So as we all reel from the implications of The Walking Dead‘s season finale—particularly those last few minutes—it’s time we step back for a moment and examine how the show has brought us to this point.
The Walking Dead, which just concluded its fifth season, is something of an anomaly. It’s not entirely surprising that the show succeeded initially; it first hit when the zombie wave was its hottest, and it was based off of an already successful comic book series. Now, the climate is different, and the show’s tone has evolved quite a bit. What the show has turned into, and how successful it’s become with the public, defies all explanation.
How so? Well, consider this: when you remove the zombies from the equation, what is The Walking Dead about, exactly?
It’s about humanity. Survival. Depravity. It’s an excellently written, deeply depressing, frequently uncomfortable look at the moral degradation of a small, ragtag group of survivors who are struggling to remain afoot in the aftermath of an apocalypse that has killed almost everyone they know. The zombies provide the background dressing, sure, but they could just as easily be a nuclear meltdown or an ice age; what the Walking Dead is really concerned with is people. It’s about what happens when good people have to make terrible decisions, and the heavy toll that these decisions take upon their consciences. Nearly all of the characters are suffering from PTSD, and their moral compass is constantly on the verge of crumbling. It’s hard to watch, because it’s written—and performed—so damn well.
At this point, the series has moved away from its Dawn of the Dead roots and found more in common with Stephen King’s The Stand. Certain storylines and sequences have even approached the dark intensity of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
And right there at the center of the show, we have the one character who carries the biggest burden of all: Rick Grimes.
Now, as a disclaimer, I should state that I’ve only read the first volume of the Walking Dead comic series, titled Days Gone By, so my analysis here is based completely on the TV series. I don’t know whether my conclusions line up with the character’s arc in the comics, as I’ve avoided reading any spoilers. Now, moving forward with that in mind…
There are few television characters who have changed so much since the audience first met them. The only immediate comparison who jumps to mind is Walter White—and that’s not a character anyone wants to be compared to.
When we first met Rick, he was the goody two shoes. He was the clean cut southern police officer, completely idealistic and devoted to doing the right thing. He was a bit bottled up and struggled to emote to his wife, but he strove to find good, friendly solutions for every problem. He was the kind of cop who had probably only drawn his gun a few times, and would be hard-pressed to do so.
It’s terrifying to watch, in retrospect, how much the traumatic events of The Walking Dead’s five seasons have reshaped the old Rick Grimes. Since the walkers took over, Rick has faced the betrayal of his childhood best friend, the death of his beloved wife, the supposed (but later refuted) death of his newborn daughter,the violent destruction of multiple places he had thought he could call home, and the horrifyingly grim situation of being locked up by a bunch of human cannibals who wanted to eat him and his adopted family. Rick has never lost his devotion to protecting his family and friends, but that same devotion has forced him to do a lot of terrible things that the old Rick would’ve been appalled at.
Rick isn’t the same man he once was. Never has that been more obvious than it was in the final minutes of this last season finale, as Morgan—the man who helped Rick at the beginning, and has been searching the countryside for him—walked into Alexandria just in time to watch Rick perform an execution.
Not that Rick is a bad guy, necessarily. But he’s not really a good guy, either.
Rick’s intentions are coming from the right place, certainly. Unlike the aforementioned Walter White—who masked his selfish, egomaniacal drug lord aspirations with dubious claims about “doing it for his family”—Rick Grimes is a man who is truly, desperately devoted to protecting the people he cares about. His every waking moment is consumed by his need to protect his loved ones by any means necessary.
But to protect one’s family in the blighted world that The Walking Dead depicts, a man must possess a violent immediacy, quick instincts and cold blood. Rick has been forced to kill, shoot, maim, cripple and bite out the throat of people who have tried to kill his family.
Because his ideals are still in place, Rick has—so far—managed to keep from completely eroding his moral compass. His soul, while perhaps smudged and frayed, has not yet been torn apart. Up to this point, he hasn’t completely tipped over the edge.
But he’s getting close to it. Damn close.
He knows that he’s close, and the audience knows it. This underlying tension has made this season of The Walking Dead the best one yet. Rick is constantly on guard, for good reason, and constantly alert. But what if at some point, finally, the tension gets the best of him? When an entire group depends on one man, how long can he keep going before he snaps?
In one of many brilliant moves this season, Rick recently shaved his beard. On the surface, the reasons are obvious; since the characters have landed in Alexandria, they’ve essentially returned to civilization, and the familiar scene of shaving one’s beard is pretty well-recognized cinematic language for “getting back to oneself.”
But The Walking Dead, largely due to Andrew Lincoln’s excellent performance, deftly inverts this trope. Though this new clean shaven Rick should look his old self, he doesn’t. His tense body language, his shifty facial expressions, his gravelly voice…all of it demonstrates a man so far removed from the man he once was that, at this point, he may not even remember that the old Rick even existed.
When season six arrives, Rick will have a lot of new trials to overcome. Between connecting to the residents of Alexandria, dealing with this new tribe of “Wolves,” the constant menace of walkers, and the tragically timed reconnection with his old friend Morgan, Rick will be challenged like never before.
But even with all of this external factors at work, the true challenge will be internal. Rick Grimes has come a long way from his humble beginnings, but he has an even longer road ahead of him.