Spoiler alert: This article discusses what happened in Sunday’s episode of “The Walking Dead.”
Although many of us have given up on AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” which has shed an average of 5 million or so viewers in the past year (fear not — it still draws more than 7 million each week, keeping it cable’s highest-rated drama by far), Sunday night’s episode offered a fitting opportunity to come back for an hour and witness the emotional exit of its lead character, Rick Grimes.
Rick, played by Andrew Lincoln, survived eight-plus seasons in a dreary, often excessively violent zombie apocalypse epic, which all began from his perspective: He was a wounded sheriff’s deputy in Georgia who woke from a coma in a hospital that had been abandoned during a sudden zombie outbreak.
Initially reunited with his wife, Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies), son Carl (Chandler Riggs) and his colleague Shane (Jon Bernthal), Rick became the de facto leader of a band of survivors who slowly journeyed outward from the Atlanta megalopolis (and its infinite supply of zombies). Many arduous seasons later, Rick’s group made its way to Northern Virginia in a seemingly hopeless search for safety and security amid stressful group dynamics and deadly conflicts with packs of other humans.
No character on this show is ever guaranteed a permanent stay, regardless of what happened to “The Walking Dead” comic book characters they were based on: Shane became a zombie and was killed; Lori died many seasons ago, leaving Rick with an infant daughter, Judith. Even Carl, who had grown from being the show’s preteen nuisance to one of its noblest citizens, took his own life last year after a zombie bit him.
Countless other friends have come and gone — eaten, murdered, beaten to a pulp. Along the way, Rick changed. The violence and loss took their toll, and his heroism flagged in the face of all that self-preservation. Thanks to far too many violent encounters with the living, the leader of the pack discovered his own inner monster, as well as a potential to be a righteous tyrant. Rick got lost in the post-zombie world’s widening chasm of moral choice, and viewers stopped worrying so much about zombies. The show was about humans treating each other terribly — with no end in sight.
It was that aspect of the show — no end in sight — that effectively keeps fans tuned in while slowly alienating the rest of us, who grew too weary with the ever-circling plot to go on. “The Walking Dead” is a show for the video game era — resetting and rearranging players without any hope of true conclusion. It offers no narrative payoff for your time investment, other than the standing offer to keep going, full gore ahead.
Sunday’s episode saw Rick fending off the zombies once more — pulling himself off the rod of rebar on which he was accidentally impaled last week, then hallucinating his way through some flashback-type settings and encounters that have defined the show since it premiered in 2010.
He visited with dead characters (Bernthal’s Shane; the late Scott Wilson’s Hershel; Sonequa Martin-Green’s Sasha), each urging Rick back to consciousness, where, in a final scene, he blew up a bridge that sent dozens of flaming zombies into a swift-moving river.
Despite AMC and actor Lincoln’s insistence that this is the end of Rick, he was nevertheless found downstream, alive, by a character named Anne (don’t ask me, I’ve moved on to 500 other TV shows), who summoned a helicopter (!) that scooped Rick up, tended to his wounds and flew off into the far horizon. If that’s the very last we ever see of Rick Grimes, then I’ll eat someone’s arm.
Rick or no Rick, “The Walking Dead” thrives on its own intensity, shedding producers and showrunners wherever necessary. The acting is still often quite convincing and emotionally sharp — a tone Lincoln helped define. The pace cannot be argued with, particularly the keen way with which the show constructs its cliffhanger scenes around cable’s incessant commercial breaks. There’s a good reason so many people watch the show (and why it still requires its own hour-long, cathartic wind-down immediately after, called “The Talking Dead”). It still delivers on a simple formula.
This was certainly true Sunday, when the touted attraction that we showed up for (Rick’s departure) had its thunder impressively stolen by a last-minute swerve that seemed to be an open invitation for lapsed fans to start believing again. In the episode’s final scene, the show’s timeline shifted forward six years, where a group of humans was rescued from a zombie attack by a pistol-packin’ young lass named . . . Judith Grimes.
It’s the easiest kind of emotional symmetry, providing the show one more opportunity to press that reset button and lure the hordes of “Walking Dead” zomb — I mean, viewers toward the scent of another reset.
The Walking Dead (one hour) airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on AMC, followed by “The Talking Dead.”