When Rick Grimes first rode onto our TV sets on Halloween night in 2010, Don Draper was still mistreating women and drinking like a fish on Mad Men. Walter White was running a drug empire in Albuquerque; Nucky Thompson was ruling Atlantic City like a tyrant; and Dexter Morgan was murdering his way through Miami’s criminal underworld and on his way to becoming the most mocked lumberjack in television history. Then along came handsome English actor Andrew Lincoln, playing a small-town Georgia sheriff’s deputy, with a spiffy-looking cowboy hat and relatable goals. He just wanted to kill zombies and protect his loved ones. Who couldn’t root for that?
Now, Rick is gone: impaled by a rebar, blown up by dynamite, then whisked away on a mysterious helicopter at the end of last night’s episode. Immediately after the closing credits, AMC announced that Lincoln will be starring in a series of movies set in the TWD universe, continuing the character’s story. “It’s not the beginning of the end,” Lincoln said in a prepared statement, “it’s the end of the beginning.” Whether you think this is a good idea or not is a matter of personal opinion. (Based on Twitter chatter, a number of fans do not.) But even though he’s not dead, as of this morning, he’s no longer the hero of the TV version of The Walking Dead.
In a way, the story of what happened to this particular character over the course of the past eight years is the story of what’s happened to TV. When the 2010s began, prestige cable dramas were all about take-charge dudes making tough choices and leaving a trail of wreckage in their wake. Here, near the end of the decade — thanks in no small part to the real world being increasingly governed by larger-than-life bad-boys — those kinds of externally swaggering, internally tortured men of action just aren’t as sympathetic, or as fun to watch.
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Nevertheless, as he leaves The Walking Dead behind – on the small screen or in an episodic format, anyway – it’s worth taking a moment to appreciate the good work Lincoln has done, with a role that was sometimes thankless.
Prior to that first TWD episode, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art-trained actor (born in London under the name Andrew James Clutterbuck) was best-known for playing a heartbroken best man in the perennial Christmas favorite Love, Actually. But as soon he became Sheriff Deputy Grimes, it was hard to imagine Lincoln as anybody else. Even hearing him speak in his own voice in interviews is jarring, after years of him doing Rick’s raspy southern drawl.
Both Lincoln and Rick Grimes were exactly what this show needed during its first few seasons, as it evolved from a relatively well-watched, critically respected horror-drama to a must-see cultural phenomenon. The series suffered behind-the-scenes bumps in the early going, cycling through two different show-runners in its first three seasons, before Scott M. Gimple stabilized the ship in Season Four. In the meantime, everyone in charge leaned heavy on their star, who took the original comic book writer Robert Kirkman’s conception of the lawman as a pragmatic, good-hearted hero and gave it some dimension and pathos.
Even when he was conflicted about taking on the mantle of leadership (as he was through much of Seasons Two and Three), Rick was an easy protagonist to follow. He was just a guy who loved his son Carl, and later his adopted daughter Judith. As his band of survivors traveled the South, looking for a place to settle while fighting off mortal enemies, he adapted to each new situation … sometimes too slowly, but always surely. Rick was the heart of The Walking Dead.
But he was never the brains, or the soul. In those first few years, fans could already see signs of what would become the show’s “Rick problem,” as the writers would make dubious creative decisions based on the idea that the real story they were telling was about one man’s personal growth — and not about, y’know, rebuilding a whole civilization after a zombie apocalypse. To become worthy of so much attention, this once appealingly straightforward do-gooder gradually became more sour and amoral. The hero who rode into town on the white horse to save the day became harder to like. He became a TV antihero.
It didn’t help that Rick was rarely the coolest character in any given episode — not with a sword-wielding Michonne around, or the crossbow expert Daryl, the kindly and capable Glenn, the ruthless Carol or the commanding King Ezekiel. It’s telling that at the end of last night’s tellingly titled episode “What Comes After,” credited writers Gimple and Matthew Negrete contrive to have pretty much every remaining major Walking Dead player in the vicinity when Rick triggers the explosion they assume kills him (even though it doesn’t make a lot of narrative sense). This is partly out of respect for what Lincoln meant to the series. But it’s also a way of reminding viewers how deep the franchise’s bench is.
It’s also pretty funny, whether the writers intended it to be or not, that Rick’s grand exit involves him making several incredibly boneheaded moves. This season first four episodes have been all about northern Virginia’s previously warring factions trying to work together, despite lingering mistrust and an inequitable distribution of resources. An increasingly untenable situation is made worse by our hero, who dreams of everyone coming together to build a literal bridge, and then watches as the project devolves into arguments and violence.
So what happens in Rick’s last episode? After getting thrown from a horse onto a metal pole while trying to lead a zombie horde away from this structure that means so much to him, he then wrests himself free and stumbles toward the bridge, which he eventually blows up to keep the walkers from crossing. (As Dead‘s big villain Negan once said about his rival’s knack for catastrophic strategic blunders: “You suck ass, Rick. You really do.”)
The sheriff’s charred, broken, but still functioning body is found by the inscrutable Anne (previously known as the avant-garde sculptor and cult leader named “Jadis,” before getting her comeuppance last season). She’s the one who calls in a rescue helicopter, owned by a new, as-yet-unseen community. Then in one final, apt bit of symbolism, the closing minutes of the episode leap several years ahead, to reveal a now-preteen Judith Grimes, helping other wandering survivors.
And thus a show about a macho dude becomes … a show about his young daughter, maybe? That would track with the changes in the drama’s own creative team, where Gimple has already handed over the show-runner reins to one of his writers, Angela Kang. It remains to be seen what The Walking Dead‘s focus will be going forward, and how Kang and company will address all the conflicts that were raging before this time-jump. But for now they’ve solved their Rick problem.
Before the man with the (often ridiculous) plans disappeared into the sky, the show gave him quite a send-off, with a fare-thee-well hour that saw him slipping into unconsciousness and imagining conversations with dead friends from seasons past: Shane, Sasha, Hershel. (R.I.P. Scott Wilson.) They all talk to him one last time about what he’s learned, about leadership and survival, and making the most of what he’s got. Lincoln, and the character, deserved that kind of final bow.
But those little chats also underscored how little there was left for Rick Grimes to do or discover on The Walking Dead, at least as we’ve seen it for the last eight years. We’ve followed guys like him on our televisions for long enough. Maybe it’s time to let the TV antihero die.