Did The Walking Dead Suffer From Rick’s Departure?

                            By Owen Quinn author of the Time Warriors and Zombi Blues

Copyright Owen Quinn

While many criticise the Walking Dead for not being as good as it used to be, this latest season had many sitting back waiting for the death bell to toll.

Why? Andrew Lincoln and Lauren Cohen both announced they would be leaving the show so many believed that the show would obviously crack forever. No folks, not by a long shot.

While both of them are still very much central characters in the comics (well, at least one definitely is), many speculated that the loss of Rick would be the beginning of the end. While the All Out War didn’t deliver as expected, people only remember the not so good seasons. It’s a bit like working in a call centre. You may have thirty great calls in a day with happy people but that one shit call is the one that spoils your day, cementing itself in your memory.

The previous season had seen the death of his son, Carl Grimes, from the show which was probably the biggest departure from the comics at that time. Carl is still very much alive in the comics indeed he is the focus of the final issue. He is pivotal to the Whisperers storyline as well as the Commonwealth. Many believe the death of Carl prompted Lincoln to give in his notice as they are very much the heart and soul of the show and comics respectively. For me the heart of the show has always been their bond as father and son.

Even Norman Reedus believed that removing key characters would undermine the heart of the show negatising everything they had built over the years.

 Let’s face it, we do love these characters even the haters to a degree. If they disliked the show so much then they wouldn’t be so vocal. It shows they care. Well, guys, I’m here to tell you keep caring because these seemingly unfathomable departures have not only reinvigorated the show but made it a much better one.

Believe me when I tell you there is no one that cares about this show as much as me. I put off a kidney transplant just to go to my first Walker Stalker!

In many ways this season has reaffirmed the show at its most horrifying, the most it has been since the Terminus mini arc.

There were a lot of expectations when the first episode aired. We knew Rick and Maggie were going. We knew the new villains the Whisperers were coming amid rumours of time jumps and Negan and Daryl becoming the new show leads in multi million dollar pay cheques. While some watched thinking they were witnessing the death of a show that to them had become rotted, others watched loyal as ever confident and unafraid of the coming changes.

Although to be fair to the haters, some of their objections are completely justified. Some decisions sucked and the loss of Rick just seemed from the outside to viewers that the stars were jumping ship as it sinks from sight right before our eyes.

Wrong guys because this was the best season in ages. Not only did the loss of Rick and Maggie breathe new life into the series but the Whisperers are by far the most terrifying villains ever.

Going in we knew that Rick and Maggie would go within the first five episodes but not how?

We should mention the loss of some other favourites. We bid farewell to Jesus, Jadis, Tara and Enid too in a twist I never saw coming; more on that later.

As we now know Maggie vanished as an afterthought in the time jump having left to work with the mysterious Georgie as far as we know. Rick on the other hand got a send off that not only left the door open for a potential return (and three new television movies) but gave Daryl and Michonne new life.

Wounded and hallucinating, Rick meets the ghosts of characters past like Hershel, Shane and Sacha as he is pursued by a zombie herd. Say what you want but that moment when the cast charged onto the bridge to save Rick showed what the true family was. Every fan’s heart raced at this rare sighting of the cast together on screen in one place. The fact it was part of his hallucinations made the real departure even more heartbreaking.

Copyright AMC

Rick is stumbling across the bridge, both man and structure symbols of bringing the communities together, followed by too many zombies to fight in his weakened condition. He is about to be bitten when a timely arrow from his brother Daryl saves his life. His family race to save him including the new additions, Magna and co but they are separated. We see the spirit that has kept them all together from the start as they forget their differences to save one of their own even if the odds are stacked against them. They would die for each other for the greater future that both Carl and Rick desperately want to see. This would be beautifully mirrored later when Siddiq gives his emotional speech in the aftermath of the shocking pike scene.

Rick knows they will not succeed against this herd. They will die in the process and there is only one way to stop this herd. That iconic pose as a failing Rick aims his gun at a fallen crate of dynamite to save them all is a highlight that honours both the comics and television show. Destroying the bridge, Rick knows that what they have been building will be delayed but be built once more. They have survived everything this world has thrown against them, the loss so many loved ones and friends but still they fight for a better world. Their collective spirit had been almost lost especially with Negan’s reign but with the head Saviour defeated and imprisoned that future seems assured again.

