SPOILER ALERT:  This post contains details of tonight’s episode of The Walking Dead & the fate of the Andrew Lincoln-Portrayed Rick Grimes

The form that Andrew Lincoln’s long promoted exit from The Walking Dead took tonight was far from the only surprise of an episode that had all the hallmarks of a season finale but landed less than halfway through Season 9.

However, like many a season finale, the execution did not match the hype in the end – save the very end.

In fact, literally and figuratively after the fate of Lincoln’s Rick Grimes is sort of settled, that revelation of a jump of several years potentially pivots TWD into a next generation future that is magnificently female. “I’m Judith Grimes,” announces Cailey Fleming after helping to save a quartet of stragglers from certain walker death. Wearing her absent adopted father’s famed brown stetson and all, the addition of the 11-year old Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens actor to the show opens a world of possibilities that the initial stages of new showrunner Angela Kang’s reign just hinted at before – and that’s very refreshing.

Which is not what can be said of the end, as it were, of Rick Grimes.

Seemingly blown away in a self scarifying blaze of walker destroying glory, the twist to seeing Lincoln’s wounded but still living Grimes actually departing in a mysterious helicopter also had all the hallmarks of a cheat hiding in plain sight. With all the Comic-Con panels, emotional exit interviews form other members of the TWD family and tributes to the Love Actually alum, the pageant of the near end of the otherwise emotionally stinging and precisely executed “What Comes After” episode proved to be just another cliffhanger or likely launch pad.

That last shot of the clearly conscious once-sheriff’s deputy up in the air with Pollyanna McIntosh’s deceitful Anne and heading to an unknown destination makes it pretty clear that Rick Grimes is on the move but not really going anywhere other than AMC’s bottom line.

After the blowback that Season 6 tease of the apparent death of the Steven Yeun played Glenn Rhee generated when the once pizza boy was revealed to be alive in the once most preposterous way, TWD’s hardcore fan base may shrug or explode in the “fool me once, fool me twice” turn Rick’s fate has taken.

What is clear is that tonight’s episode, based on a story co-created by former showrunner Scott M. Gimple, is real creative cul de sac for the strong reset that EP Kang has brought to TWD this season.

A reset that excelled last week and found its sharpest form in the showdown between the revenge seeking Maggie Rhee (Lauren Cohan) and imprisoned villain Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). Keeping the murderous Negan alive was the sorest point for many of Grimes’ adherence to his now dead son Carl’s plea to seek peace after the “All Out War” of the past two seasons. With the support of Norman Reedus’ Daryl Dixon and others, Maggie duped Grimes and talked her way past a conflicted Michonne (Danai Gurira) to kill Negan for killing Glenn, Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) and so many others.

But, with three more episodes to go before the midseason “Evolution” finale of November 25, Negan remains alive at the end of tonight.

“I came to kill Negan and you’re worst than dead,” Maggie declares as the bluster of Morgan’s character is stripped away to unveil a broken man literally begging for his own death. In a series that has long dedicated itself to the depths to which the human experience can fall when everything falls apart it is a dark and wonderful scene of two top of their game actors putting all of their characters’ respective and collective pasts out on the creative table.

It is also a sure sign that Cohan’s own exit from TWD  this episode for the lucrative pastures of broadcast TV and ABC’s Whiskey Cavalier will be an open wound for the show based on Robert Kirkman’s comics.

Yes, as well as Lincoln’s apparent final episode of TWD, “What Comes After” looks to be Cohan’s exit, for at least the rest of Season 9.

In that vein of departures, the respective fever dream hallucinated returns of ex-cast members the now sadly deceased Scott Wilson, now Star Trek Discovery star Sonequa Martin-Green and current Punisher Jon Bernthal prove add some spark to Rick Grimes’ travels through his and the show’s past to, as he keeps uttering, “ find my family.” The reunion with Wilson’s Hershel especially is so lovingly filmed that the In Cold Blood vet’s assertion to Lincoln’s character that “you have to wake up” veers close to being lost in the hindsight of Wilson’s sudden death on October 6 just as his return to TWD after nearly five seasons was made public.

A homage in many ways to the Frank Darabont showrun first season with Lincoln’s Grimes back in the hospital bed he woke up in the very first episode and a ride back into Atlanta, tonight’s Greg Nicotero directed extended episode is a full circle that will please some and annoy others.

The reality of an episode that asks “is this real” and rallies the core Survivors once last time to try to save their leader is somewhere in the middle, which is clearly where this tale truly is.