Endings are natural. In its zeal to depict a post-apocalyptic world where no one is safe, The Walking Dead has killed off a lot of characters, so on the surface, it would seem to understand that idea very well. With its revolving door of cast members and showrunners, the show has superficially embraced change, all the while maintaining a certain underlying status quo.

When news broke this summer that the show’s star, Andrew Lincoln, would be leaving The Walking Dead in its ninth season, we didn’t know what the fate of his character, Rick Grimes, would be. It was probably too much to hope that he would ride off into the sunset. Yet while it might seem like common sense that Rick would simply be fed into the meat-grinder, there was always a chance that the show would find a way to write him off without killing him.

If so, he wouldn’t be the first character to disappear and be kept on hand for a later possible comeback. Other Season 1 names like Morgan, Merle, and Morales (remember that guy?) had exited the show, only to reappear seasons later as guest stars or even full-fledged recurring characters. Following last night’s episode, “What Comes After,” we now know how that squares with Rick’s fate. Let’s dive into heavy spoilers about Rick Grimes and how his 120-episode arc reflects what is arguably a fundamental flaw in The Walking Dead: namely, its early mission statement to be the “zombie movie that never ends.”

The Answer to What Comes After? More of the Same

Rick Grimes lives. After all the hubbub about Andrew Lincoln leaving the show — including a cliffhanger ending last week that left him impaled on a piece of rebar with two herds of walkers converging on his position — it almost feels like Rick’s departure from The Walking Dead wound up being more of a TV ratings stunt. Lincoln reportedly wants to spend more time with his family in England, so that’s why he’s leaving the show, but no sooner did last night’s episode air than the news broke this morning that Rick will star in three AMC television movies set in The Walking Dead universe.

Fans bracing for his death and a meaningful send-off to the character had to content themselves with a deus ex machina exit whereby Jadis and her newly introduced walkie-talkie friends carried Rick off in a mysterious helicopter to live another day. “To be continued.”

True, we did see Rick being visited by ghosts from his past like Shane and Hershel. As he made his wounded escape from the combined walker herd, Sasha also showed up in his fever dreams. Given that she was not exactly a key relationship in Rick’s life (at least not compared to Shane and Hershel), Sasha seems like a strange choice for the role of Rick’s spirit guide. It would have made more sense to have Lori or Carl, his wife or son, be there, but maybe the actors were not available or maybe the writers just wanted to emphasize that bit about Rick “finding his family” among the living.

The staging of the bridge sequence was well-done. Having Daryl, the show’s new de facto star, stand off on his own, picking off walkers with his crossbow as the others rushed to save Rick, allowed him to share a moment with Rick in a way that felt like a fitting passing of the baton. If the episode had ended right then and there, with the bridge blowing up and Daryl fading into the woods, it might have been more emotionally rewarding and felt like less of a cheat.

As it is, having Rick wash up ashore, only to be whisked away to his own TV movie trilogy does feel like a bit of a cop-out. The timing of his departure, in the middle of a run of episodes as opposed to a season or mid-season finale, also feels like a bid to keep the show’s momentum going. With its viewership declining already, some people would probably be less likely to tune back into The Walking Dead if it went on break after wrapping up its main character’s story.

Despite feinting at finality, the sense of closure that seemed like it might finally be in sight with this show will only continue to elude long-suffering viewers. The question is, how did we get here? Was it always inevitable that The Walking Dead would reach the point of being unable to let go of itself?

How Rick Matured and Contradicted Himself

The Walking Dead was always most interesting as a metaphor for adulthood. The initial arc of Rick Grimes, how he struggled to retain his humanity amid mounting pressures, offered a fascinating genre take on the journey from innocence to world-weary experience. It’s an age-old story that just so happened to play out here in a zombie drama on television.

Of course, Rick’s a grown-up when he starts out the show, but he’s still got some growing up to do. In the early going (Seasons 1 & 2), he tries to look out for anyone and everyone. At times, his adherence to a moral code is portrayed as stubborn and naive, like he’s clinging to some misguided, pre-apocalypse notion of what’s right and wrong in a world where survival is now the only thing that matters.

Being forced to draw his gun on other human survivors in a bar and eventually being betrayed by his best friend Shane hardens Rick. He becomes the Ricktator. Losing Lori in Season 3 all but breaks him until he later meets Michonne and is able to rebuild some semblance of a stable family unit with her and Carl.

“Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” … but there are times when Rick’s fierce determination to protect himself and his group at all costs makes it look like he has almost become Shane: growing into the very paragon of self-interest who had acted as a character foil for him. “What Comes After” tipped its hat to this by having a dream version of Shane proudly assert how he had been the chief influence on Rick.

Only by tapping into the rage of his inner Shane sometimes would Rick be able to survive. In the name of safeguarding what’s his, he’s given himself over to utter savagery on more than one occasion, biting out a man’s throat and killing men in their sleep, to name but two examples.

Let’s call that the hardline approach. There are definitely times when Rick has taken such an approach in order to deal with potential threats, but the show has always walked him back from the brink of becoming a villain like other protagonists in the Golden Age of TV. One way the show has mitigated Rick’s growing callousness is by showing us, time and again, that strangers whose trustworthiness is in doubt are, in fact, cartoonishly evil.

This lets Rick off the hook because he’s not killing anyone who doesn’t deserve it. A common criticism of The Walking Dead is that its characters’ actions often flow from plot contrivance: not from the essence of who they are, but from the visible machinations of the writer’s room. Rick’s constant flip-flopping, some of the stupid decisions he has made as a leader, might stem from lazy writing sometimes, but they’re also consistent with a decent man turned aggressive defender whose conflicting impulses have put him at war with himself and others.

From the end of Season 8 through the beginning of Season 9, we saw a rift grow between Rick, Maggie, and Daryl over Rick’s unilateral decision to spare Negan’s life and keep him imprisoned. That decision is one that made thematic (if not practical) sense insofar as it offered a compromise for Rick between the opposing doctrines of mercy and wrath.

For a long time, these two forces have been vying for control of his behavior. If you don’t credit them as valid within the context of the show — if you don’t see how they could tear a well-intentioned apocalypse survivor in two different directions — then it just might make his character seem like a mess of contradicting views and actions.

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