The remaining unhappy Saviours were swiftly dealt with by the Oceanside dealing justice which shows that this bright future wasn’t perfect but workable. The seemingly now mellow Carol in a relationship with King Ezekiel burns the last problematic Saviours alive to protect Henry, her adopted son and bring back stolen supplies the communities have worked for. There is no room any more for compassion for those who work to undermine what Rick and the others have built. They are no strangers to doing what has to be done to survive.

With life so good now, that fierceness simmers underneath. They have ripped peoples’ throats out with their teeth, left Terminus’ Mary to be eaten alive by zombies, shot psychotic children they cared for and put down mothers who have just given birth.

Similarly with Maggie’s hanging of Gregory, the once head of Hilltop, persistent coward and would be assassin. No one will be tolerated in upsetting the new order. Even being drunk and disorderly earns you a spell in jail as Henry discovers.

In this paradise they have no problem killing serpents the moment they rock the boat. Knowing the herd could destroy all they have built, Rick sacrifices himself to save all.

In what is a breathtaking moment he shoots the dynamite taking pout the bridge and the herd. There cannot be one hater that couldn’t fail to be touched by Daryl breaking down in tears and walking away as he sees his friend dead. You can see he instantly regrets tricking Rick into a pit so Maggie could murder Negan for the deaths of all those he is responsible for especially Glen and Abraham. Her sparing the former Saviour leader is a reflection of Rick’s faith in them all.

There is hope in Rick’s death.

As the bridge burns and the characters react to his ‘death’ we know that they will honour everything the father and son hoped for them. This would be later seen in the signing of the charter that Ezekiel has endlessly campaigned for. 

As we know an injured Rick is washed down the river only to found by Jadis who is picked up by a mysterious helicopter for some future storyline.  

As far as everyone else is concerned Rick is dead going out as a hero for the people he loved.

Doing another time jump was a great idea as we get to see the legacy of Rick Grimes. Michonne has a son, Rick Junior. Judith wears Carl’s hat and can shoot a gun like her dad and brother. She is also the catalyst for a great storyline for Negan and brings out a new facet of the character. It is Rick’s daughter that brings hope and salvation to the nefarious character in the show.

Similarly the characters are all allowed to breathe and flourish giving us insight like never before.

Daryl is a loner and has a dog still searching for Rick. He has never found a body and there is no zombie Rick shambling about. He knows in his gut something is not right. It is also a testament to the faith he has in his brother even in seemingly hopeless circumstances. Daryl will be the protector of all the communities in honour of his late friend.

Copyright Owen Quinn

Tara and Jesus are now the heads of Hilltop in Maggie’s absence. Michonne leads Alexandria with a council consisting of both Aaron and Father Gabriel. She runs an isolationist existence, wary of strangers and as we discover, with very good reason. She doesn’t believe Ezekiel’s community bonding fair is a good idea with the emergence of the Whisperer threat but she goes along with it anyway with disastrous consequences.

We see Michonne as a conflicted leader trying to balance this new life alongside honouring Rick’s beliefs. The flashback to how a friend of hers turned up to Alexandria and turned against her almost killing her and taking the Alexandrian kids is brilliant. This is foreshadowed by the reveal of scars branded into both her and Daryl’s backs. It is a physical reminder of how dangerous the world can be and that sometimes kindness backfires when compassion brings you terror.

This is also reflected in her behaviour towards Angel, Luke and co in should they be allowed citizenship in the communities or fired back to the wilderness.

It is Judith that reminds her of what Rick would do. Sometimes you have to take a chance on people. The future is not built on isolating yourself from the world or refusing to show compassion. It is more than fitting that Judith is the one to make the jaded adults see through the eyes of a Grimes, reminding them of what Carl and Rick stood for.

What this season has done so brilliantly is cheat us.

