SPOILER ALERT: This story contains details of tonight’s episode of The Walking Dead. Enter at your own risk.

“I think it’s going to be a full seven-course meal and people are going to be satisfied with it,” says Norman Reedus of Andrew Lincoln’s final parting from The Walking Dead in next week’s episode. Revealed months ago, the decision by Lincoln to leave the AMC series began its final stage tonight in what is the penultimate episode for the man who was and will always be #1 on TWD’s call sheet since the show debuted in 2010.

Ending with Lincoln’s Grimes literally trapped on a cement block with a potentially fatal metal pole through his side as a hoard of walkers were approaching down the road, tonight’s “The Obliged” episode was as much about the future of TWD as it was about setting up the end for its lead character.

In a farewell letter sent out last week, Lincoln said that, for him, TWD was “a story of hope, family, and friendship.” The actor added that the cabler’s adaptation of the comics created by Robert Kirkman were fundamentally about “people with nothing in common discovering that they have everything in common. United in their search for humanity and a place to call home. A story that has perhaps even more relevance now than it did when we began.”

Perhaps some of that relevance in 2018 is also how fractured things can become when that unity frays beyond repair.

Unveiling the deeply unresolved pain of the “All-Out War” and loss of the past two seasons, “The Obliged” found Danai Gurira’s Michonne toggling domestic bliss with Grimes and crafting new rules for the new world while spending her nights risking her own life secretly killing walkers. On a parallel track, Lauren Cohan’s Maggie Rhee, who is also set to exit the series, is now fully committed to a coup against Grimes’ leadership and a murderous quest against Jeffery Dean Morgan’s manipulative and imprisoned but still alive Negan.

As uprisings and betrayals of many stripes and on many fronts are breaking out all over the zombie apocalypse of the Angela Kang-showrun series, the final act of Rick Grimes’ long announced departure in next week’s “What Comes After” has begun. To that end, tonight’s Geraldine Inoa-penned and Rosemary Rodriguez-helmed fourth episode of Season 9 focused a lot of its narrative on the lacerated friendship and trust between Lincoln’s character and Reedus’ Daryl Dixon. A spotlight that found the almost brothers finally opening pursuing two very different agendas and laying it all out there in a deep hole, physically and psychologically.

With the stakes as high as they can get for TWD, I spoke with Reedus about the beginning of the end for Rick Grimes, and his “last big fucking hurrah rodeo” with Lincoln. In addition to tonight’s episode and that very theatrical scene in the hole between the once allies, we also discussed how the show has changed this season now Kang is in charge, the ratings and where things go from here.

DEADLINE: With the two-part exit of Andrew’s character from TWD this week and next, what are fans going to think of how Rick Grimes left the show that featured him from the first episode back in 2010?

REEDUS: You know, my guess is that they’re going to think that his character has come to a complete full circle.

DEADLINE: Really. Why?

REEDUS: Well, because Andy and Rick Grimes gave you everything they had, and you’re going to feel like that. Because where he’s taken the show, where he’s taken all of us as characters and as viewers on a ride. It’s been a full meal. I don’t think anyone’s going to be like oh, man, we skipped dessert. I think it’s going to be a full seven-course meal and people are going to be satisfied with it.

I think, with critics, with the internet, with fan favorites, with all of these things, like if people are like “oh my God I can’t watch this show, they got rid of Rick Grimes,” then we’ve made you fall in love with Rick Grimes. Then we did a good job like if there’s a character on this show that’s such an asshole and you hate him, that means he’s doing a great job. That’s what he’s supposed to do, you know and Andy did what he was supposed to do.

DEADLINE: Going into this season, you’ve spoken about how Andy’s leaving affected you personally as a colleague and a friend but with you guys deep in production towards the latter part of Season 9, how has it affected him in your opinion?

REEDUS: Let me say this, Andy’s been on set since he’s left but he’s like, you know, this show, it’s the best it’s ever been. He’s like I’m kind of bummed, it’s fucking amazing right now, you know? And the truth is, it is. It got better. The band got tighter.

DEADLINE: I would never take away the success you guys had back in the day because it was massive and it was impressive, but some bands actually weren’t meant to always play stadiums, they were meant to play a good tune in really good clubs…

REEDUS: That’s a great analogy. Some bands are heavy on lead guitar and it’s just guitar solos forever and you know, the rest of the band isn’t getting the chance to play. Now, we got new singers. we got new guitarists and I really feel that the show’s the best it’s ever been.

DEADLINE: How?

