse, Negan’s fascination and affection for him is probably the most interesting, least cartoonish aspect of Negan’s character. Their conversations gave Negan depth and Carl an opportunity to explore his strengths and weaknesses. Because of this, their relationship has been significantly more interesting to explore than the one between Negan and Rick (which is basically “I’m gonna kill you!” “No! I’m gonna kill you!” ad infinitum.)
Arguments are routinely made that Rick could never be killed off because he is, and always has been, the center of the show. But it’s that very reason that means he would have been a better death for the mid-season finale. Put bluntly, there is nothing more in Rick’s character to explore. We have seen every aspect of his person, the very limits of his endurance, sanity and leadership. The way Rick transformed from Sheriff Family Man to ultimate warrior has been a fascinating exploration of what humans are capable of, if their survival instinct is unbreakable enough. His transformation took a full seven seasons, but now it’s complete, there is nowhere else for Rick to go.
What’s more, if Rick was killed, it would spring Michonne back into action. Their relationship has somehow dulled her personality and fighting spirit. Falling in love with Rick has made her vulnerable. Without him in the picture, Michonne would step back up to her old, indestructible self and help Carl — basically her stepson at this point — adjust to his new leadership position. This scenario would have made for a spectacular Season 9.
When Carl inevitably dies in the next episode, from that aforementioned bite, the future of Alexandria, and of The Walking Dead itself, will look pretty grim. Rick just lost his heir, Alexandria just lost its best chance at a fresh new leader, and The Walking Dead just lost its best hope for reinvigoration.