The Walking Dead Season 8: Can Anyone Replace Rick Grimes as Leader?

The Walking Dead’s brilliant season 8 premiere hints at a future without Rick Grimes.

The Walking Dead Season 8 Episode 1 Spoilers Within!

Everything we’ve come to know and love about The Walking Dead, from its strong characters to plenty of drama and explosive action, is on full display in its 100th episode. While last season left many viewers wanting, what with a cowed Rick Grimes and an outsized, overused villain in Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Negan, “Mercy” suggests a course correction and a return to form for AMC’s premier drama. TWD is quick to give us the all-out war its been teasing all summer. That’s important, given how the show has over-promised and under-delivered in the past with misleading shenanigans (Glenn’s dumpster dive and the deeply unsatisfying season six finale immediately come to mind). So if TWD’s milestone 100th episode tells us anything, aside from the importance of writing implements in the apocalypse, it’s that “Mercy”—and by extension, Rick Grimes—mean business. This isn’t accomplished by pandering to its audience, as that ultimately accomplishes very little. Rather, the episode, penned by Scott M. Gimple, gives us rousing speeches, ironclad alliances, and what appears to be an infallible plan to take down Negan once and for all.

What caught my attention, however, was the notion that Rick might willingly abdicate leadership to someone else—namely Maggie Rhee. As far as a peaceful transfer of power goes, this idea carries a lot of weight. Rick can’t possibly lead forever, after all, nor should he. But if and when Maggie assumes power, it shouldn’t be because Rick failed. Rather, the opposite should be true, that Rick succeeds in seizing the future, thereby seizing the world itself. “Mercy” is definitely a believable step in that direction. What we see early in the episode is confident, competent leadership, not only from Rick, but from Maggie and Ezekiel, too. They are the leaders of their respective communities, positions they’ve assumed with equal parts intelligence, humility, and empathy.

But Maggie and Ezekiel have less to prove than Rick, as far as inspiring confidence goes. Just look to last season, in which Rick succumbed to his own worst fears and insecurities even as Maggie’s star was on the rise within Hilltop’s walls. For Rick, his position of authority was a means to an end, using the people of Alexandria for canon fodder in what became a personal vendetta against Negan. Maggie, on the other hand, was reluctant to take on a leadership role—especially since the Hilltop already had a so-called leader in Gregory. This didn’t stop Maggie from taking action in the episode “Go-Getters,” effectively stopping the Saviors’ attack on the Hilltop. This is enough for the community to recognize Maggie’s leadership potential (even if she doesn’t). Plus what sane person would choose a worm like Gregory over an honest, forthright person like her anyway?

But this is Maggie’s way, leading her adopted community by example even as she mourns Glenn. We as viewers want her to succeed, to be confident and strong. Indeed, she’s come a long way since those quiet days on the family farm back in season two, when she was naïve enough to believe that being undead was something to be cured. Since then, she’s also come to understand how dangerous the living can be, from the Governor to the cannibals of Terminus to Negan and his Saviors. Rather than be defined by these encounters, though, she’s made stronger by them. She lost Glenn, and soldiered on.

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For Rick, though, Glenn was one more loss among many in a long and winding road from that hospital bed a hundred episodes ago. The blood of so, so many is on his hands. Glenn and Abraham’s deaths were two too many. After watching him flounder for the better part of last season, it’s good to see Rick finally understand that you either dig deep, or you dig your own grave. But while he’s regained his footing in “Mercy,” one wonders how much longer Rick can go all out like this, repeatedly putting himself in harm’s way. He himself seems to understand his luck won’t last forever, that the people he’s inspired are poised to lead their communities into a more optimistic future.

Bearing this in mind, it’s interesting how often the premiere reminds us that this war with Negan isn’t just about one person. Maybe this is because Rick himself needs constant reminding that this conflict is bigger than him. Still, it’s hard not to rally behind Rick, not when Andrew Lincoln delivers the following lines with such ferocity: “Those who use and take and kill to carve out the world and make it theirs alone—we end them! We don’t celebrate it. We don’t have shame about it, either.” At moments like this, maybe we as viewers need to be reminded as well that the future hinges not on the actions of one person, but on the actions of many.

And this is another way in which “Mercy” succeeds, by showing the coming together of different, disparate communities. One immediately senses the scale and scope of this bigger, broader world. These people are coming together not because of fear or coercion, but of their own free will, as free people choosing to take their future back from a tyrannical few. This helps sell the standoff at the Sanctuary’s doorstep, when Gregory’s treachery is finally revealed. Given the chance to retreat to their homes and their families, to quote Jesus, “the Hilltop stands with Maggie!”

As readers of the graphic novels already know, Maggie does eventually go on to lead the Hilltop after Gregory takes his treachery one step too far. But this is in a world that still includes Rick Grimes. So the question that remains isn’t whether or not Maggie Rhee is leadership material. No, the bigger question is whether or not viewers would continue to watch a show with someone other than Rick as the central character.

While I do believe the show AMC has built up to this point could weather a future without Rick Grimes, I do think TWD might become a much different beast without him. Again, as readers of the comic know, Rick is integral to the “All Out War” storyline, so we still have him for at least this season, if not part of next season as well. But if Rick’s death is in the cards, Gimple and company are wise to keep putting forth Maggie as not only a strong leader, but as an irreplaceable one, too. Though Maggie has only been part of the Hilltop for a short while, it’s easy to consider her as integral to the community’s success. Thanks to Lauren Cohan’s continued strength and steely resolve, Maggie Rhee is anything but an expendable character.

All of this being said, I’ll quickly throw another hat into the ring for possible leader: Carl Grimes. Yes, Carl. It’s one thing for Michonne to suggest that he’s watching over Alexandria in his father’s stead, but I’m basing my suggestion on the 100th episode’s shot-for-shot homage to TWD‘s very first epiosde, “Days Gone Bye.” The scene I’m referring to happens in “Mercy,” when Carl wanders into an abandoned gas station and stops to peer under a parked car. In doing so, he is literally walking in his father’s footsteps. Which made me wonder if Carl is leadership material. We know he’s got guts to spare—we saw this when he tried to assassinate Negan in last season’s “Sing Me a Song.” And we get a glimpse of a leader’s wisdom when Carl reminds his father that hope by itself isn’t enough to save the day anymore; trust matters, too. When Carl returns to the gas station with canned food for a lonely survivor, in that moment, he brings the apocalypse one step closer toward its forgotten humanity. While I do believe Maggie could fill Rick’s shoes now if needed, Carl has to do more than follow in his father’s footsteps. In other words, Carl Grimes needs to forge his own path forward.

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“Mercy” is definitely a step in the right direction—for Rick, for Maggie, for Carl, and for TWD itself. Would you continue to watch the show without Rick Grimes? Who else might make a great leader? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!