REEDUS: We’re making the show that we want to make right now and you can feel it on set, you can feel it all over the place. I really feel the scripts and the stories and the episodes are even better in the back eight, I really do. They’re fucking epic, you know, and they’re just crushing and they’re severe, all of them. The show’s morphing into something else but it’s got the heart and the feel of the original show, there’s just new life breathing through it.

So, do I think we’ll lose viewers after Andy? I think they’ll tune in to see what happens to Andy and then they’re going to tune in to see what it’s like without him.

DEADLINE: Before that happens, and leading into next week’s reckoning of sorts, I wanted to ask you about that scene in ‘The Obliged’ with you and Andy really battling it out in that hole. You guys have done so much together over the years, but with Daryl deliberately turning on Ricktatorship in cahoots with Maggie and then the two of you having to escape together as walkers start to fall into the hole, it seemed like a culmination of more than just characters was going on, if you know what I mean?

REEDUS: Thanks man, I’m glad you saw that. It was a big moment for the two of us in a lot of ways. It was the accumulation of all those disagreements the characters have been having since last season, Daryl finally getting his point across, finally being heard and going from fighting and hating each other to that come on, brother, give me your hand. The clasping of the hands and the pulling back out, it was like it meant a lot to Rick and Daryl but it really meant a lot to Andy and me.

DEADLINE: How?

REEDUS: This was like our last big fucking hurrah rodeo and Angela let us massage it and mold it. Every day after work I would drive up to Atlanta and we’d sit in Andy’s backyard and we’d order a pizza and we would rehearse and rewrite things and mold sentences into ways that they fit together. We really made it our own voice and it was Angela who let us do it.

It was a great way to end things because the thing about Rick and Daryl’s relationship this season is that Rick’s just blinded by this idea of bringing these communities together and building this bridge. He defeated Negan and Carl wanted a better life for everybody, and before he died he wrote these letters and these letters really affected Rick. He’s blinded by this desire to build this bridge when like everything’s going against him and 90 percent of those people don’t even want a bridge, they don’t even want anything to do with each other.

DEADLINE: That scene in the hole seemed like you got to say more than you have in several seasons put together, really flex some skills…

REEDUS: (laughs) Jeff sent me this article by somebody who went through all the lines Daryl had in the show, like how many lines he’s had in Season 1. How many he said in Season 4. It did show how my lines went way lower in Season 6 and 7, especially Season 7. I guess, you know, and asking I’m like “Yo, put me in, coach. Put me in, coach,” you know, and you know, it just wasn’t my time to have a lot of lines.

You can have characters who will ramble on forever but they only said a little bit really once it’s done, you know? And then you have characters that say very little but a lot was said with it. I’m not really like a word monster. I don’t need to say a billion words, but it is nice to move around the room a little bit again.

DEADLINE: Guessing there is more of that to come, but you really felt it in this latest episode as an actor, which isn’t something we hear you often talk about…

REEDUS: Well, yeah. We rehearsed the shit out of that scene, and, like I said, Andy and I didn’t do it on set, we did it on our own time and worked every day. It was that important to us and Angela really opened that door for us to go through and play with it and really go for it. Which gave us as actors confidence in the room to step outside the box a little and play with it.

We knew it, we knew it backward and forward. We helped create it, cause we put a lot of our own ingredients into that cake. To be honest, that scene, we could have done 100 takes of that scene and they all would have worked because we were dialed into it. We just threw a bunch out there, a bunch in the direction in a consigned space. You have to pick when you’re going to stand still and one person goes up and the other person stays still, and the other person kind of loses it and the other person listens. It was really fun and, for both of us, a really important scene to play.

DEADLINE: There is clearly a lot more TWD to come, but having been such a huge success for so long what is it like for you as ratings have taken a hit last season and this one?

REEDUS: I knew you’d ask that Dominic.

DEADLINE: Man’s gotta do his job…

REEDUS: I get it, man, I get it. Look, everyone’s worried about numbers and they’re like oh, the numbers have dropped. Well, they only drop when we compare it to ourselves, you know what I’m saying? The way people watch TV is different since we started, for everyone. I mean, sports are down across the board too. It’s just the nature of the beast, that’s how I see it. It’s a crazy weight to carry around on your shoulders when you have that big of an audience and everyone’s asking is it bigger, is it bigger?

The beast has just changed, permanently for everyone now.

Personally, I would love it if we never even talked about numbers. I just want to make a show we want to make, because what it feels like on set is great right now. I just want to make the honest show that we started making from the beginning, that’s what it feels like we’re making now.