Spoiler Alert: The Walking Dead season 6 finale discussed. Though I am aware of how this episode plays out in the graphic novel, I am not an avid reader of the text and my analysis is based mostly on my understanding of the television series which has proven to veer from the comic’s version of the narrative. I also subscribe to several theories and like many of you, believe several of the characters are plausible victims, but want to propose this controversial theory.
Why Rick Grimes could and should be Negan’s latest victim
During the last Talking Dead episode Chris Hardwick’s guests, The Walking Dead (TWD) Executive Producers, Scott Gimple and Robert Kirman, were bombarded with questions and comments about the notorious new villain Negan and which of the main characters was his latest victim. Naturally, TWD fans were frustrated and confused after literally being left in the dark at the end of the season six finale. In the final minute of the episode, after lining up the main characters on their knees, and playing a little game of eeni, meenie, minie, moe, Negan looks directly at the camera, providing a first person view of the chosen character right before the former bludgeons this unseen victim to death while the screen goes black.
Kirkman and Gimple explained that the question of #whoisit misses the point of the season finale: “The end of the story is what people saw. And when we reveal who was on the receiving end there, that’s going to be the start of another story…The kickback effects from that, what it makes everyone into, how people react, how the world changes for everyone, that’s the next part of the story.”
In other words, perhaps season six has marked the end of an era, while season seven may mark the beginning of a new one. How this currently unidentified character’s death changes everything, and what the remaining characters will do in response, will now be the focus of the series.
I’m subtly reminded of Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan. Yes, Star wars—a story that begins with the death of an old hero and the making of a new one. Despite TWD’s despairing season finale that no doubt left a bitter taste in everyone’s mouth, the notion that if a hero has fallen then a new hero may rise, should be the new hope of the next season. And with the way the show has evidently been influenced by the world building storytelling techniques of HBO’s hugely successful Game of Thrones (a show that’s less about ONE protagonist’s journey, and more about a world, several characters and perspectives, and about who will win the game of thrones), in addition to its Star Wars type franchising techniques (a comic book, a talk show, a theme park ride, endless toys and countless video games) TWD seems to lean towards being less of a concise saga of one man and one group, and more of a George Lucas Expanded Universe.
One might argue that the first six seasons merely introduced us to a group within a huge new world, while the seventh season and beyond will be an exploration of this new world, with its many potential heroes and villains going in potentially many directions (the producers have stated they imagine this show will have several seasons to come).
One might even hypothesize that the story could now be about a son (Carl) maturing into a hero who eventually kills his father’s murderer; for example, the comic book elaborates on the strange relationship between Carl and Negan. Or perhaps one might hypothesize that Negan will be the new protagonist of the “new world,” a world in which people aren’t inherently good anymore. Perhaps instead of a story of a good man (Rick) being corrupted by his world, it will quite fittingly be about a bad man (Negan) “coming back” and learning how to regain his humanity.
I am aware that several people have ruled out Carl and Rick as victims, noting that before killing the mystery character, Negan says that “If anyone says anything, cut the boy’s other eye out and feed it to his father,” (which implies that they may not be the victim) but I’m proposing that the character everyone believes is the safest would actually be the most purposeful death of all. I’m hoping (bitter sweetly) that the Walking Dead goes down this path. Here me out.
When we look at the show from the beginning (seasons 1-6), it is clearly a story about an ‘Everyman’—a husband, a father, a police officer, a survivor—who wakes up in a hospital to a new world, a world he must learn to adapt to and live within and a world in which he is challenged to transcend or risk succumbing to, and sacrifice his humanity. The narrative follows Rick Grimes as he traverses through the apocalypse on his hero’s quest. During his journey, he finds a group, and eventually becomes their leader. And by the first few episodes Rick Grimes becomes the most beloved and seemingly safest of all characters, representative of humanity.
His group becomes the primary focus of the show and viewers learn about this ever expanding post-apocalyptic world through their eyes. Throughout the series ‘The Group’ grows, finds others, joins others, fights with other groups, saves other groups, and kills other groups. They defeat endless hoards of zombies, a group of friendly cannibals, your neighborhood biker gang, a crazy one eyed governor with a military, a few totalitarian police officers, and The Wolves. Throughout it all, the individual characters within the group undergo plenty of changes and development.
Though led by Rick, many of the characters become leaders and heroes in their own right. They all become the capable and confident warriors of the post apocalypse and while their characters evolve, the one constant is that each of the characters’ seems to grow in their confidence and trust in each other. They become a family unit that bonds through it all, and begin to believe that they are undisputed and unbreakable. However, as this final season clearly demonstrates, their confidence becomes hubris (most reflective in Rick’s character) and the ingenuity of the 16 episodes is that it illustrates the proud Group’s tragic downfall quite poetically.
