'The Walking Dead' looks back as it marches toward Rick's exit

The following contains spoilers about the Nov. 4 (fifth) episode of "The Walking Dead's" ninth season.

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Brian Lowry
(CNN) — The following contains spoilers about the Nov. 4 (fifth) episode of "The Walking Dead's" ninth season.

Having leaned into the promotional benefits of Andrew Lincoln's departure, "The Walking Dead" couldn't exactly give him a low-key going-away party. Sunday's episode thus endeavored to send Lincoln off with a bang -- literally, as it turned out --still indulging in some of the coyness that has come to plague the series, while simultaneously seeking to plant seeds for the future.

Much of the episode -- which picked up with Rick skewered by a metal pole and surrounded by zombies -- reached back to the program's past, a magical mystery tour through its best (and better) days, featuring a number of cameos by since-departed regulars.

There was a good deal of nostalgia in that -- seeing Jon Bernthal, Sonequa Martin-Green and especially the late Scott Wilson, who died last month -- as Rick kept slipping into what amounted to a walking-dream state. Those interludes clearly represented an effort to serve long-time fans with an hour that lived up to the momentousness of losing the program's original star.

Still, the writers backed away from a definitive finish after Rick went out in what appeared to be a blaze of glory, setting off an explosion on a bridge filled with walkers. And if they were holding open the option of having him come back some day -- perhaps for the series finale, whenever that might come -- it felt too cute, much like the old Glenn-under-the-trash-compactor twist of a few years ago.

The real gamble, though, was signaling a major time-jump at the end of the episode, showing Rick's daughter Judith as a much older kid. AMC actually made the next episode available in advance, providing critics a better sense of the shifted focus in terms of key characters and relationships, in what showrunner Angela Kang has described as the program's "Rick-less" future.

Any way you slice it, dealing with Rick's absence is going to leave a sizable void, one that will have to be filled by the likes of Daryl (Norman Reedus), Michonne (Danai Gurira) and Carol (Melissa McBride), among others. While those are formidable anchors -- and the series has weathered plenty of turnover in the past -- it's engineering this baton pass from a position of weakness, not strength, with the ratings having fallen sharply over the last two seasons.

To the writing staff's credit, "The Walking Dead" started the season reasonably well, and has managed to give Lincoln what felt like a major sendoff (that cryptic closing sequence of events notwithstanding), without feeling completely as if they're writing the show's epitaph along with it. Airing this episode now also provides a few weeks to establish the time-shift -- adding new faces, and solidifying the threat to all that hard-earned harmony -- before the series heads into its customary midseason break.

In the past, when actors have left the series -- not usually at their request, as was the case with Lincoln -- life, and death, have gone on. It's possible that "Walking Dead" will be able to reload again, but as it ambles further into its ninth season, the future for what was once TV's biggest hit hasn't looked this uncertain since Rick first woke from that coma.

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