Guest Writer: Michael J. Miller
As a fan of AMC’s The Walking Dead, I spent the past week re-watching Season Six to get ready for this Sunday’s impending Season Seven premiere. So much of the undercurrent of last season was devoted to slowly building the tension (and anxiety!) surrounding the Saviors and the introduction of their boss, Negan. In the final moments of “Last Day On Earth” we finally meet The Walking Dead‘s ultimate villain. This profanity spewing, motorcycle jacket wearing, bat swinging, vision of dread certainly radiates menace. And, from what I understand, he’s to be the Joker to Rick’s Batman. But, if I’m being honest, he’s not the character who scared me the most last season, nor is he the one I fear the most going forward.
As far as I’m concerned, the real villain of The Walking Dead‘s sixth season is Rick. I’ll admit, it’s hard to see Rick Grimes as anything less than our hero. The Walking Dead, after all, is told primarily from his perspective. We, the viewers, are introduced to the zombie apocalypse right along with Rick, as he wakes from his coma. We learn about this harsh new world together. We root for him to find his family. We rejoice in his victories and we share his grief over the loss of those he couldn’t protect. I can’t imagine anyone who pulled for Shane and Lori to get together. I think we all got a little thrill at the establishment of his Ricktatorship at the end of Season Two. And who can forget the end of Season Four?!? Locked in a train car by the cannibals running Terminis, Rick looks at his reunited group and says, “They’re gonna feel pretty stupid when they find out.” Puzzled, Abraham asks, “Find out what?” Rick replies, “They’re fucking with the wrong people.” Is this the most badass line of dialogue a TV show’s ever had? Uh, hell yes! Talk about a fist pumping moment!!! Then, of course, Season Six gives us #Richonne. Awww… So over the course of six seasons we’ve naturally loved Rick. He’s our guy! As a result, we root for him.
But while Rick certainly remains the protagonist of The Walking Dead, it doesn’t necessarily mean he’s still the show’s hero. This is alluded to in the first moments of the season and only becomes clearer as the story progresses.
In the opening line of “The First Day Again,” Rick addresses the walkers in the quarry pit. He tells his assembled team, “I know this sounds insane. But this is an insane world. We have to come for them before they come for us. It’s that simple.” This is how the season begins…and this will become his overarching motivation for the entire season, illustrating both his growing hubris and his more villainous nature.
Episode Twelve, “Not Tomorrow Yet,” begins after Maggie has made a deal with the Hilltop’s leader, Gregory. He will give Alexandria half of their food, animals, and medicine if they take out Negan and the Saviors, a group that’s been extorting them. Upon his return from the Hilltop, Rick calls a meeting in the church for everyone in Alexandria.
Rick – “We can work with the Hilltop. Maggie hammered out a deal. We’re getting food, eggs, butter, fresh vegetables. But they’re not just givin’ it away. No, these Saviors, they almost killed Sasha, Daryl, and Abraham on the road. Now sooner or later they woulda found us, just like those Wolves did. Just like Jesus did. They woulda killed someone or some of us and then they would try to own us. And we would try to stop them. But by then, in that kinda fight, low on food, we could lose. This is the only way to be sure, as sure as we can get, that we win. And we have to win. We do this for the Hilltop, it’s how we keep this place. It’s how we feed this place. This needs to be a group decision. If anyone objects, here’s your chance to say your piece.”
Morgan – “You’re sure we can do it? We can beat ’em?”
Rick – “What this group has done, what we’ve learned, what we’ve become, all of us, yes, I’m sure.”
Morgan – “Then all we have to do is just tell ’em that.”
Rick – “They…they don’t compromise.”
Morgan – “This isn’t a compromise. It’s a choice you give ’em. It’s a way out, for them and for us.”
Rick – “We try and talk to the Saviors we give up our advantage, our safety. No. We have to come for them before they come for us. We can’t leave them alive.”
Morgan – “Where there’s life, there’s possibility.”
Rick – “Of them hitting us!”
Morgan – “Hey, we’re not trapped in this. None of you are trapped in this.”
Rick – “Morgan, they always come back.”
Morgan – “They come back when they’re dead too.”
Rick – “Yeah, we’ll stop them. We have before.”
Morgan – “I’m not talkin’ about the Walkers.”
