Photo: Gene Page/AMC

Rick Grimes: He’s A Cop…Sort Of?

The formerly upstanding officer from The Walking Dead won’t ever be the same. And that’s not a bad thing.

You can kill off pretty much every character on AMC’s The Walking Dead except for Rick Grimes, the Georgia sheriff’s deputy who awoke from a coma in the pilot episode to a world gone zombie. (Or “Walkers,” as the show insists on referring to the undead. Whatever.)

Whether you like him as a character or not, Rick’s still the leader of the survivors we kinda root for when they’re not being mopey and talky for half a season of TV (looking at you, Season 2). His decisions directly determine who lives and dies. Without him, the show would be a collection of mostly stock characters lacking a fulcrum to revolve around.

Sure, it’s fun to speculate and tease about the possibility of his death, but it would be pretty unwise since Rick is a) played by Andrew Lincoln, the best actor on the show, and b) the most complex character on a show that desperately needs more complexity from week to week lest it devolve into playing like a depressing soap opera.

But you could argue that Rick, the upstanding, rational small-town cop of the first two seasons, died a while back. He lost his best friend Shane (Jon Bernthal), eventually shooting him in a fight and then putting him down again when he came back in walker form. This was after finding out that Shane had fooled around with his wife, Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies), while he was in his coma and presumed dead. Rick made bad decisions he couldn’t take back. He witnessed the people he was trying to protect get turned into walker snacks over and over. He had to put down zombified children, including missing child-turned-undead-growler Sophia (Madison Lintz). In Season 3, Lori died in childbirth, making an already stressed-out Rick crack up and hallucinate, causing the rest of the group, including his son Carl (Chandler Riggs), to doubt his leadership abilities.

When Rick came out of the other end of that period of crazy, he was colder. He’d leave a desperate hitchhiker to die on the road without offering any help. He’d turn away any newcomers he couldn’t trust, even if they might prove useful to the group. He wasn’t even too interested in newborn daughter Judith. I mean, damn, even tough-as-tree-bark badass Daryl (Norman Reedus) took a little time out to make cute faces at the baby and to dub her “Lil’ Asskicker.”

If The Walking Dead is about the complete dissolution of societal norms, Rick in the third season is the internalization of that breakdown. He goes nuts, he lets go of his rules and his reasons, and he embraces the chaos and uncertainty of his situation. He’s a bundle of increasingly raw nerves, but he’s finally fitting in with the new world order. Rick’s no longer about protecting and serving the public; he’s about protecting his own and serving up a gunshot wound to anyone who threatens that. It would make him a sociopath here, but in Walker World, it seems wise and necessary.

In case it wasn’t explicit enough, a Season 2 episode shows Rick putting away his uniform and badge as he finally realizes that the world where law and order exist isn’t coming back. Rick the cop, who tried so hard to keep everyone alive and maintain the peace, is long gone. What’s replaced him is a pragmatic survivalist who, going into the fourth season (set to debut in October), is at war with The Governor (David Morrissey). He’s reeling from more deaths, but also willing to take in a few new survivors who don’t appear to represent a danger to Rick and his family. He’s trying to figure out how his son grew into such a cold-blooded son of a gun. That one’s not so hard to figure out.

Remember all those boring, endless moral discussions in the first two seasons about the right and wrong of killing the living? They don’t happen much anymore. Rick accepted the lesson Shane tried to teach him: it’s survival of the fittest and no badge is going to stop the pain and the darkness and the death. The others can live under what fans call The Ricktatorship, or they can hit the damn road away from the relative safety of the prison shelter.

Rick was a good cop with a strong moral center. But that Rick was never long for the Walking Dead world. Apocalypse Rick has a much better chance of survival even if he’s never, ever, ever going to see a pension check.

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