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 (although it still draws more than 7 million, keeping it cable’s highest-rated drama by far). But last Sunday’s episode offered a fitting opportunity to come back and witness the emotional exit of its lead character, Rick Grimes. (Spoilers follow.)
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 sheriff’s deputy in Georgia who woke from a coma in a hospital that had been abandoned during a zombie outbreak.
With his wife, Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies), son Carl (Chandler Riggs) and 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) 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 guaranteed a permanent stay. Countless friends and relatives have come and gone — eaten, murdered, beaten to a pulp. Lori died many seasons ago, leaving Rick with an infant daughter, Judith.
Along the way, Rick discovered his inner monster, thanks to far too many violent encounters with the living. The show was about humans treating one another terribly, with no end in sight.
It was that aspect of the show — no end in sight — that effectively keeps fans of the show tuned in, while slowly alienating the rest of us, who grew too weary with the ever circling plot. “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.
Last 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 encounters before blowing up a bridge that sent dozens of flaming zombies into a swift-moving river.
Despite the insistence of AMC and actor Lincoln that this was 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 last we see of Grimes, I’ll eat someone’s arm.
Rick or no Rick, “The Walking Dead” thrives on its own intensity. Sunday, 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 — yes — Judith Grimes.
It’s the easiest kind of emotional symmetry, giving the show one more opportunity to press that reset button and lure the hordes of “Walking Dead” zombies — I mean, viewers — toward the scent of another reset.