Rick's exit from The Walking Dead was a massive cop-out

Note: This article contains major spoilers for The Walking Dead season 9, episode 5, ‘What Comes After’.

“It feels like the end,” says Rick Grimes, standing in a stark white afterlife on a pile of a million corpses. “All things end, but it’s never the end of everything,” replies Sasha, resurrected in a dream sequence. “It’s not about you, or me, or any one of us… it’s about all of us.”

Rick has been nearly dying for nine seasons now. And for a show that famously takes pleasure in brutally murdering its own main characters, it’s pretty amazing that he’s lasted this long. Maybe too amazing, actually.

Miraculously dodging bullets and axes and teeth while everyone else around him keeps dying, Rick has somehow remained the hero of The Walking Dead since it started in 2010.

As the apocalypse got gnarlier and Rick’s own morals got murkier (and as the audience numbers starting dropping off…), the future of the character started looking less believable with each episode.

Now, finally, here we are at Rick’s last stand. After eight years, this is our chance to say goodbye to the man who started it all, the man who held everything together through thick and thin. More importantly, this is the chance for the show to end one era and kickstart a new one.

For 45 minutes, that’s exactly what happens. And then… We get the biggest cop-out of the show so far. (Yes, worse than Glenn hiding underneath that dumpster.)

At the end of last week’s episode, Rick looked done for, again. Impaled on a breeze block just as a walker herd approached, he was about to have his bones unceremoniously picked clean by a thousand zombies. While that actually would have been a pretty great way to kill him off, we all know that’s not how it’s going to happen.

Hauling himself off the spike and up onto his horse, Rick spends the rest of the episode drifting in and out of consciousness, remembering old friends, saying goodbye. Shane turns up. Herschel makes an appearance. Sasha confronts Rick in a ravaged dreamscape that shows the full scale and sadness of the apocalypse for the first time in the show’s history.

Back in the real world, Rick slumps over his pale horse – slowly riding off into the sunset with a gaping stomach wound and an entourage of a thousand hungry dead people behind him. It’s a powerful image (and a Biblical one… “…and death followed with him”) to leave the character on, and it probably should have been the last one we see.

But instead, Rick gets one more chance to be the hero.

Arriving at the half-built bridge that caused such a problem in episode four, Rick suddenly realises that he’s leading the herd straight to Hilltop. Knowing that he only has a few minutes left to live anyway, he decides to sacrifice himself and blow everything up, taking the herd with him, Bridge On The River Kwai style.

This, finally, is a pretty good way for Rick to die: he has a chance to say his goodbyes, he doesn’t have the ignominy of turning into a walker, all his friends are there to see it happen, and it all looks epic enough to feel like a decent send-off.

Except that’s not what happens.

After the bridge explodes, unknown to Michonne and the others, Rick’s body washes up on the riverbank, Jadis rescues him in a helicopter and they both fly off to star in a spin-off movie (or three).

To make things worse, the last few minutes of the episode flash-forward to show us a grown-up Judith, a 10-year-old badass, wearing Carl’s old hat and killing zombies.

So Rick’s not dead at all, the show has just jumped six whole years and nothing that just happened had any relevance at all. We won’t even get to explore the aftermath of Rick’s ‘death’. And while we know that Andrew Lincoln has left the show for good, we also know that he’ll almost certainly be back as soon as the ratings demand it.

The Walking Dead has chickened out. By trying to give itself an escape route, the show has written itself into a corner. If the relentless grimness of season 7-8 proved too much for some audiences to stomach, this ‘safe’ new approach seems even harder to invest in.

Where’s the drama gone? Where’s the risk? More importantly, where’s Rick?

The Walking Dead airs on AMC in the US, and on FOX and NOW TV in the UK.

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