(Spoiler alert: If you haven’t seen Sunday night’s episode of “The Walking Dead” stop reading now).
Rick Grimes may have been unkillable. But he still got written off.
If you’re a character on a show about the zombie apocalypse, death is really the only way out. You don’t accept a transfer to the Chicago office or move to the suburbs for the good schools. You get eaten alive by the undead or brutally killed by rivals — and that’s pretty much it. Over nine seasons, “The Walking Dead” has embraced this reality, killing off important characters in brutal, spectacularly gory fashion that has been likened to misery porn.
So when Andrew Lincoln, who has starred as protagonist Rick Grimes since “The Walking Dead” premiered in 2010, announced he’d be leaving the long-running AMC series to spend more time with his family, most fans assumed his character would die in graphic, highly dramatic fashion. This assumption was only strengthened by last week’s cliffhanger episode, which ended as Rick, thrown from a horse and impaled on a rebar rod, was surrounded by a horde of walkers.
Instead, Sunday’s episode of “The Walking Dead,” titled “What Comes After” and heavily promoted as Lincoln’s swan song, left Rick’s fate — and the possibility of his return — wide open. In another twist, the final scene of the episode skipped forward several years to set up his daughter, Judith, as the new hero of the story.
But what should have felt like a bold storytelling pivot instead played like another desperate gambit by a series known for its manipulative head-fakes, gaping plot holes and shameless prolonging of the inevitable. True to form, “The Walking Dead” said goodbye to its protagonist in an episode that was maddening and inconclusive, seemingly designed to feed speculation and goad viewers into tuning in another week rather than provide any narrative closure.
From the opening scene in a hospital, a callback to the series’ pilot, the episode had a “This Is Your Life” feeling that seemed to be building toward Rick’s demise. Drifting in and out of consciousness, he shared hallucinatory conversations with dear departed friends like Shane, Sasha and Hershel. So, when Rick blew up the bridge he was standing on to keep the zombies at bay, it was natural to assume — as Daryl and others immediately did, judging by the tears that streamed down their faces — that their leader had died in the ultimate act of self-sacrifice.
Instead, Rick, barely clinging to life, was rescued from the banks of the river by Anne, his sometime adversary, and last seen aboard a mysterious helicopter, heading for parts unknown. What will become of Rick Grimes, zombie-slaying sheriff, dramatic whisperer and owner of the world’s most durable khaki shirt? Is he being trafficked to some far-flung corner of the zombie-ridden planet? Departing for his own spin-off? Who knows.
It’s frustrating, yet typical, that “The Walking Dead” failed to provide a clear answer about the fate of its protagonist. This is, after all, a show that loves toying with viewers. Remember the time Glenn fell off a dumpster into a teeming pit of ravenous zombies and made fans sit through not one but three throwaway episodes before revealing that he’d defied the laws of physics and miraculously crawled to safety? Or the 90-minute season finale that introduced Negan and promised a high-profile death that ... didn’t come until the following season?
Rick’s departure comes at a perilous moment for “The Walking Dead,” which was once a genre crossover hit on the order of “Game of Thrones.” Premiering in the shadow of AMC’s marquee dramas “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad,” it steadily grew to become the highest-rated drama in all of television, drawing as many as 17 million viewers at its peak. But ratings have since plummeted, and the show now gets about a third as many viewers as it did just a few seasons ago.
AMC failed to follow the less-is-more example set by “Mad Men” (seven seasons) and “Breaking Bad” (five seasons), instead super-sizing “The Walking Dead” and treating it like a broadcast procedural franchise rather than a heavily serialized cable drama. Seasons swelled to 16 episodes, which were broadcast in two halves for maximum suspense. The “midseason finale” became a thing. The network introduced a West Coast-set spinoff with a just barely different title, “Fear the Walking Dead,” and an after-show called “Talking Dead,” and apparently has plans to keep the franchise going for another 10 years.
Yet even as the show multiplied, it never really evolved creatively. “The Walking Dead” has churned through showrunners like Spinal Tap did drummers, yet nearly every season has followed the same basic trajectory: Rick and company wander around for a while, encounter another band of people who are Not What They Seem, a battle ensues and/or the walkers close in, a major character dies and Rick and his gang are diminished but continue to fight another day.
In the show’s timeline, it’s now been something like a decade since the outbreak, surely enough time for someone to figure out the concept of a tree house or how to fend off zombies that can’t even walk at a brisk pace — much less drive, fly planes, shoot guns or use simple tools.
And now, by writing off its main character in a vague and inconclusive manner — and rapidly aging up a child character — “The Walking Dead” is acting more like a tired ’80s sitcom than one of cable’s premiere dramas. Lincoln’s departure was the perfect opportunity for “The Walking Dead” to tie up some narrative loose ends and bring the story to an end with something approaching dignity. Instead, it’s mindlessly marching on, like, well…you know.
‘The Walking Dead’
When: 9 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-MA-LV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17 with advisories for coarse language and violence)