Once we knew the Whisperers were coming we all thought who would die in an iconic comic moment. We were so certain who was going to end up on the pikes. Henry seemingly fulfilled the role of Carl in the Lydia storyline. Eyes rolled at the seeming easy way out for this story where one of our beloved characters was apparently easily replaced. As his father, Ezekiel would apparently be elevated to the Rick position to maintain a father son core to the series.

What none of us noticed was the amount of children our characters now had to protect in this new world. Aaron had Gracie, Michonne had RJ and Judith, Henry was Carol and Ezekiel’s son. Gerry has a family with Nabila and has another baby on the way. We even got a teenage gang Henry fell in with at the Hilltop. Teenagers being teenagers like any other show and seeing children laughing and playing again is a reflection of Carl and Rick’s vision.

Beautiful touches like the Kingdom’s search for a projector bulb to play a movie is a lovely touch. The wilderness of civilisation is not something they have to be in for survival any more. Now it’s like nipping to the corner shop for a pint of milk. For the first time in a long time people have homes to go to where the zombie world can be left behind.

Rick has proved Negan wrong as they are flourishing. There will never be a threat as terrifying as the Saviours ever again. Or so they think.

 Again referencing Michonne’s scary friend turning children into killers her plan is almost small fry compared to something like Terminus, the Governor or the Saviours. Even the new sudden threat of the Highwaymen is quickly resolved by Carol and Ezekiel extending the hand of friendship and making a deal to let them see a movie. This may seem a brief story but it shows that the taste of normality can end a threat quickly. Employing them as the guys to protect the Kingdom’s roads is another progression. In the old days Carol would have shot them all right where they stood. There’s even comedy relief as all Jerry wants is his sword back. The news of his new baby brings such joy you can feel it on screen that the world is good.

 All this gave a real sense that there was a future after all and the kids would remind the adults of those that have fallen.

It is these solid family units that would directly affect the future through the capture of a girl called Lydia.

In the mid season finale Jesus is brutally murdered by the Whisperers in a graveyard. The paranoia of the dead now talking through Eugene’s terrified ramblings gives an air of horror we haven’t really seen in a long time. This was the start of our subversion. A zombie attack at night in a graveyard is classic horror with disembodied voices coming from the darkness. The dead surround our heroes with Jesus going out with some beautifully choreographed zombie kills. However the leader of Hilltop is sidestepped by a zombie and stabbed through the heart much earlier than happened in the comics.

Just as an aside, this is one instant where the show did not fully utilise a character’s full potential which is a shame.

This changes everything as we find out people are wearing the skins of the dead and mingling freely among the dead. Later do we discover that they can influence the dead to follow them.

Danger is heightened as we no longer know who is a real zombie and who is a Whisperer. Daryl has a great solution that again shows he will do anything to keep the communities safe because it is what Rick would do; put an arrow in their leg. Although he doesn’t admit it Daryl is a vital part of the communities demonstrated through his interactions with Carol, Tara and new girl, Connie.

But the loss of Rick also propels Daryl to the forefront of the action. He must go up against the deadly leader of the Whisperers, Alpha played by Samantha Morton, in place of Maggie and Rick in the comics.

If ever a serpent was going to overturn the communities joint signing of the charter and wreck the historic fair, then it was going to be Alpha.

Truly, Alpha is nothing like any of the villains we have met so far. At this stage even Negan seems neutered by his incarceration and relationship with young Judith. Negan was many things but he would never harm children or murder without reason. He did protect families even if it was slightly twisted in his head.

Copyright Owen Quinn

With Alpha we have something never seen before. We see a villain, a female villain that cares for nothing of the old world. Her flashback episode and what happens to her husband shows she has a different view to everyone else.

 To her the Kingdom is filled with sickness. It will simply drag the world back into what it was before and must be taken out.

To be fair, she does offer a peaceful trade for her daughter and promises to leave the communities alone if Lydia is returned.

Daryl knows that Lydia has been abused by her mother having spoken to her and refuses to give her up. It is morally wrong to return a child to that sort of life. You can feel the spirit of Rick Grimes saying the same thing. No matter what the consequences you must do the right thing.

