As The Walking Dead lurches through the second half of its tenth (!) season, its status as the 21st century's ER remains unchallenged. Which is to say: its ability to turn over cast members and re-shape its character map as it goes along is truly impressive. As someone who occasionally takes a sabbatical from the show only to pop back in a season later, it's fun to try to snake each character back to when they hitched their wagon to Rick Grimes' band of survivors in Alexandria. (An ironic notion at that, considering the fact that Rick is now gone, and he'd inherited Alexandria from another group of characters who have pretty much cycled out of the cast entirely.)
There's a problem at the moment, however, and it's happening at the very top of The Walking Dead's power structure. Andrew Lincoln's exit last season took Rick Grimes off the board (he's presumed dead on the show, but we know he's alive somewhere, awaiting The Walking Dead movies, whenever those actually materialize). But for our purposes, The Walking Dead is Rick-less, and for as much as Rick could be irritating as all hell, he was the center of the show's universe since the beginning, and his absence has left a major void. The show lucked out, though, as Rick's right hand, ready to step into that void, was Michonne (Danai Gurira). She'd been on the series since Season 2, and her commanding presence made her a perfect fit at the top of the TWD food chain. But just as Andrew Lincoln saw the light at the end of the zombie-infested tunnel, Danai Gurira — after playing Okoye in the Avengers and Black Panther films — has also opted out. Michonne is back this week, but she won't be for long.
Which leaves that void at the top of the heap again. Through the show's notable attrition, potential candidates to fill that top spot have already been killed off: sorry Carl (Chandler Riggs), Glenn (Steven Yeun), Abraham (Michael Cudlitz), Jesus (Tom Payne), Tara (Alanna Masterson). Earlier this season, one intriguing new character, Siddiq (Avi Nash), who might have had the stuff to take the reigns of the show within a season or so, was also bumped off. Maggie (Lauren Cohan) would have been a great top dog, but Cohan has also exited the show (though Maggie remains alive, just away). [EDIT: Cohan will return as Maggie in season 11, a step in the right direction.]
The obvious choice to step into the A1 slot seems to be Daryl (Norman Reedus), who's been with the show since episode 3 and is a huge favorite with the fans (and seemingly the showrunners). The problem with Daryl is … well, he sucks. He's not a bad person, but his character has stagnated in permanent glower mode for several seasons now, with no real development to speak of. He's a loner with a crossbow and a sneering attitude towards his fellow man, and while that archetype works just fine in apocalyptic fiction, he's just way too closed off to be the show's main character.
Honestly, the best option would be Carol (Melissa McBride), but she's currently walking on the dark side, as last week we saw she and Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) had been in cahoots to assassinate Alpha (Samantha Morton). Also, everybody on the show hates her at the moment, so story-wise, it might take a while for her to get back to a place where she could lead. And God help us all if the plan is to have Negan ascend to the top of the survivors' ladder. We've been through enough with him.
The Walking Dead has a challenge before them: to develop some of these new characters into the leaders of the show yet to come. Rosita (Christian Serratos), Aaron (Ross Marquand), Ezekiel (Khary Payton), Magna (Nadia Hillker), Yumiko (Eleanor Matsuura) — none of these characters are there yet, but if the show invests in them, spotlights them, and writes them the right way, they could be the ones leading The Walking Dead into Season 11 and beyond. That task should start immediately. We can't afford to wait for Judith (Cailey Fleming) to grow up.
The Walking Dead airs Sunday nights at 9:00 PMET on AMC.
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Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.