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The Walking Dead just pulled its best switcheroo in years

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If the show really is taking things in a new direction, this is definitely one way to show it

Photo by Gene Page / AMC

Warning: Spoilers for The Walking Dead season 9, episode 4 below.

One of the biggest gripes about AMC’s The Walking Dead over the past few years has been that it doesn’t really play fair with its viewers. It’s hard to refute the argument. The show has taken glee in delivering false character deaths (Glenn and The Great Dumpster Fakeout of 2015), going apocalyptically over the top with real character deaths (Glenn and The Great Lucille Debacle of 2016), and then slow-playing every other major event to the point where fans can reliably tune out for an entire season, knowing that the one big moment the show has been promising all season will undoubtedly arrive in the final frames of a midseason finale.

All of this has made the upcoming death of lead character Rick Grimes such an unusual case. It’s been widely known that this would be the last season for longtime series star Andrew Lincoln. So, naturally, fans assumed that, true to form, he’d be kicking the bucket on November 25th on the midseason finale. But during last week’s episode, the show announced via Twitter that Grimes had only two episodes left — making his expiration date November 4th. On last night’s episode, “The Obliged,” it was revealed that the Twitter statement was a bit of an expectations-setting con. The Walking Dead still isn’t playing fair, but at least it’s doing it in an enjoyable rather than infuriating way.

Photo by Gene Page / AMC

If you really don’t want to know what happens in The Walking Dead, and what happens to Rick, in particular, you really should stop reading right now. Here we go: Rick Grimes dies in “The Obliged.” Okay, not technically — when the credits roll, he’s still breathing and can move his arms and legs — but for all intents and purposes, he’s a goner. How much of a goner? He’s been thrown off a horse, impaled on some nasty-looking rebar, and he has two hordes of zombies descending on him. Want even more proof? Right before this all happens, he parts ways with Daryl, who gives Rick a longing look and says, “Be safe.” You don’t need to be Randy in Scream to realize that once Daryl says that, Rick’s life is guaranteed to go straight downhill.

Why is this particular switcheroo so gratifying when so many of the show’s other shenanigans have been maddening? The answer is simple: it came as an actual surprise. The Walking Dead has become incredibly predictable, so much so that by the third episode of the new season, my colleague Nick Statt rightfully worried that it was falling into predictable bad habits. Any show that makes it through nine seasons is going to develop its own tropes and expectations, but The Walking Dead — particularly under the stewardship of former showrunner Scott Gimple — became known more for cheap stunts and narrative water-treading than memorable moments. That’s an issue for any show, and The Walking Dead’s plummeting ratings certainly reflect the depths of the problem. But it’s also the precise reason the Twitter announcement about Rick’s demise was so effective. Of all the possible ways Rick Grimes could meet his end, I doubt anyone expected it would happen so soon. It’s a signal that not everything is going to go as expected this season.

For months now, AMC has been steadily trying to push the idea that this is a new and improved Walking Dead, distinctly separate from the past few middling seasons. From new showrunner Angela Kang taking the reins to the new credit sequence, everything about the optics of season 9 seems designed to inform viewers that they aren’t on the same ride they’ve grown accustomed to. Revealing that Rick would die in the next two episodes certainly played into the show’s bag of tricks, but to then upend even that expectation and impale him a full episode ahead of schedule? Glorious.

Photo by Gene Page / AMC

The rest of “The Obliged” isn’t nearly as perfect. A storyline between Negan and Michonne plays like a weird riff on Silence of the Lambs, with the self-assured Michonne suddenly as easy to manipulate as young Clarice Starling. And the narrative thread about Daryl and Maggie wanting to kill Negan at all costs, despite Rick’s protestations, still feels like conflict orchestrated solely to divide the longtime allies in Rick’s final moments. (Although, to the episode’s credit, it now seems that the disagreement will lead to tremendous regret on Daryl’s part — he’s the one who drives Rick out to the middle of nowhere, where said impaling happens — which could provide ample emotional fuel for future episodes as everyone grapples with losing Rick.)

Yes, this could all be just another Walking Dead business-as-usual con. Rick could survive his surprise impaling and actually die in some other fashion in the next episode. Or he could stick around in flashbacks and dream sequences, until the midseason finale, when the show really decides to get rid of him. That’s how the Walking Dead of recent years would certainly handle things.

But I sincerely hope that isn’t the case. The move in last night’s episode was small, but it signaled a real willingness to do things differently. Opting to get rid of a character — and the main character, at that — sooner than telegraphed is something the old show would never do. The old Walking Dead relied on tricks and promised gags to keep people watching; the new Walking Dead seems focused on genuine surprise and jettisoning characters so it can get to the business of new storylines.

It seemed clear from the beginning of this season that how and when Rick Grimes died would signal what kind of rebirth The Walking Dead was planning. Judging from “The Obliged,” the signs are promising.

Unless you’re a huge Rick Grimes fan, that is. In which case, I offer my condolences.