Photo: Frank Ockenfels (AMC)

Even though The Walking Dead has shuffled and slurred and growled a long way from its heyday as must-see Sunday TV, the news that series star Andrew Lincoln would be hanging up his cowboy hat and holstering his Colt Python near the mid-point of season nine still came as a shock. Rick Grimes is the axis upon which this end-of-the-world turns, our anchor into the apocalypse, the fearless (and often clueless) leader of our scrappy family of survivors. For many fans, the thought of The Walking Dead without Rick Grimes is akin to Star Wars without Luke Skywalker or Princess Leia, or Parks and Recreation without Leslie Knope. But the end of Rick Grimes could be the jolt of life that awakens the show from its prolonged stretch of drooling somnambulance. Losing Rick—and his leadership style, which swung wildly between corn-pone authoritarianism (a.k.a. “The Ricktatorship”) and dithering ineptitude—may not make The Walking Dead great again, but it can potentially make it genuinely compelling for the first time in years.

Much has been made of the show’s lagging ratings, which are commonly attributed to its unrelenting bleakness—a bleakness that hit its starkest, most blood-saturated point with the season seven premiere, where two fan favorites, Glenn and Abraham, met their gruesome ends through a barbed-wire baseball bat. But this bleakness is not without context: The show has had to go darker, harder, and meaner to justify its protagonist’s excesses. The Glenn and Abraham killings (arguably the show’s great nadir) were the Saviors’ revenge—because our merry band of survivors, under Rick’s orders, slaughtered an outpost of Saviors (who were asleep in their beds, no less). The series has become so invested in upholding Rick’s fundamental rightness—even when it would be more narratively and thematically intriguing to let him be wrong—that its villains are forced to go into outsized, Snidely Whiplash mode.

The Governor proved to be such a compelling nemesis because the writers allowed for the possibility that he might, in fact, be right (at least some of the time) in his white-knuckled, any-means-necessary approach to preserving civilization—especially given that Rick’s leadership was still just quixotic optimism. (Remember back in season two, when he wanted to let a dude who’d admitted to being a rapist and killer just, like, leave Hershel’s farm with the fond hope that said rapist/killer wouldn’t rejoin his pack of fellow rapists and killers and come back to the farm with a glint in his eye and blood on his mind? Good times.) As Rick increasingly embraced a darkly bombastic machismo (and the show correspondingly blunted all its complexity), the forces that opposed him had to get sicker, and more vicious, to make him look like a good guy in comparison. Jeffrey Dean Morgan is an innately charismatic actor (his turn in Watchmen made a proto-Negan type of character immensely watchable, even full of pathos), and yet, aside from his introduction, he’s been squandered as a foil for Rick. If he were too compelling, too nuanced, he might easily eclipse our hero—as, arguably, the Governor did, or as other characters—specifically Daryl, Carol, Michonne, and Maggie—have managed to do.

Photo: Gene Page (AMC)

These characters became infinitely more interesting because their emotions and reactions, their hopes and fears, weren’t entirely externally motivated: One of the most moving arcs in the show’s entire run, for instance, was Daryl slowly, and at times with great difficulty, shucking off the straightjacket of the racism and xenophobia he learned from his brother and becoming part of a community. Then, the show smothered Daryl in the insert-grizzled-peg-into-grizzled-hole role of Rick’s right-hand man: The character hasn’t done much but brood handsomely for at least the past two seasons.

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Ironically, though Rick is the series lead, the Southern-fried Gary Cooper who adorns the posters, sells toys, and inspires Halloween costumes, he remains a cipher. He’s galvanized by overlarge, capital-E emotions and purely external factors—like finding and protecting his family; grieving when his family members are killed; deciding that only extreme violence can thwart the next evil outsider; and then, deciding that, naw, violence ain’t the way, we’re tryin’ to build somethin’, somethin’ bigger than ourselves—but there’s nothing delicate, intricate, or even personal in his motivations. He could be any other action hero. Even his desire to keep Negan alive and forge an uneasy truce with the surviving Saviors comes from his late son’s vision for a better world, nothing endemic or indicative of his own ideals.

This is the problem: After nearly 10 years, we still don’t know who Rick Grimes really is, or what he really believes. One could only imagine that a man who’d spent most of his adult pre-apocalypse life working as a sheriff would have some personal notions about right and wrong, or, at the very least, what a balanced and lawful society would look like. It’s odd that a supposed “good cop” from the days of yore would be so at-ease with single-handedly playing judge and jury with Negan, not allowing the people in the townships who fought and bled and lost beloved kin to have any kind of say about what should reasonably happen to the Saviors post-war.

Only Michonne sits down to draw up an actual charter (and even then, only after she’s disturbed by Maggie’s frontier justice for Gregory). It’s a small character moment, just a woman sitting with a pen and a pad of paper, but it’s indicative of her values and her beliefs, and it reminds of us who she was before the walkers took the world. I can’t think of a similar scene for Rick: His fixation on the bridge feels more like a plot contrivance, a way to machinate him to his doom, and to set up a conflict with characters like Maggie and Daryl, whose reactions and motivations feel far more plausible and lived-in.

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This season is a significant improvement over the slog of all-out war because it’s already preparing for a version of The Walking Dead without Rick Grimes, a show that can no longer rely on the cheap gimmick of the noble cowboy redeeming the day against a nefarious foe. This season’s shift to Maggie and Daryl as quasi-antagonists who are arguably more in the right than Rick—Rick’s decision to unilaterally spare Negan, and to ask the people he and the Saviors traumatized to simply accept it, is frankly as cruel as it is misguided—has given it real tension, momentum, and stakes. More importantly, it’s given the show some genuine complexity.

When the tone and tenor aren’t entirely wedded to Rick’s emotions (which have mostly been epic, full-metal man-pain), the show flourishes as an ensemble drama. “The Obliged” gave Michonne a substantive subplot, contrasting her lawyerly drive to achieve peace and her maternal urge to build a family with the rage-born bloodlust she just can’t shake. Maggie is struggling to balance her emotions as she learns to govern and to parent. Carol, who was forged into a survivor by her batterer husband long before the dead came churning out of the earth, is beginning to trust, and show tenderness, with a new love. The show has already proven it doesn’t need Rick to say powerful, trenchant things about chaos and humanity, violence and redemption, pain and valor.

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AMC is marketing season nine as Rick’s gore-specked swan song—and while it is that, it’s also a soft reboot, and better for it. This is not to say that fans shouldn’t grieve the loss of Rick, or that Andrew Lincoln hasn’t done the absolute best with what he’s been given; only that his absence (however long it may be) could expand The Walking Dead’s grim, dark horizon.