Rick – “Morgan wants to talk to them first. I think that would be a mistake but it’s not up to me. I’ll talk to the people still at home. I’ll discuss it with the people still on guard now too. But who else wants to approach the Saviors, talk to them first?”
Aaron – “What happened here, we won’t let that happen again. I won’t.”
Rick – “Well, it looks like it’s settled. We know exactly what this is. We don’t shy from it. We live. We kill ’em all. We don’t all have to kill. But, if people are gonna stay here, they do have to accept it.”
Um…how was this a discussion? Rick had one plan – a brutal and preemptive strike – and he clearly wasn’t open to listening to any dissenting ideas, let alone truly dialoguing about it. How is this any different from the Governor’s attack on the prison? Remember the eighth episode of Season Four, “Too Far Gone”? The Governor attacks the prison and ultimately kills Hershel. It was heartbreaking. I kinda hated the Governor and I’m sure I wasn’t alone. The Governor was a bastard and I think it’s safe to say we were all eagerly rooting for his death after he decapitated Hershel. But his justification for the attack was no different than Rick’s sermon in the church. He told the people of Woodberry that they had to take the prison before Rick’s group came and killed them.
Let’s look at how Season Six had played out up until this point. The people of Alexandria had had no direct dealings with the Saviors. Daryl, Sasha, and Abraham had encountered them on the road but the Saviors hadn’t ever graced Alexandria’s doorstep much less threatened them. Yet Rick is ready to kill every one of them without hesitation. When they first went to deal with Gregory he (admittedly in a condescending fashion) suggested they help farm for the crops they take home. This wasn’t an acceptable offer.
Instead Daryl suggests if they kill Negan, his Saviors, and save the Hilltop’s resident Craig the Saviors are holding hostage, then Hilltop will supply Alexandria. Farming was humiliating and unacceptable but no one balks at this idea, least of all Rick. “Confrontation’s never been something we’ve had a problem with,” he assures Jesus. He is so confident. There is no question in his mind that they can kill Negan. His hubris is staggering. How does he tell the Alexandrians they’ll take care of Negan? “We go in at night, while they’re sleeping.” It’s a pretty twisted, cold, ruthless plan. If our group was attacked, the majority of them massacred in their beds, as viewers we’d be furious. Naturally! It would be a moment that would forge an epic villain whose downfall we’d eagerly anticipate. But we accept this plan from Rick?
As they prepare to assault the Savior’s compound, Fr. Gabriel is still wearing his Roman collar and priestly garb. Rick asks, “Why are you still wearin’ that?” Gabriel replies, “I’m still who I was…I think. Plus it’ll be harder to see me in the dark!” This is a significant moment. Gabriel still believes he is who he was. Rick questioning that, not understanding it, illustrates how he’s no longer who he once was. Gone is the police officer who awoke in the hospital. He’s still trying to build a better, brighter future for his children and his family but he is not the man he once was nor does he believe that man can survive in this world. He’s done what he has to in order to survive…but at what cost?
In one of the show’s most unsettling sequences, Rick, Daryl, Glenn, Sasha, Abraham, and Heath cut through the Savior’s compound with an efficiency matched only by their brutality. Men who have never threatened, extorted, hurt, or killed any of them are butchered in their beds, knives through their eyes, as they sleep. It’s also significant that Glenn takes his first human life during this invasion (and spares Heath from doing the same). In killing another human being for the first time Glenn, the most optimistic member of their group, is irrevocably changed. This illustrates the gravity of this moment. Under Rick’s leadership they have crossed a line here. They have changed.
And as a result, Negan comes. Forget for a moment that we know Negan is supposed to be the villain. Instead, look at how the story plays out on the show. Negan’s figured out a way to survive in this hellish new world and he’s running his operation. Then a rogue group he’s never encountered before swoops in and murders a bunch of his men in the middle of the night, as they slept. He retaliates. He is looking to protect his people and the safety of this operation. That’s sort of tit for tat in the post-apocalyptic world of The Walking Dead. Now, take Negan out of the equation for a moment. Imagine, what would Rick have done if the same thing happened to Alexandria? What if a random group came in and killed a bunch of his people in their beds? Rick would have found them and killed them and we, the audience, would have wanted him to do it.
If, as viewers, we see the Governor as a villain. If we see Negan as a villain. And if those points of view are formed because of how they interact with other characters in this world (which seems both natural and logical) then we have two options. First, we admit that ethics are completely relative based on our own personal view point and continue to cheer Rick on or, second, we admit that Rick too is now another post-apocalyptic villain.
