And so, with an explosion and some reflection, Andrew Lincoln’s final episode of The Walking Dead aired Sunday night with at least two (somewhat) surprising turns. The episode also confirmed some people’s suspicions about how his Rick Grimes would exit the series, while establishing the series’ new status quo in its final moments.
But considering Rick spent much of the episode looking back on his life and his journey —with special visits from departed friends like Shane (Jon Bernthal), Herschel (the late Scott Wilson), and Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green) — we were also left in a contemplative mood as AMC aired a special preview of the next three episodes. Specifically, Shane’s notion that Rick always had “it” in him had us thinking about his penchant for violence. While it was typically in the service of his family, it also took on brutal forms as he journeyed from King County to the bridge near Alexandria. So let’s take a look back at some of the key kills which defined Rick and informed one of his most surprising decisions.
SPOILER WARNING: The below contains spoilers for all seasons of The Walking Dead.
In some ways, it all really comes back to Rick’s first kill, the Bicycle Girl. The make-up effects and overall mood of the scene featuring Bicycle Girl (Melissa Cowan) were so impressive that AMC went back later to tell the story of Hannah (Lilli Birdsell), the person who once inhabited the corpse Rick encountered. But for Rick, she marks two important moments. She is the first undead corpse he encounters after waking up from his coma and the first walker he kills — even if she can’t technically walk. Though Rick has killed many, many walkers and people since that day, it is the real beginning of his post-apocalyptic life. And though he has accepted he must kill these creatures, he apologizes to the former Hannah nonetheless, establishing a pattern of mercy kills for some time to come.
While killing Shane was one of the most significant moments of the second season, the way Rick took charge to shoot Carol’s (Melissa McBride) daughter Sophia (Madison Lintz) established just how easily Rick can set aside his humanity to dispatch a walker with a familiar face. The girl disappeared in the season 2 premiere, only to be discovered when Shane let loose Herchel’s collection of zombies in the barn; after Shane and some of the others dealt with most of the walkers, Sophia’s corpse stumbled out. While the others stood by devastated — and Daryl (Norman Reedus) held Carol back from running to her — Rick took charge and ended the girl’s afterlife. Like Bicycle Girl, it was another mercy kill. But when it comes down to it, Rick demonstrated the capacity to shoot a child. Sure, a walker child, but the swiftness of his actions would reverberate for years to come.
And then there came the day when Rick’s choice to use lethal force switches from errands of mercy to a baser instinct. In the wake of killing Shane, Rick’s ability to trust was at an all-time low; which meant the men he and the group discovered in the West Georgia Correctional Facility were the least likely people to ever get on his good side. Nonetheless, Rick and the men came to an accord: he would help them clear a cellblock infested with walkers for a portion of the remaining food in the cafeteria. It seemed like a good deal until de facto prison leader Tomas (Nick Gomez) allowed the laundry room to fill with walkers and he made two not-so-subtle attempts to end Rick. After the first attempt, Tomas played it off like an accident, saying “s–t happens.” Following the second, Rick responded in kind before slamming his machete into Tomas’s skull. As the first significant kill of the prison storyline, Rick’s ruthless murder of Tomas proved any hesitation he once had about killing the living was well and truly gone.
While searching Georgia in search of Terminus, Rick, Daryl, Carl (Chandler Riggs), and Michonne (Danai Gurira) found themselves “guests” of The Claimers. Sore about the loss of one their men, Claimer leader Joe (Jeff Kober) announced his plan to kill Rick and Daryl while some of his men rape and kill Carl and Michonne. Rick, unarmed but in a rage, headbutted Joe, leading to a major scuffle. Joe managed to get the upper-hand and pinned Rick, but Rick delivered a killing blow by biting Joe in the neck and ripping out part of his jugular. In the chaos, Rick, Michonne and Daryl managed to kill the other Claimers, but Rick’s animalistic maneuver made it possible. As he later told Daryl, his brutality keeps the group alive.
