Prior to Season 8 of AMC’s The Walking Dead, we look at the show’s characters and their moral codes, starting with the protagonist: Rick Grimes.
Transcript provided by Youtube:
[I’m keeping this group together alive.]
The post-apocalyptic world of The
Walking Dead acts like a psychological experiment. If we strip away our normal
social conventions, what is human nature? Over the seasons it becomes glaringly
clear that the real danger to the characters isn’t the walkers, but other
human beings. And while everyone can agree on killing walkers it’s their
attitudes on killing humans that really differ. In this treacherous world each
character and group must have a moral code to get through what they experience.
[I had a code. It was simple. Stupid. But it was something.]
So in this ScreenPrism series on The Walking Dead
we are going to look at various characters or groups and ask what their
moral codes, values, and attitudes to violence tell us about who they are deep
down. We’ll start with the show’s main character Rick Grimes, leader of the
Atlanta survivors group, which is also known simply as the survivors.
[We stick together.]
As we track his evolution from
principled sheriff’s deputy to unapologetic killer, there is still
something crucial and consistent that defines his morality.
[Rick Grimes saved my
life over and over. There’s terrifying people out there and
he rescued me from them. People like us need people like him.]
The key to Rick’s motivation is his vision of a moral future. And he’ll do
whatever it takes to ensure that his group lives to see it.
[But these people…
these people are my family. But if what you’re hiding until now hurts them in any
way I’ll kill you.]
[Make me understand.]
[I owe a debt to a man I met and his
little boy. Lauri, if they hadn’t taken me in I’d have died.]
In early seasons of the show Rick holds on to his identity as a
sheriff’s deputy, acting as a defender of the old order of justice. Rick is newer
to the apocalypse than the rest of his group, since he was in a coma when it
occurred. So it’s ironic that he becomes the group’s leader. It’s as if his
abilities in the old world of law and order still matter most. And the group
wants to incorporate these values into their future. Rick is still fighting
crime just on a greater scale. He’s defending humanity, and maybe because of
his background in law enforcement he has a harder time than other characters
accepting that the rules of morality have changed.
[Your friends drew on us. They gave us no choice. I’m
sure we’ve all lost enough people. Dumb things we we wish we didn’t have to
but it’s like that now, you know that!]
Rick is his group’s and the show’s moral
compass. He’s so pure that he feels sympathy even for walkers
and will risk his life for people he barely knows. He has a strong sense of
right and wrong, almost to a fault. His upstanding way of doing things
actually puts others in jeopardy, which might remind us of one of our
other favorite heroic TV characters. Rick insists on returning to Atlanta to
rescue Merle Dixon after leaving him handcuffed on a roof.
[You’re putting every single one of us at risk. Just know that Rick.]
looks for Sofia even though this
makes the group vulnerable to walkers
[Little girl goes missing, you look for her. Simple.]
And and saves Randall, a total stranger.
[We couldn’t just leave him behind. He
would have bled out, if he lived that long.]
The problem is that Rick wants to
protect everyone, and in the world of the show, one person’s safety usually comes at
the expense of someone else’s.
[Shane says my good intentions are making us weaker.
But I can’t make the hard decisions for the good of the group.]
[They’re are all hard decisions.]
[Maybe I’m holding on to a way of
thinking that doesn’t make sense anymore.]
Eventually Rick has to face that obeying
the old laws isn’t always the same as doing the right thing in this complex
new world. It may be noble to refuse to compromise his values even in times of
[I’m going back.]
But it’s also not smart if doing so means certain death
for people who depend on him.
[If something happened I have to go.]
[No. Your place is here.]
Rick has to bend his rules for the group to have a future at
all. The old sheriff’s uniform he still wears in seasons one and two is a visual
reminder of Rick’s moral righteousness. When he puts it away this symbolizes his
acceptance that the moral code it represents just doesn’t make sense
anymore. And he begins building a new code from
the ground up. Still he’s determined to preserve his son Carl’s innocence,
refusing to execute Randall when he realizes Carl is watching, and giving
Carl his sheriff’s hat in hopes of passing on the values he holds so dear
to the next generation.
[Won’t you miss it?]
[Maybe you’ll let me borrow it from time to time.]
Rick’s character arc focuses on his
coming to terms with the dark side of human nature, acknowledging that people
are inclined towards violence as much as they are towards compassion.
[Because this is how we survive. We tell ourselves that we are the Walking Dead.]
The walkers start
as a physical threat but evolve into a moral one, both because they embody what
people made evolved into and because they push people to act in violent,
defensive ways that make them feel less than human. Rick is devastated by the
revelation that the Walker gene is a part of all human beings. He seems to
connect this to his own capacity to kill.
[Whatever it is we all carry it.]
Although human beings have both good and bad in them, if they all come back as
walkers due to this disease of darkness it suggests that people’s essence boils
down to the very worst most animal versions of themselves. So many groups on
the show prove this idea to be true but Rick wants to prove it wrong by
rebuilding a moral society. Yet Rick does have to accept violence to stay our hero.
Throughout the show we see that violence is necessary for the group’s survival.
To refuse to take part is actually cowardly, because it just passes the baton putting
the burden of being violent on others. Rick comes to understand that killing
can be the courageous and right thing to do. A huge turning point comes when he
kills his best friend Shane. The act proves he’s willing to sacrifice people
he cares about if they jeopardize the group at large.
[You saw what he was like; how he pushed me; how he compromised us; how threatened us.]
The group is more important than individual relationships because its
size is protective, and one loose cannon puts everyone in danger. Still whereas
other characters easily adapt to violence, for Rick the act of killing is
emotional — it hurts him bringing out guilt and remorse that speak to how
durable his old inner morality still is.