Alpha shows how motherly she is when one of her followers has a baby that will not stop crying.

In one of the most terrifying moments of the show we see her simply give a gesture and the mother leaves her crying baby for the undead to feast on.

It is shocking and sickening that here we have a mother demanding her child back but ordering another to feed hers to zombies just because it won’t stop crying. Silence is golden to the Whisperers and Alpha rules by it. Again it is a beautiful symmetry by the writers that a deaf woman rescues the infant. The horror is accentuated by Connie’s desperate run through tall grass seen from her perspective. There is no sound and we see silent zombies try and grab her out of nowhere. We know the baby’s cries are drawing them but Connie must run on instinct. This is like something from All Quiet Here or the very best of Hitchcock. Beautifully written, beautifully directed and acted and utterly frightening.

Lydia willingly goes back to her mother and in another twisted mirror moment she thinks for a second her mother has come for her out of lvoe. Poor Lydia is sadly mistaken when she is slapped hard in the face and told she will call her mother Alpha like the others.

This could have been the end of it but Alpha can’t leave it there especially when Henry comes to rescue Lydia who strikes him just as her mother did her. Every family connection we have seen so far is foreign to Alpha. Although the moment where she breaks down in the woods after Lydia chooses to return with Henry to the Hilltop tells a different story. It also reinforces her ruthlessness. She murders one of her own who sees her so no one else will discover her weakness.

She also decapitates another of her followers for daring to question her and allows others to become zombies they can add to her collection.

The communities have taken her daughter from her so she infiltrates Ezekiel’s fair to see for herself. She wants to make a point and show she will tolerate no more interference with her people.

Her giant sidekick, Beta, played by Ryan Hurst is genuinely one of the creepiest villains to grace our screens. He never takes off his zombie mask and he almost kills Daryl in a fight you just can’t imagine Rick doing. Rick and Negan’s punch ups were perfect but this is almost a new level. There is something deranged and psychotic about these new villains. Killing Daryl for Beta will strike a blow to the citizens of Hilltop. You can literally feel the punches as Daryl is smashed against walls like a rag doll. It’s brutal with a reality of pure hatred. Daryl manages to defeat him by the skin of his teeth but Beta’s rage is far from sated. His loyalty to Alpha is fuelled by hatred of anything from the past, a past that has affected the giant as we will see in the future.The make up is fantastic giving him a demonesque appearance as if this thing has come from hell itself.

When Daryl, Carol, Michonne and Yumiko are captured by the Whisperers when they go searching for missing citizens, it is Alpha’s orders that keep them alive despite Beta’s want. 

As Daryl faced her down at Hilltop, he is the one she chooses to reveal her secret weapon to. She controls a massive herd of zombies that she will release on the communities if they cross her again. We are the rot in society so Alpha intends to use the remnant citizens of the old world to secure her twisted way of life where it is acceptable to feed an infant to the dead.

Even Daryl knows they don’t stand a chance against something this massive. It’s rare he is shaken but this time even he is helpless.

There is a real sense of doom and the Whisperers holding the power card against which our heroes are helpless. A message has been sent and she declares the borders between their lands has been marked but doesn’t explain. Nothing fazes Daryl but even he is not prepared for what Alpha has done.

It is here we have the rug pulled from under us. We as an audience know the pike scene is coming.

In the comics we know Ezekiel and a pregnant Rosita are part of the line up but the show kicks us in the balls by changing that. The change strikes at the heart of Rick’s vision and the familial heart of the show.

The identities of the victims is revealed very cleverly as other characters are asking for the whereabouts of certain citizens. There is no allusion to something untoward until Lydia runs to Ezekiel to warn him her mother has been at the fair.

In beautiful wide shots the quartet along with a wounded Siddiq we see exactly where the missing citizens are. Siddiq collapses in tears as the camera reveals each victim along with shots of their friends and loved asking where they are.

