Sunday night’s Rick Grimes finale encapsulated everything that is great–and frustrating–about The Walking Dead.
The episode, “What Comes After,” continues the strong bounce-back the series has demonstrated this season. There’s an emphasis on moral dilemma, as evidenced by vigilante Maggie’s face off with Michonne and ensuing confrontation with Negan. There are clever call backs, all the way back to the show’s very first episode in 2010 (the hospital scene; Rick and Shane conversing in the police cruiser). There is payoff on long-teased elements, as that mysterious helicopter finally touches down on the plot line. There’s sublime imagery: the Boschean vision of a field of infinite corpses in huddled sprawl. Most of all, there’s the grandeur of Rick Grimes, who heroically lures a pair of zombie herds away from the settlements and onto the still-under-construction bridge, which he then destroys in a fiery act of self-sacrifice.
If only the episode had stopped there.
Instead, it proceeded to stifle the audience’s catharsis. Turns out, Rick didn’t die in the explosion, but washed ashore somewhere downstream, where he’s discovered by Jadis and whisked away by the helicopter people. I am okay with the decision not to definitively kill off Rick, and could even live with some lingering open-endedness (might he return to the series at some future point?). But no sooner did the episode finish airing than the show’s brass released word that Andrew Lincoln would be reprising his Rick Grimes character in a trilogy of TWD movies on AMC. Surprise! the tricksy producers proclaim, Rick’s ballyhooed send-off is actually into a spin-off. This takes the infamous dumpster fake-out with Glenn to a whole other level. The timing of the breaking news felt both off and off-putting: I was left with a bitter sense of emotional manipulation, of deceptive hype (that this would be the last we’d see of Rick) used to spike ratings.
This latest swerve points to the fundamental problem:The Walking Dead has gotten too big for its own good, and is too concerned with expanding its brand (seemingly to the point of media saturation). Once again it has lost sight of its own basic appeal to viewers, who are eager to invest in a core cast of characters and their week-by-week struggle for survival in a post-apocalyptic world.
The Walking Dead botched the opportunity for an unforgettable TV moment by reducing Rick Grimes’s fate to a Gimple gimmick.