By: Ryan Salvaggio
The Walking Dead, a comic series and TV show on AMC, follows a group of zombie apocalypse survivors led by a former police officer, Rick Grimes. The show has changed a lot over its nine seasons, including the addition or subtraction of different characters and shifts in story arcs. A lot of the time these changes or small tweaks in storytelling come from what the writers and directors think will keep viewers invested and keep the show unpredictable. On other occasions, changes are made due to things like conflict of schedules for actors who may be working on separate shows at the time of filming, actors disagreeing with decisions made by writers or showrunners leading to conflict, or even actors feeling like it’s time for them to step away from the show in order to focus on other opportunities. This is something The Walking Dead had to deal with when it was announced towards the end of season eight that actor Andrew Lincoln, who portrayed main character Rick Grimes for almost a decade, planned on stepping away from the show five episodes in season nine to spend more time with his family.
The first four episodes of season nine worked as a slow buildup of anticipation to see just how Rick Grimes would go. Would he be killed? Captured by another group of survivors? Or get the hero’s treatment and ride off into the sunset? When episode five, appropriately titled “What Comes After,” finally came around, it was discovered that Rick had to “sacrifice himself” in order to save his family and friends from an incoming horde of zombies that threatened the communities he and his friends and family had established in the post-apocalyptic world. Now, I put sacrifice himself in quotes because (spoiler alert) in the episode his friends and family see his sacrifice and believe he died in the process of saving them all. However, it is later revealed that Grimes miraculously survived his run in with the horde of zombies and was whisked away to an unknown location on a helicopter a friend who found him. (I would highly recommend watching the episode because my explanation doesn’t do it justice).
Although this was the ending for Lincoln’s character on the show (seeing that Chief Content Officer Scott M. Gimple announced there would be multiple TV movies surrounding the character of Rick Grimes), fans, myself included, were left with an uneasy feeling and an unsure idea of where the show would go without its main character. These feelings mainly stemmed from the fact that the comic book is much further along in its story than the TV show is, and Rick Grimes is still the main focal point in the storylines and some of the bigger events that take place in the comics, such as his discussions with prisoner Negan (who was locked up at the end of season eight), the arrival of the villainous Whispers and the War with them, and even the inclusion of a new community of the Commonwealth, all of which had not yet been introduced at the time of Lincoln’s departure. Mix in the fact that The Walking Dead’s fan interest and audience ratings have declined since the season seven premiere, which saw fan favorites Glenn and Abraham brutally murdered by the new bad guy of the season Negan.
However, I, like many fans decided to stick it out after the departure of Rick Grimes, curious to see how certain comic storylines would play out with the remaining characters on the show and I can say without hesitation that the departure of Rick Grimes, while upsetting and off-putting to some, was actually one of the best things that could happen to the show. s many people close to the show, such as Executive Producer Robert Kirkman, Showrunner Angela Kang, and even Andrew Lincoln himself, have all reiterated, The Walking Dead isn’t just a show about Rick Grimes, it’s a show about these different groups of survivors (good or bad) and how they’re fighting to stay alive in a world overrun by the undead.
The departure of Rick Grimes gives the writers, producers, etc. the ability to give comic storylines out to different characters on the show and develop them more than they may have been in the original source material. I’m not saying that Rick Grimes handcuffed the show, but with him gone it gives (and ultimately has given as season nine has gone on) other characters their own moments to stand out and shine, something they might not have been able to do if Rick was still around. Now, this isn’t to say that other characters weren’t focused on when Rick was on the show, his departure has just given these characters an even greater chance to develop and stand out on the show. Take for example the three characters of Daryl, Carol, and Michonne. Daryl (played by Norman Reedus) for starters isn’t even in the comic books, and was instead made specifically for the show. With Rick’s departure and Daryl’s popularity with fans since his debut way back in season one, he has seemingly taken over as one of the show’s main characters.
The same can be said for the characters of Carol (Melissa McBride) and Michonne (Danai Gurira) who, unlike Daryl, are a part of the comic, but drastically different from their comic and TV counterparts. In the comic Carol is a definition of a background character, but the complete opposite is true of her role in the TV adaptation. Again, diving into spoilers, this time for the comic, Carol is an extremely weak and borderline crazy character who is constantly seeking companionship with other characters, even going so far as to try to hook up with both Rick and his wife Lori before being shot down and subsequently committing suicide by letting a zombie kill her. On the show, she, much like Daryl, turned into a fan favorite due to her constant badass behavior, ever growing leadership qualities, and doing whatever it takes to survive and protect those she cares about.
Although the differences may not be as drastic as Carol, Michonne has also gone multiple overhauls between the comic and TV adaptation. While her stories early on in the showare similar to those of her comic origins, over the last few seasons, Michonne has been a character that has been focused on more heavily, even going to far as to begin a romance and family with Rick before his departure along with taking over the duties of being the leader of Alexandria, the community that Rick led before he left, none of which happens in the comics.
All three characters turned into great leaders on the show, not to mention how many other characters have had their own standout moments and increase in screen time in part due to the departure of Rick Grimes. Although fans may have been skeptical at first, it seems they may finally be coming around to a world without Rick Grimes as ratings for the show are starting to climb back up with its most recent episode of season nine, “The Calm Before,” which received an average rating of 9.6. This is the first rating in the 9.0 range since Rick’s departing episode, helping season nine as a whole net an average rating of 8.2, it’s highest rated season since season six, which sat at an 8.3. The increase in popularity again has even caught the eye of Andrew Lincoln, who when talking about where the show is at now with Norman Reedus went on to say that he “picked the wrong time to leave the show because it’s so f–ing good right now.” If a comment like that doesn’t instill confidence into fans who still might be a little skeptical of a Rick Grimes-less Walking Dead, I’m not sure what will.