Warning: Spoilers ahead for the current episodes of The Walking Dead.
The Walking Dead viewers are, by now, accustomed to glaring divergences from its comic book source material, especially in the wake of – amongst many other things – the recent departure of the franchise’s protagonist, Andrew Lincoln’s Rick Grimes. However, one divergence that hasn’t been discussed for some time is the mysterious departure of Corey Hawkins’s Heath, a major player in the comic book series, who saw his long-anticipated television tenure disappointingly cut short. Well, the truth about said departure has, at last, been confirmed. In the very least, it’s intriguing.
Angela Kang, who took over showrunner duties on The Walking Dead this season, confirms the fate of Heath in an interview with Business Insider. The character was last seen two years ago back in Season 7, Episode 6, “Swear.” Now, according to Kang, it appears that – in a fate resembling Rick Grimes’s recent exit from the series in Season 9, Episode 5, “What Comes After” – poor Heath was whisked away by then-junkyard group leader Anne/Jadis, offered to the mysterious people in the helicopter, presumably classified as either an “A” or “B” and traded for supplies. – More on this later, since there’s plenty of context to cover.
In the fateful Season 7 episode, Heath and Tara (Alanna Masterson) set out in a familiar Alexandria-owned RV on a supply run that went sideways due to some obligatory undead interference, which culminated in Heath taking a tumble off a bridge, presumably swept away by the water underneath, never to be seen again. It’s a rather ignominious – Boba Fett/Sarlacc-esque – fate for a character who experienced quite an extensive arc in the comic book series, in which he is not only still around, but a prominent leader amongst the survivor communities.
The first clue that led to Kang’s revelation about Heath’s survival appeared on the November 4 episode of aftershow Talking Dead, which, in its montage of factoids, revealed that Anne’s RV seen in that night’s TWD episode was, indeed, the same one that Heath and Tara drove on that unlucky Season 7 supply run.
The significance here is that the RV mysteriously went missing after the scramble that led to Heath’s disappearance. Thus, one might surmise that a soaking-wet Heath went back to the scene (after Tara left,) to recover the vehicle, only to be abducted by Anne/Jadis’s group, after which he went for an involuntary helicopter ride. Consequently, a major clue about Heath’s fate was stealthily dropped, seemingly confirming a burgeoning fan theory. Thus, as Kang candidly explains of the Heath/helicopter angle:
“That was kind of the intention that we had in the back of our heads this whole time. Even back in that season where you know we had to write the wonderful Corey Hawkins out because he had huge opportunities in the feature film world… those seeds were already set there.”
Of course, the inside baseball explanation for Heath’s disappearance was always the career momentum of his onscreen portrayer, Corey Hawkins. The actor came into the role of Heath in 2015, already riding momentum from his role as Dr. Dre in the Oscar-nominated NWA biopic, Straight Outta Compton; something that, in retrospect, foreshadowed the limited nature of his TWD tenure.
Indeed, while Hawkins never officially departed the show, he did take an extended hiatus to star in Fox franchise sequel series 24: Legacy; an initially-promising effort that was cancelled after one season. However, his career momentum remains, having banked film appearances in franchise-building blockbuster Kong: Skull Island and director Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, with upcoming roles in the Christoph Waltz-directed drama, Georgetown, and Michael Bay actioner 6 Underground.
Auspiciously, the now-revealed nature of Heath’s departure opens the possibility of a return – not on the series, but in the trio of The Walking Dead TV movies that AMC immediately announced upon the airing of Rick’s final episode. After all, the culminating moments of “What Comes After” threw a curveball to fans who thought they’d just witnessed the explosive sacrificial demise of Rick, only to see him get whisked away to a mysterious place by the helicopter in question, with his near-fatal wounds treated. Thus, given the story synergy and prospective flexibility of a TV movie for Hawkins’s schedule, it’s quite conceivable that Rick will reunite with Heath in the mythology-expanding movie(s).
The Walking Dead airs on AMC Sundays at 9 p.m. EST.