Speaking of the purpose of mythology in The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell, the 20th century’s preeminent scholar on myths and mythology, says, “Myths inspire the realization of the possibility of your perfection, the fullness of your strength, and the bringing of solar light into the world. Slaying monsters is slaying the dark things” (183). Of the hero’s journey he says, “You leave the world that you’re in and go into a depth or into a distance or up to a height. There you come to what was missing in your consciousness in the world you formerly inhabited. Then comes the problem of either staying with that, and letting the world drop off, or returning with that boon and trying to hold onto it as you move back into your social world again” (157-58).
Rick is no longer doing any of this on The Walking Dead. Far from “bringing…solar light into the world” or realizing “the possibility of your perfection,” Rick is descending into the darkness. He is embracing the tactics of those he used to battle, of those he still battles. Yes, Rick does it to protect his people. But so did the Governor. So does Negan. While we might argue the “bad guys” are also seeking power we must ask ourselves, is Rick not doing the same? When Michonne tells him, at the beginning of the episode “East,” that Maggie fears a retaliatory attack from the Saviors he replies, “When they come for us, we’ll end it. The whole thing. This won’t be like before. We’re putting everything in place and these people know what to do now. The world’s ours. And we know how to take it. Everything we need is right here, inside these walls. And we’re not losing any of it again. I’m not.” He is seeking power and a very real control over the realities of life and death as much as Negan is. He isn’t looking simply to survive. He’s looking to rule, to dominate. We just excuse, even embrace this because he’s Rick. He’s our guy. But is he our hero? I don’t see how he can be…
Instead, I’d argue The Walking Dead‘s hero (or at least the character who most embodies what the classic hero is supposed to do) is now Morgan. And it’s telling that he and Rick are at odds so often through this season. Again, in “East,” they leave Alexandria together in search of Carol. After they find the site of Carol’s battle with the Saviors, they follow a bloody trail into the woods, hoping it’s hers and she’s safe. Rick says, “They were close to Alexandria. There were even more of them. We didn’t end it.” Morgan corrects him, “No, you started somethin’.”
The tension between Morgan and Rick is palpable as they continue the search. They are fighting as much over methods as they are for the soul of the group. Morgan continues to insist that “People can come back” while Rick counters with “I don’t take chances anymore.”
Morgan – “Those people, the wolves. After they attacked, I found one of ’em. He’d attacked me on the road, before, when I was tryin’ to find you. And I stopped him. But I let him live. And then he was there in Alexandria after the attack hiding in one of the brownstones so I stopped him again. I knocked him out. And I could have killed him. But all life is precious. I put him in the cell in the brownstone basement ’cause I knew he could change. We all can change.”
Rick – “You had one of ’em alive in the community??”
Morgan – “Oh yeah. And when the walls came down and the Walkers came in, Carol found out. We fought and that man escaped. And Denise, she’d come to the cell to try and help him and he took her hostage. And she and that Wolf got swarmed. And then that man, that killer, he saved her life. And then Denise was there to save Carl. It…it’s all a circle. Everything gets a return. But the fact is the fact. I did what I did. I let him live. You go home Rick. Take the car. You need it back there. You shouldn’t be out here takin’ any more chances.”
Who is the hero here? The man who’s trying to teach the lesson that, “All life is precious” or the man who believes, ” We can’t leave them alive….We go in at night, while they’re sleeping”? It’s clearly Morgan who, in the words of Joseph Campbell, inspires “the realization of the possibility of your perfection, the fullness of your strength, and the bringing of solar light into the world.” So yes, I’m scared of Rick and who he’s become. I’m fearful of what horrors he may continue to enact in this new world and the pain it will cause those we care about on the show. But, ultimately, I’m letting Morgan guide my mindset, as mythic heroes are meant to do. I believe Rick can be redeemed because where there’s life there’s possibility. If we can all change, we can get our hero back. I hope we will.
I also hope I can hold on to this Morgan-inspired serenity as my anxiety starts to soar when I’m actually watching the Season Seven premiere on Sunday night…
(On a less somber note, Just Dread-Full has just celebrated its first birthday!! You can enjoy the celebration by clicking here. It’s just the thing to ease your Negan fears.)