Curious changes are afoot at The Walking Dead, especially as the show’s eighth season has seen some notably tempered ratings. Sunday’s midseason finale also averaged some of the show’s worst numbers since Season 2, and – given the hour’s big twist and some contractual holdups – we had to ask: Is The Walking Dead’s future in question?

First and foremost, you’re warned of full spoilers for Sunday’s shocking (soon-to-be) demise, as Chandler Riggs’ exit from the series marks the most drastic deviation from Robert Kirkman’s comics yet. It wasn’t an entirely unexpected one, but nonetheless raises serious questions about the show’s use of source material from here on out. And as Variety now reports, Sunday’s “How It’s Gotta Be” ranked in as the lowest-rated midseason finale since Season 2 in 2011, even at a healthy 7.9 million viewers.

The Walking Dead remains a top cable performer on Sundays overall, but sliding ratings are starting to magnify a number of other uncertainties. The Hollywood Reporter notes that AMC has not yet formally renewed The Walking Dead for Season 9, nor have series stars Andrew Lincoln and Norman Reedus inked new contracts beyond the eighth season. Showrunner Scott Gimple assured in a separate interview that The Walking Dead was likely to return for Season 9 (and even Season 10), but at least a few details need ironing out:

We’re juggling a lot of things, but there’s been no discussion about season nine being the end … I wouldn’t speak to any [contract negotiations], but I’m very confident of a tenth season. I think it is a question but there is some business to handle with the things you just said. I’m not sure if they’re entirely on the money, as far as timing and everything like that, but I think we are tending to a lot of stuff before we jump into that. In the same respect, there’s a super long-term plan and we’re continuing to follow it. I know that’s a lot of double-talk, but I would say everything is quite cool.

You’re confident of at least 10 seasons?

I’m confident of beyond a tenth season — we’re building toward the future.

Anyone familiar with the TV business knows that costs tend to escalate over time, and actors rarely commit more than ten years of their career to one show. AMC brass have also spoken to future decades (!) of the series, so it’s plausible that the characters and Walking Dead storylines we know will last a few more years before transitioning to something new. Companion series Fear The Walking Dead is already in the process of overhauling its cast and premise, and Gimple also stated that several “endgame” options are in place:

There’s always been a long-term plan in place; I don’t know about always, but I’ve had one for a long time. I will say that that long-term plan has always had crazy iterations, like a garden of forking paths. There might be a lot of different ways to the very, very endgame. As we get into the teens [in terms of season number], there’s a lot of real-world stuff to consider as well. All sorts of things change, but those changes to the long-term plan and to the comic have always, in my mind, have been things we’ve had to change because characters have been gone [like Andrea] or are still around [like Carol]. I’ve always thought that we’ve been able to get great story out of that. And sometimes, even tell those moments from the comic that I love so much in different ways to surprise people who are so familiar with the book. But as far as the long-term plan, it’s a series of long-term plans, and we’ll see which one we wind up going with.

We’ll likely hear more about The Walking Dead Season 9 in the early months of 2018, but will the series undergo drastic changes in the next few years? Will the audience still be there to find out?

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