Daryl's role in The Walking Dead season 9 could be totally transformed by Rick's exit

Warning: This article contains spoilers for The Walking Dead comic series

The Walking Dead is losing its leading man: having made the decision to exit the AMC series after eight years, Andrew Lincoln will appear in just six episodes of the upcoming ninth season as Rick Grimes.

With another series mainstay, Maggie actress Lauren Cohan, also set to exit, it’s no surprise that producers are keen to hang on to their remaining regulars – in particular, Norman Reedus as fan favourite Daryl Dixon, who’s reportedly negotiating a $20 million payday to not only remain with the series but also step up and fill Lincoln’s boots.

Replacing Rick, though, won’t be as simple as giving Reedus a raise and giving Daryl more screen-time, and here’s why.

Though the TV show’s relationship to its source material is best described as “fluid”, The Walking Dead is still partly based on the comic books written by Robert Kirkman, a series in which Rick remains alive and well.

To date, he still functions as the main character in the comic series, playing a pivotal part in many future storylines, a good chunk of which continue to hinge on his relationship with son Carl, who – like his father – is still drawing breath in Kirkman’s original.

When the decision was made by then-Walking Dead showrunner Scott Gimple to write out Carl on television, we were told that the character’s storylines would still play out on screen, only with “different characters” – and in the wake of Chandler Riggs’s exit, young Kingdom survivor Henry (Macsen Lintz) began appearing more and more frequently.

Henry is already positioned to inherit Carl’s storylines. Now, Daryl taking on Rick’s role in those plots could be the next logical step. (Conveniently, Daryl doesn’t exist in the comic books, so has no set destiny of his own to fulfil.)

We wouldn’t be at all surprised if future episodes saw Daryl and Henry form a rather hasty faux father-son bond. The two characters haven’t really interacted to date, but that could be about to change, with the boy’s other potential father figures either departed or very possibly heading that way.

Spoilers… but if the TV series follows the path set by the comic book, then Ezekiel (Khary Payton) is not long for this world, while Morgan (Lennie James), who also advised and guided Henry, has already jumped ship to spin-off Fear the Walking Dead.

In their absence, Daryl could step in as Henry’s mentor – after all, how better to placate Walking Dead fans disappointed by Andrew Lincoln’s exit than by serving up some Daddy Daryl, even potentially having him form a little family unit with Carol (Melissa McBride)?

It’d be like Steve and Dustin from Stranger Things all over again, only with more zombie guts and less Farrah Fawcett spray.

Though this new set-up for Daryl would be provoked by the loss of Rick, it actually wouldn’t feel totally artificial. Reedus’s character has been on a steady evolution ever since his first appearance, from loud-mouthed, hot-headed redneck to a more contemplative leader and warrior.

Having him complete his transition from lone wolf to head of a family – both his own smaller unit, and chief of the various communities of survivors – would actually be the perfect cap to Daryl’s journey.

It’s a pity that The Walking Dead has to lose Rick, but if he has to go, there’s no doubt that Daryl is absolutely the right character to replace him.

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