Having survived the journey from the prison to Terminus only to discover there was no sanctuary there, Rick and the others led some of the remaining cannibalistic “Terminants” into an ambush at St. Sarah’s Church. The cannibals were dispatched with Rick saving a special slaughter for their leader, Gareth (Andrew J. West). But unlike some of the other brutal reprisals Rick delivered on our list, here he led the others into orchestrating a mass killing, indicating a potential despotic megalomania should they ever settle down in one place. Sure, they were being chased by cannibals, but once a person is forced into a corner like that, they leave some of their humanity behind. Additionally, Rick’s refusal to hear Gareth’s pleas of mercy — and the way Rick hacked him up — stood in sharp contrast to his more merciful self only a few years prior.
After facing the Terminants, Rick and his team reached the Alexandria Safe-Zone and were invited into the tract home community lead by Deanna (Tovah Feldshuh). Soon after Rick and Michonne became Alexandria constables, he began to tussle with community doctor Pete Anderson (Corey Brill) as he suspected the local physician got off on beating his wife. The situation led to Rick’s incarceration and a community meeting in which Pete killed Deanna’s husband. She gave Rick the go-ahead to execute him, which he did with cold efficiency. Like the Claimers and the Terminants before Pete, Rick’s lethal response came without the regard he once had for human life. And it would have been more terrifying and de-humanizing for the character if Rick wasn’t right once again.
In the wake of Pete’s death, Rick became close with his widow, Jessie (Alexandra Breckenridge). But the bond didn’t quite hold strong enough when Rick was faced with letting her die to save Carl. Due to circumstances peculiar to The Walking Dead, Alexandria was overrun with walkers. In the chaos, Rick attempted to save himself, Carl, Jessie, and her children by using the walker-blood camouflage again. But, during the escape, Jessie’s youngest son Sam (Major Dodson) froze at the sight of another child walker and began to cry, attracting walker attention. Jessie tried her best to quiet him and get him moving, but in her own panic, she latched onto Carl’s hand. Deciding that she was dooming everyone to death, Rick made the only “sane” choice and cut off her hand off with a hatchet so Carl could get free. The walkers devoured Jessie and Sam as Rick’s cold-blooded streak expanded to people he cared about.
Then there was Rick’s one act of violence which, in the end, did not lead to someone dying. Rick’s journey was leading to this moment: After all the times he was forced to set aside his humanity to kill walkers with familiar faces, end imminent threats to Carl, and sacrifice others close to him, Rick chose not to exact vengeance on Savior leader Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). Well, he still cut the man’s throat open, but his decision to order Siddiq (Avi Nash) to save him is the sort of mercy generally in short supply on The Walking Dead — especially when you consider how long he and Negan battled. Additionally, it is very surprising that Rick could reclaim some sense of mercy for the man who brutally beat Glen (Steven Yeun) to death.
But maybe sparing Negan was the only way Rick could become truly human again. In the 18 months following Rick’s act of mercy, he did a lot to rebuild the community around him. And in defeating Negan without brutally murdering him, Rick seemed to reclaim some sort of hope for the future.
In the service of that future, much of season 9 so far has revolved around Rick’s attempts to repair a bridge near Alexandria. His ultimate goal was to establish trade between the nearby communities via the bridge, but after things went disastrously wrong in the previous episode, a severely wounded Rick found himself leading a horde of walkers right toward the bridge. Clearly, he only had once choice to defend the community from the walkers — blowing up the bridge while they shuffled along it. And while not the most violent act ever committed by Rick Grimes since he woke up from his coma, it is, in a way, the murder of his dream. At the same time, the visions Rick experienced may be the clearest explanation of his thought process ever rendered by the series. From the moment he got on his horse, he knew where he was going, but he had to work up to the strength to wreck the bridge — and his dream — to once again save his family.
And just when it seemed that saving his family would come at the cost of his life, Rick survived. Spirited away on a mysterious helicopter, one can only wonder what Rick will do to the people who took him from everything he knows and what they will face when he gets his strength back. Based on the kills we’ve looked at here, it will take some extraordinary circumstances to keep Rick in check and away from Alexandria.
Season 9 of The Walking Dead airs Sundays on AMC.