Only this time we don’t get Ezekiel and Rosita as two of the dead. All those family ties and loved ones we have witnessed over the season have become things to be ripped apart by Alpha. Tara as leader of the Hilltop has been decapitated and her zombified had put on a spike. Hilltop’s doctor Enid is also there along with some of the teenage gang, two of the Highwaymen, Tammy who just took on a new baby along with her blacksmith husband who was training Henry. Last but not least Daryl grabs Carol as the camera reveals her worst nightmare as Lydia runs to Ezekiel to warn him her mother was in the Kingdom and she can’t find Henry. The would-be Carl replacement is the final victim with his zombified head on a pike.

With that the father/son heart that has existed since the start of the show is dead and buried.

Alpha has murdered Henry for taking her daughter away from her. It is shocking and symbolic that these characters have been chosen to die in this fashion rather than follow the comics. It spins off the characters in new directions eg Carol ending her marriage to Ezekiel because they are living a fairytale. No matter what they do there will always be some sort of threat ready to destroy their happiness.

No offence to Alpha but I’d steer clear of Carol forever. Ask the cannibals of Terminus what she did to them…oh wait, you can’t. They’re all dead. Bummer.

But in the closing scene of this episode we get the ghosts of Carl and Rick once more as Siddiq delivers his speech about what happened. We see the victims join together to fight and protect ach other until the end.

Alpha has underestimated the communities. Instead of delivering the story of fear as she intended, Siddiq gives a speech of hope. The victims were strangers who stood together facing their fate fighting and protecting each other until they died. They fought back and that’s what the communities must do to preserve their way of life against this new threat. No one could have imagined an enemy as twisted as the Whisperers. You can just imagine Carl smiling proudly at Siddiq because he is honouring the memories of all who have fallen by refusing to give in to fear.

Many have said that the final episode was a let down and that they were expecting a cliffhanger to keep them going over the hiatus.

I disagree. I think it was the perfect ending to the season. Winter has come as they say. The communities have fallen back to not only survive the winter but regroup and figure out how they are going to deal with the Whisperers. It is an episode of character moments and sets up season ten. Carol and Ezekiel split. The winter background evokes fairy tales like Frozen where the King and Queen rule but here it gets a dose of Walking Dead. Zombies in a winter wonderland also gives a dark vibe to the fairytale image. Will Carol go to her dark days as the Terminator to avenge the murder of her son? Will Ezekiel die trying to murder Alpha or Beta? How safe is Lydia given she will get the blame for her mother’s actions? Father Gabriel is willing to raise Rosita and Siddiq’s child with Eugene looking on but will happiness prevail? Negan is baiting anyone he can while saving Judith and showing he can be trusted. He has a connection to them now even if he does love to wind them up. His former enemies are now his Saviours, just as Rick said.

Everything is up in the air because we have now deviated from the comics and with Michonne leaving in season ten it leaves another major change to the comics. Again the rug has been pulled out from under us as we can no longer assume anything. That’s what I mean about this season; we thought we knew what was coming but by the end we didn’t. Now we question the future especially if you have read the comics and know how the Whisperer War turns out. 

Even Alpha and her giant herd are readying for what is coming. Revenge is burning in her as self mutilating herself again demonstrating she is mad as a hatter. There is no doubt she will go to any lengths to ensure her peoples’ survival.

We don’t need a cliffhanger this season because when you look back we have had a lot happen to us over the weeks. The loss of so many major characters, the introduction of the scariest enemy yet that makes even Daryl afraid. New directions are forged by changing the comic by substituting characters relevant to the overall themes of this season. Themes like community and honouring the memories of those who have fallen by keeping their memories alive in our every day actions.

The last episode of this season was the breather we didn’t know we needed before we get plunged back into the hell that will be the Whisperer War. This season has proved it is time for people to give the show another chance.

Rick Grimes leaving has given it a brand new lease of life no one saw coming. The dead have been resurrected once again in an exciting and original way.

This season ended with a fractured fairytale theme. Get ready for the apocalypse in a way you’ve never seen before in a battle between the living and the dead. Many will die not with a scream but a whisper.

Rick’s departure not only brought new life to the show and the characters. It gave the show the boost it needed. Forget ratings mood hoovers and the naysayers, Walking Dead is back with a vengeance. I for one can’t wait to see how this plays out.

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