Even though it ensemble features more than a dozen characters, The Walking Dead has always been Rick Grimes’s story. The first episode began with him lying in a hospital bed with a gunshot wound. And the last episode of this season ends with him morphing into the Rickinator. Or maybe just My Favorite Monster. Or both.
The fascinating—and frustrating—thing about Rick Grimes is that he’s always been Hamlet of the Post-Apocalypse. His indecision runs deep. Is he the guy who handcuffs Merle Dixon to the roof of a building? Or is he the guy who risks his neck to come back to try to rescue him?
Is he the guy who makes peace with The Governor? Or the guy who can kill his best friend? The answer is, of course, both, but until this episode Rick himself could never come to terms with both sides of his persona. As he tried to hold on to vestiges of the old world in the face of a scary new one, his yin and yang were in perpetual conflict.
But on the road to Terminus, Rick finally embraced his inner monster. When Joe puts a gun to his head and threatened his son, and his son’s best friend (that would be Michonne) he made like a walker and did what needed to be done. Meet Warrior Rick. He won’t get fooled again.
Consider how far he’s come in such a short time. As Episode 401 opens, he’s Farmer Rick, cultivating his garden in the prison yard. He finds a gun buried just below the surface. He looks at it, then tosses it into a bin with the weeds. But we catch a glimpse of what’s simmering just beneath the surface when Tyreese starts a fight, and he finishes it, seemingly ready to kill him until he’s pulled off.
But when The Governor rejects his attempts at mediation and instead lops off Hershel’s head, it’s as though Rick Grimes finally realizes that the times they have changed. In that moment, the Rick who could take a chunk out of Joe’s neck was born. It’s a hard-won lesson, of course, one that cost him his home, his friend, and, he thinks, his daughter.
With his face caked in blood, he tells Daryl, “You’re my brother.” Sure, it’s an expression of loyalty and affection. But Rick Grimes saying something else: I’m as ruthless a son-of-a-bitch as Ol’ Merle.
The only thing that gives Rick pause is the example he’s setting for Carl. But the kid’s got it figured this out already. He came face to face with The Beast in Me during the last season finale, when he popped a cap in the kid from Woodbury.
His dad—and Hershel—tried to teach him to tamp that impulse down. But he’s seen a lot since The Turn, too much. He shot Walker Shane after he tried to kill his Dad. She shot his mom to keep her from turning. And he watched both Dale and Hershel go from being peacemakers to dead peacemakers. The lesson he learned was a more practical one: calibrate your trigger finger a little better.
As Rick is disemboweling the last of Joe’s guys, Michonne tries to shield Carl’s eyes. But he’s not afraid. He’s not revolted. He’s taking notes. And when they reach Terminus and the head termite asks about whether the other guy deserved it, Carl says “Yeah” without a moment’s hesitation. Whether or not he’s wearing that silly hat, Carl Grimes is his father’s son.
This episode, directed masterfully by Michelle McLaren of Breaking Bad fame, puts The Walking Dead in an interesting place. The story line takes our heroes into a dark place—and what can be darker than a locked railroad car?
But from a character point of view this satisfying episode gives us nothing but hope. Out gunned and out manned, Rick 2.o is feeling empowered. He’s found his mojo and embraced his inner warrior. And there’s every reason to think that this confidence will be contagious, and Daryl and Glenn and Abraham will soon be beating their chests too.
This long strange season ends with a cliffhanger but also an improbable boast from an improbable source: “They’re screwing with the wrong people.” The prospect of watching Rick & Friends make good on that promise and kick some Termite tail might just be enough to sustain a Walking Dead fan through a long walker-free summer.
In the days that led up to the finale, there was endless speculation about who would die in this episode. And in the end, the answer was every bit as shocking as the creators’ suggested: Farmer Rick? Won’t see him no more.
What was your take on the season finale? Do you like the new Rick? What do you expect from Season 5? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Allen St. John is the author of Newton’s Football: The Science Behind America’s Game, published by Ballantine Books