Warning: Spoilers are ahead for the season eight of The Walking Dead. Keep reading at your own risk.
Rick Grimes has been a more or less morally grey character on The Walking Dead since around season three. While he’s been consistently loyal to his own group, his mental stability, willingness to help strangers, and ideas on how to deal with threats has varied wildly. With this week’s episode “Still Gotta Mean Something,” it looks like Rick has gone completely darkside. (Finally? Or again?)Rick and Morgan head out to round up the Savior prisoners who escaped; Alden asks Rick to have mercy on them, as many are probably regretting their decision to bolt. They encounter the prisoners at a broken down base halfway to Sanctuary. The prisoners manage to get the jump on them and knock them out, but when Rick comes to we see that Alden was right: many of the men do regret running away, and would rather live under Maggie than Negan. Rick, on hearing this, offers them a choice:
“You cut us loose, you cooperate, we’ll give you a fresh start. A chance to become one of us. I’m giving you my word. There’s not a lot that’s worth much these days, but a man’s word has got to mean something.”
All the men agree to this, and even fight off Jared—slimeball, Henry’s brother’s killer, and the only one who seems actually interested in returning to Negan. Rick then proceeds to slaughter all of them. It’s an upsetting and disappointing turn both for the episode and for Rick as a character. Rick doesn’t shoot them; he just hurts them enough so that they’re completely defenseless when a walker horde rolls through. At the end of it all, Rick stands above one of the half-eaten bodies. “You said—” the man begins. “I lied,” Rick says.
Now we know Jared was an abhorrent human being and it was only a matter of time before he went. But what of the others? We know they worked for Negan, but they sounded more coerced than anything; they were cowards, maybe, but not unredeemable men. “We could’ve lived, after,” the man says before Rick shoots him. It’s an echo of Carl’s own words to Rick, that there has to be something left for after. He was right, as Carl was right.
So where does that leave us with Rick? A man’s word does have to mean something, especially in a world like this—and especially to viewers, who trust that their protagonist is going to act a certain way. We know this new Rick is at odds with what Michonne wants—as we saw her crying and re-reading Carl’s letter—and we can guess he’s fallen way off the path of what Maggie, Carol, Alden, and even Tara are thinking right now. Maggie has accepted the prisoners as members of Hilltop; Alden is helping rebuild the walls after the attack; Carol rushes out to save Henry, even when Morgan believes him dead; and Tara tells Daryl she’s decided to forgive Dwight—probably the least believable plot thread this episode, but one that helps to reinforce that Rick is at odds with much of his own tribe. Many of them are rehabilitating and rebuilding. Rick is out there murdering people.
It feels like Rick has become a potential antagonist. There are other threads we can pull into this. “You save people. I watch them die,” Morgan says to Carol. He’s talking about himself, but it’s hard not to read into that as a reference to Rick as well. We also spend time with Jadis and Negan, where Negan is humanized probably the most we’ve ever seen. Negan surprisingly shows empathy for Jadis, and the two end up breaking down in front of each other. “You didn’t lose you. You should know that,” Negan says to her. Compare this to Rick seeing his reflection in a broken mirror after he kills the prisoners.
This all begs the question: with Carl gone and Rick spinning out, is it time to pivot the show from Rick? While earlier seasons often bounced between groups and characters, these last two seasons have been very heavily Rick-focused (sometimes to the detriment of other characters, like when we forewent a proper send-off for Glenn in favor of emphasizing Rick’s agony in season seven). Sure, he’ll likely come around and “get better”—we’ve yet to see the actual “my mercy will prevail over my wrath” scene—but one wonders if now’s the time to really expand beyond Rick, as Carl and Lori’s deaths have shifted the premise of the show, and Judith is too young to carry a meaningful role. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Andrew Lincoln talks of the camera “shifting off” of Rick, and Robert Kirkman says the show has a “very strong ensemble, and there’s a lot of characters that could carry the show.” Going into season nine, is it time to grow beyond Rick?
There’s certainly no shortage of potential protagonists whom the show could potentially expand with. Maggie, Michonne, Carol, Tara, and Rosita are all solid characters who would stand to have more character focus, and there are intriguing unexplored threads with the former Saviors, Cyndie and Oceanside, and Jadis and the mysterious helicopter that appeared in the episode. The show has also made gains in introducing more diverse characters such as Aaron, the hijab-wearing Nabila, and Saddiq, and characters such as these all hold potential for new, untapped stories. There’s a time jump in the comics after the Negan arc; is it possible to see a focus jump on the show in comparison?
Many characters talk of fresh starts in this episode. As we look toward season nine, maybe it’s time for us to start considering the same.