The seemingly indestructible Rick-led group have grown to believe that without doubt, that they are the good guys, the group that will outlast all the other groups, and the undefeatable protagonists of their own TV show, but they are in for a rude awakening, foreshadowed by a character named Jesus who tells them that “[their] world is about to get a lot bigger” (Perhaps an attempt to humble them). And ironically, on their way to Jesus’ Hill Top community to see the doctor that presumably will help their sick family member, they meet the devil himself in Negan who says that they must pay for the arrogantly poor choices they have made of late. One of Negan’s henchmen tells Rick, “there are many roads that lead to where you’re going” and when Rick arrives to meet his fate, the same man tells him “welcome to where you’re going”—a suggestion in the fatalistic end for the hero’s journey, if I ever saw one. It becomes clear that this sixth season was about building up the group to a point where they believed that they can do anything they want and come out on top. Keep in mind how Rick’s confidence has sky-rocketed since arriving in Alexandria, taking over, training the Alexandrians, fighting the Wolves, and killing several Saviors, etc. Throughout the season and most notably in the finale episode (with the exception of the last 10 minutes) he has a swagger and cockiness that seems unparalleled by him in previous episodes.
He tells Maggie that they will be okay, that “this is not it yet”, and that “there is still more.” He says that “as long as we’re together we can do anything.” He tells Carl that “we do it our way.” He tells the Saviors at the road blocks, that he’s killed several of them, and asks quite cockily, “do you want this to be your last day on earth?” The Saviour responds by throwing the idea back at Rick. It’s clear the episode is about highlighting how overconfident Rick and his group has become, and then quickly breaking them down, defeating them, and making them realize that they are just one group in an expansive post-apocalyptic universe they do not understand, that they aren’t as strong as they believed, that they should doubt themselves, and that instead of feeling self-sufficient to a fault, they should acknowledge how much help they actually need, that there are consequences for their actions, and that they can’t win all the time, even if they stick together like Rick so naively and arrogantly believed. Most importantly, the episode might suggest that sacrificing their morality and humanity in order to survive may not be worth it, for “what profits a man if he gains the (new) world but loses his soul?”
Simply put, the arrival of Negan has made them realize that they aren’t the gods they believed they were. Midway through the episode Maggie says in a vow confidence to her leader, “I believe in you, Rick.” This arguably exemplifies the group’s belief in a false god, a false sense of security and false sense of strength and ‘The Group’ will pay by witnessing their god fall.
Killing Rick will establish this theme more than killing any other character will. Yes, killing Glenn, Daryl or Michonne would break everyone’s heart, including Rick’s, but killing Rick Grimes will open the door to a new story line, one in which the other characters will have to overcome their weaknesses and false conceptions of security and strength in order to rise above and become true leaders and heroes themselves (not just the insane, ‘I’m willing to do anything to survive’ type characters that Rick has arguably become). As much as we understand and love this type of character, this Shane-like archetype is redundant, shallow and superficial…and this type of character always meets their fate. This type of character does not overcome or transcend The Walking Dead, they are The Walking Dead.
Since the pilot episode, the show has proven to be more than just about surviving. Like I’ve written about when this whole franchise began, The Walking Dead is about humanity trying to learn what it means to be human and what it means to really live. If my theory holds true, they’re still learning.
P.S. One could argue that Rick deserves a more noble and respectfully epic death. For all that he has done for the group and the show, he deserves something more. To that, I would argue, what more purposeful of a death can there be other than to really rip out the other characters’ foundation from beneath them, proving that loved ones can go just like that. Moreover, the story becomes too predictable when Rick is considered a “safe” character, when he must have a meaningful speech before dying, when he has to be put in a situation where he can die heroically (perhaps saving someone), before actually being killed off. But to that, I would argue that he’s done all that and more. Rick has had a great six seasons; he has led the group through the most horrid of situations, but now it’s time for others in the group to have the opportunity to become leaders and heroes. Rick’s six season run and sudden death would be more than a plot device (a la Eddard Stark), it would be a full fledged protagonist’s death inspiring new stories, and new heroes and villains to rise and fall. While Rick’s arc is done and his time is up, his legacy will remain and that should be more than enough respect for his character.
P.P.S. Despite how I believe this would be a great direction to go, I don’t believe the show will go down this road. Rick’s character continues living in the comic book and this would definitely eliminate the possibility of telling more of the comic book stories that revolve around Rick. But if they do want to make a “hard left turn” from the comic, and kill off someone “beloved to everyone,” as Gimple noted in his interview, then this would be the way to go. That all said, I think it’s either Glenn or Maggie who have been killed.
Note: Edits have been made since the original publishing date of this post.