Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes on 'The Walking Dead'
Courtesy: AMC


Rick Grimes' 'Walking Dead' End Is a Promising Start

Ever since the news broke of Andrew Lincoln's exit from The Walking Dead, fans have speculated wildly about exactly how his character, Rick Grimes, would go out. A heroic death? A poignant goodbye? An ambiguous Shane-like ending that leaves his fate forever open to interpretation, not to mention hundreds of thousands of words of fan fiction?

Now that Lincoln's farewell episode has come and gone, we know the answers to those questions are: nope, nope and … well, maybe, but only after we've finished being mad about it. Instead of an action-packed final stand that ends in a blaze of glory, Rick Grimes spends his last episode grievously injured and meandering in and out of consciousness for the better part of the hour. In the present, he's on (and sometimes falling off) a white horse like a drunken specter of Death, trying to keep a herd of zombies from stampeding into the hapless Hilltop community—but mostly, he's in the grips of a fever dream, returning via hallucination to some of the series' iconic locations, and enjoying a chat or two with his dearly departed friends (the ones who weren't too busy with other projects to come spend a day on the Walking Dead set).  
Eventually, it all ends with a bang: Rick is forced to blow up the bridge that was meant to someday connect the Hilltop, Alexandria and the Sanctuary, and with it, his hopes of a collaborative future where the three communities would live together in peace. But it's OK! Because, with the help of his ghost-friends, he finally understands that he's already accomplished what he set out to do: He found his family. And after he's gone, they'll continue on. Life will go on, new bonds will be formed, new leaders will emerge and the arc of the zombie apocalypse will continue bending forever toward all things good and lovely.

Rick doesn't actually die on-screen—the last time we see him, he's being airlifted away to who-knows-where in that perpetually hovering helicopter—but it's a safe bet that if he does survive, it's in captivity and/or a long way off from Virginia. The episode ends with a time jump roughly five years into the future, where there's no sign of Rick, and a little sharpshooter in a familiar sheriff's hat introduces herself to a new group of survivors as Judith Grimes.
As for how fans feel about Rick Grimes' final hurrah, my personal guess—as someone who's been watching The Walking Dead since the beginning, and writing about it for almost as long—is that fans probably won't be thrilled (although AMC's announcement on Sunday about his role in upcoming Walking Dead films may stifle the blow). Despite a few high points—the don't open dead inside door, the awesome Jon Bernthal back in character as Shane—it also feels abrupt and poorly planned (as did the surprising announcement last month that this season's fifth episode would be Lincoln's last.) Chandler Riggs' exit last season as Carl Grimes, by comparison, was more heavily foreshadowed, more thoughtful and a better episode of television. Even allowing for the fact that the show left the door open for a resolution to the Rick issue down the road, it does seem a little odd that the show's star wasn't given its very best send-off.

And yet, despite the episode's flaws—or maybe even because of them—it suddenly seems not just possible but thoroughly desirable that The Walking Dead keep going without Rick. It was around the 15-minute mark in this long goodbye, when Rick came to for the second time to find himself inches away from getting mauled by walkers, that I realized: We've seen this before. Not just "this" as in "that particular plot contrivance" (although yes—that, too), but for Rick Grimes to be in mortal peril—the kind that would have resulted in the death of any other character a dozen times over—has become a more-than-familiar sight over the course of nine seasons. That, and everything else.

Rick Grimes has been around so long that his character arc is a well-trod circle. We've seen Rick angry, mercenary, murderous. We've seen him slobbering, sobbing, broken. We've seen him hopeful; we've seen him grieving; we've seen him give different versions of the same damn lecture about coming together for a better future so many times that we don't even have to listen anymore. Even Shane, as he's telling Rick to dig deep and get back in touch with his most brutal nature, is able to cite a half dozen moments from previous seasons as examples of what he's talking about.
Without him, maybe the show can finally break some new ground—and dig as deeply into some of its other characters' lives.
The only interesting thing Rick Grimes could do, the only thing left that he hadn't done multiple times over by now, is die … or barring that, just leave. And without him, maybe the show can finally break some new ground—and dig as deeply into some of its other characters' lives without having to worry about them becoming overfamiliar. Andrew Lincoln was the series' star at first, but for many years now, he's led one of the best ensemble casts on television.

With the writers no longer obligated to check in on its main man, The Walking Dead can spread out, play with different kinds of story lines and ditch some of the Rick-adjacent elements that have become less than compelling. Even the final scene in Sunday's episode, tacked-on as it feels, is fresher than pretty much anything else we've seen so far this season. (And already, there's a suggestion that the show has learned from its mistakes: A time jump ages Judith right up to the point where she can be an interesting character in her own right, instead of dead narrative weight.)

Like a body shedding the last of its dead cells, The Walking Dead is primed now to regenerate, and maybe even mutate a little, in unexpected ways. All that remains now of the original cast are Daryl (Norman Reedus) and Carol (Melissa McBride), and unlike Rick, they've long since cut ties with their season one selves; it feels right that they're still here, the wizened custodians of the show's old memories, shepherding it into its next chapter. And someday, probably, we'll find out what ever happened to Rick Grimes—and maybe even see him again. But for now, for the first time in forever, I'll be tuning in to the next episode of The Walking Dead with the best kind of interest: the kind where I have absolutely no idea what's going to happen.