The intensity of his reaction to killing is directly tied to his feelings about
the person he kills. Just think of how he sobs when he kills Shane and is almost
bursting with rage in later killings. When he kills people who don’t mean
anything to him or who pose a less urgent threat, like Pete, he’s much colder.
Rick kills at least one person in every season of the show except the first. And
over time he becomes less and less apologetic for violent actions. This
comes to a head in season 4 when the claimers Joe and Dan threatened to rape
Carl and Michonne. And Rick rips out Joe’s jugular with his bare teeth.
Rick’s viciousness in the scene testifies to the intensity of his love.
His primal ferocity still comes from that emotional place and demonstrates
how in the post-apocalyptic world love and protectiveness can take a violent
form. The brutality he shows in killing Gareth and the other cannibals in season
5 also comes after they threatened the people he loves most.
[Look you’re behind
one of these two doors and we have more than enough firepower to take down both.]
Murder becomes life-giving — the only way to rescue people and keep them alive. But
Rick’s acceptance of violence reveals a fundamental change in his moral code. He
no longer believes that most human beings are innately good. It’s ironic
that he’s become so much like the realistic disillusioned Shane he used to
clash with. When he lectures the Alexandrians who live in a totally
insular community, he might as well be talking to his former self.
[Your way’s gonna destroy this place. It’s going to get people killed. it already gotten people
killed, and I’m not gonna stand by and just let it happen.
If you don’t fight you die.]
And unlike in the first few seasons, Rick now distrusts
anyone who’s not a part of his group.
[You’re my brother.]
Each group on The Walking Dead is defined by what they live for.
And Rick lives for his people.
[I’ve killed people. I don’t even know how many, but I know why they’re all
dead. They’re dead so my family — all those
people out there — can be alive. So I could be alive for them.]
[Sounds like I want to be part of your family.]
In the early seasons, his wife Laurie and Karl come
before everyone else. But as the show goes on, we see that the group has taken
the place of the nuclear family unit. Many of the group members have lost
spouses and children, making the other survivors the only family they have.
[These are families.These are family too.]
Strong relationships are key to getting through
tough times, and Rick has made himself the patriarch of this new family.
[He’s a man with a good heart, who feels the things he does, things he has to do. And
all of us who were together before this place, no matter when we found each other
we’re family now. Rick started that.]
There’s a deeper symbolism in the fact
that many when talking about the show refer to Rick’s group as simply the survivors,
even though other groups are technically surviving too. Everything Rick’s group
does is shaped by the need to survive. But this group is also fighting to be
spiritual human survivors, not just to continue living as something less than
human. In this environment where the future of humanity is in doubt Rick’s
adaptation of the family unit is revolutionary. Because while other groups
give in to infighting and destruction, Rick’s survivors are trying to rebuild
society on a foundation of love; to grow a community of human beings who value
each other. Rick’s friendships are the reason he
believes in that future at all. The group is the future.
Rick’s moral code is also what makes villainous groups like the Saviors so
eager to break him. When Negan commands Rick to cut off Karl’s arm — saying that
otherwise he’ll massacre the entire group — Rick’s shell-shocked expression
shows us that hurting the people he loves is the most unnatural thing in the
world to him. And this look is exactly what Negan’s been after.
[That is the look I wanted to see.]
In Negan’s mind it’s proof that the strong relationships of
the survivors are no match for true sadism. So it’s as if Rick’s moral code
[Sucks, don’t it? The moment you realize you don’t know shit.]
Negan’s barbaric self-serving polygamist vision of the future is the polar opposite of
Rick’s, like a shadow future he has to define and clarify his vision against.
Initially Rick makes himself accept Negan’s rules to keep the group alive so
there’s still hope for the future he imagines for his children.
[I’ll die before she does, and I hope that’s a long time from now so
I can raise her and protect her and
teach her how to survive. This is how we live now. I had to accept that too so I could keep
everyone else alive.]
In a surprising way Rick has come to embody the idea that
the ends justify the means. He can put up with almost anything and break any rule
that needs to be broken if this keeps his family alive so that the loving
moral future he believes in might one day come to pass. But when Negan’s
unpredictable ways make him too much of a danger to the group
Rick acknowledges the need to strike back.
Because if they bend too far and don’t fight the evils that seek to dominate
them, that better future will likely never be possible.
[We’re the ones who live. That’s why we have to fight.
Not for us, but for Judith, for Carl, for Alexandria, for the hilltop, for all
of us. We can fight them Rick. We can find a way to beat them. We can do this.]
[Yeah I know that now.]
Rick needs his belief in a new day to come — it’s what separates him from other
groups. If we have no higher purpose than not dying
the result is total immorality and mindlessness, which is why some of the
groups we meet aren’t meaningfully different from the walkers.
Rick may no longer be the rigid unshakeable leader we met in season one
but this actually makes him more human. And in the world of The Walking Dead
humanity is heroic. Ultimately the walkers symbolize the danger of
dehumanization. They look like people but they’re missing what makes us more. Rick
leads his group — and the show overall — in finding a middle ground between
humanity and violence, between morality and survivalism, between the means and
the end. Even if his moral code has evolved he retains his core values of
love and loyalty. And it’s because of his code that he hasn’t been inwardly
destroyed by his killings. Rick’s belief in the future is really a
belief in the underlying goodness of humanity, and the sacred importance of
preserving that goodness at all costs. And this faith that deep down we’re good,
instead of just waiting to become walkers, is what’s needed for humanity
to have any chance of persevering through darkness. Rick’s hope for that
happy safe future makes him not just a moral leader, but a visionary.
[I can sacrifice one of us for the greater good, because we are the greater good.]
This post was previously published on Youtube.
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Photo credit: Screenshot from video