The star began planning his exit five years ago, and that original plan called for him to leave in season 8

For fans mourning Andrew Lincoln leaving The Walking Dead in season 9, we’ve got some news for you: It could have been worse. The star was originally supposed to leave last season. Not only that, but his initial exit strategy was first carved out way back in season 4.

That’s what Lincoln told EW when we asked him about when he started to plan out his departure. “I had a conversation during season 4 with [executive producer] Scott Gimple about this,” reveals Lincoln. “You know, we shared young families and there was a lot of synchronicity between the two of us that were two heads of a show that seemed to be getting bigger and bigger. We spoke about it and said, ‘There’s got to be a shape. We need a shape to work out if we get to season 5 then maybe we’ve got a couple more.’ There were all these ifs and buts and strategies. And I said, eight sounds like a good number.’ Eight seasons was certainly something. Last season was a shape that I had in my head and it was certainly something that Scott was possibly thinking about as well that was a completion of a certain chapter which could be called Rick’s falling.”

So what happened? Why did Lincoln ultimately decide to come back for an abbreviated run of season 9 episodes? “Season 8 came and it got more complicated,” says Lincoln. “I realized that rather than have the funeral, I had to prepare for the funeral and I had to make sure everybody was comfortable with the funeral arrangements. And I don’t think I was ready for the funeral! You know what I mean? I was like, I don’t think I’m ready to go yet!”

It was during the summer of 2017 while filming season 8 that Lincoln changed his mind — at Comic-Con (where he would officially announce his departure one year later), of all places. “It was at Comic-Con that year that I made the decision that I couldn’t leave that year. I said to my wife, ‘I feel overwhelmed. I don’t think I’m ready. I can’t do it. I’ve got Norman, I’ve got Danai, I’ve got Jeffrey, I’ve got Melissa McBride, I’ve got Greg Nicotero — all these beautiful friends of mine and I don’t know if I can do it yet. I don’t know if it’s time.’” Lincoln laughs. “So that happened.”

But he was merely putting off the inevitable. Now the funeral has been prepared for, everybody is comfortable with the funeral arrangements, and Lincoln is ready to make his exit (while leaving open a plan for him to come back and direct an episode in season 10). “I have to do it,” says the star. “I have to come home. There was a certain sense that I’ve been without a home for this time. And I think it is right.”

The beginning of the end kicks off with The Walking Dead season 9 premiere Oct. 7 on AMC.

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The Walking Dead

AMC's zombie thriller, based on the classic comic book serial created by Robert Kirkman.

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