Spoilers below for The Walking Dead Season 8 premiere. Don't read ahead if you haven't yet watched!
The Walking Dead has finally returned to the airwaves for the eighth season, and the premiere gave us a closer look at one of the most bizarre sequences from the big Season 8 trailer. In that early trailer footage, we saw the zombie apocalypse/all-out war action come to a stop as what looked like a much older version of Rick woke up and grabbed a cane. Fans have been speculating since the trailer was released in July. The only theory we've been able to definitively rule out was the idea that Old Rick was actually Rick waking up from a coma, and everything had been a coma dream all along. Now that we've seen a few seeming flash-forwards in the premiere, we have to consider: are they actually real?
In the flash-forwards (which were spread throughout the episode), we saw Rick with the white hair and beard wake up in a bed to grab a cane and hobble out of a bedroom to a larger living area, looking about 20+ years older than he does in the present. He's apparently living with Michonne and Carl in zombie apocalypse bliss, and baby Judith has grown into an adorable 6-year-old girl.
On the one hand, it's entirely possible that The Walking Dead is playing the flash-forwards entirely straight and we're all so jaded by the seasons of death and heartbreak that we automatically figure that nothing good ever happens. If we assume that Rick and Co. are successful in defeating Negan in Season 8, they could conceivably reach a place in their lives when they have the safety and security to plan festivals just for the fun of it. The show could be playing the flash-forwards entirely straight, and the next couple of seasons will see the show filling in the blanks.
That said, there are a few things that just don't make a lot of sense in the flash-forwards, and they could point toward the entire scenario happening only in Rick's mind. For one thing, Old Rick seems to have aged a couple of decades. In the trailer, it seemed like the flash-forward must be to Rick many, many years in the future. In the premiere, however, Rick is the only one to have aged so drastically. Michonne didn't seem to have aged a day, and Carl was still an adolescent with the same haircut. Judith was several years older, but not nearly as old as she should have been if enough time had passed for Rick to have aged so much. Old Rick looks more like her grandfather than her father.
Of course, Rick hasn't exactly been living an easy life since the zombie apocalypse began, and it stands to reason that he would get old before his time. Still, seeing Michonne and Carl look the same while Rick hobbles around with white hair is so jarring that the entire scenario feels off. Then there's the fact that Weird Al's "Another One Rides the Bus" is playing over the scene, and there's no sign of a stereo or tape deck or even record player that might have been scrounged from a pre-zombie apocalypse Weird Al fan.
Doesn't it stand to reason that what seem like flash-forwards are actually all in Rick's imagination? Some elements of the flash-forwards definitely seem like they could have been lifted directly from his subconscious. The owl could be a callback to the owl being built in Alexandria back when Jessie and Sam were still around, and perhaps "Another One Rides the Bus" instead of "Another One Bites the Dust" reflects Rick's memory of the bus used in the assault on the Sanctuary. Rick might think of himself as old beyond his years, which could explain why he looks so old and Michonne and Carl look fine. He imagines himself as old, bent, and broken; he imagines the people he loves looking fine and happy.
Personally, I have my doubts that The Walking Dead would go so far as to guarantee the survival and safety of four prominent characters so far ahead of time. If the flash-forward is real, then there's no suspense about Rick, Michonne, Carl, or even young Judith potentially biting the dust, and that could lower the stakes of the series in a big way. While I won't rule out a reveal that the flash-forwards are real, I wouldn't put much money on it. Unfortunately, it may be a while before we know for sure.
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For new episodes of The Walking Dead Season 8, tune in to AMC on Sundays at 9 p.m. ET. Be sure to vote in the poll about whether you think Rick's flash-forwards are real or not!