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‘The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live’ Has Gutted Rick Grimes

Gene Page/AMC
Gene Page/AMC

There’s no small bit of irony to the goriest premiere moment in The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live. (Warning: In case it wasn’t obvious, some spoilers lie ahead.) At the start of AMC’s Walking Dead spin-off series, our long-disappeared hero, Rick Grimes, is clearly not doing well. We first spot him watching a news segment while holding a piece of glass to his neck. He’s been trying to break free and reunite with his family for years, but each attempt has failed miserably. During Sunday’s episode, we flashed back to see Rick’s latest failed attempt, in which he chopped off his own hand with an ax to break free from a handcuff leash.

For anyone who watched the original series, which once teased that Rick could lose his hand just like he did in the comics, the moment feels like an ominous coda. Rick might’ve been protected from such losses in The Walking Dead, but The Ones Who Live is out to devastate him in ways its progenitor never did.

That said, the advertising has not been a lie: At its core, The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live is a love story about Rick and Michonne. You can see it from the opening credits, which start out on an image of Rick holding Michonne’s face in silhouette as the world burns. From there, the sequence intersperses images of them looking for one another among more apocalyptic visuals. There’s a Civic Republic flag, a phalanx of helicopters, a map with “X’s” on certain cities, a journal entry, Rick’s boots, a sniper, a sinking bottle, and a copy of the Civic Republic Tribune’s first page that features headlines including “Majority of CRC Candidates Call for Oversight of CRM” and “Thresholders Protest Free Movement Debate at CRU.”

Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes and Lesley-Ann Brandt as Thorne in The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live

Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes and Lesley-Ann Brandt as Thorne in The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live

Gene Page/AMC

The Civic Republic is made up of three cities—Omaha, Portland, and Philadelphia—and of those three, only Philadelphia has remained a secret. Its leaders claim this is for their own protection, and for this reason, no one who learns that the city is still standing can leave.

We’ve already seen in The Walking Dead: World Beyond that the Civic Republic is not exactly a “live and let live” kind of state; it’s an authoritarian regime protected by a terrifying military force called the CRM. The Ones Who Live really drives that message home. When Rick goes rogue and chops off his hand, he’s in the middle of a “voluntary” military assignment that’ll supposedly speed along his standard, six-year “path to citizenship” as a “consignee.”

As one might guess from the gruesome escape attempt, Rick’s not very invested in becoming a citizen. All he wants is to get back to Michonne and his daughter, Judith. (He doesn’t yet know that he has a son, RJ, whom Michonne was already carrying before a bridge explosion separated them in Season 9.) By the end of the premiere, however, it seems like he might’ve actually bought into his particular role in this mission, at least a tiny bit.

Craig Tate as Donald Okafor in The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live

Craig Tate as Donald Okafor in The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live

Gene Page/AMC

Rick’s main champion within the Civic Republic is Sergeant Donald Okafor (Craig Tate), who is convinced that Rick and the equally fierce Pearl Thorne (Lesley-Ann Brandt) are the kinds of personalities who can covertly right the CRM’s wrongs from the inside. The Civic Republic is full of secrets, and it’s unclear just how many we’ll actually learn before this six-episode miniseries wraps up. That said, the Rick we see for most of the four episodes that AMC offered to critics for review is not the same person we once knew.

The Rick we see here does not feel like the same fighter who was once trapped in a cargo container by cannibals and still had the guts and conviction to say, “They’re gonna feel pretty stupid when they find out… They’re fucking with the wrong people.” He seems to have lost hope, and worse than that, he seems traumatized by all the threats the CRM has made against him and his family. From what we see of his last conversation with Okafor, this new Rick also seems tempted by the idea that giving up on his family could be a necessary step toward saving the world. Have years of failed escape attempts and hanging with Okafor actually made Rick a true believer, as he professes right before the sergeant’s death? Or is all of this just a long con to get away?

Rick and Michonne’s Return to ‘The Walking Dead’ Is an Epic Love Story

We’re sure to get at least part of an answer next week. Right at the end of Sunday’s premiere, Rick and Michonne’s years-long effort to find one another ends in a chance reunion. When Rick and Okafor’s helicopter gets gunned down (killing Okafor in the process), Rick executes a pretty remarkable crash landing. As he crawls along the ground, we see a mysterious figure massacring his fellow CRM members with a katana. Could it be?! When she removes his mask and holds her blade to his neck, we realize that somehow, beyond all odds, it actually us Michonne. And with that gasping realization, we cut to black.

Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes and Lesley-Ann Brandt as Thorne in The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live

Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes and Lesley-Ann Brandt as Thorne in The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live

Gene Page/AMC

The Ones Who Live gets off to a shaky start in its first few episodes. There’s a lot of exposition and even more time hopping back and forth between the past and “Now” to explain how we got here. Sometimes, it’s helpful, and sometimes, it feels disorienting and unnecessary. There’s also a pacing issue at play here, perhaps because this series was originally planned as a cinematic trilogy. The story takes a while to wind up, and by the time it does, we’re already more than halfway through the show. It’s hard to imagine how this series will wrap up in a way that feels as epic as its action-packed opening. That said, by Episode Four, we’re really cooking again, as stars and executive producers Andrew Lincoln and Danai Gurira rediscover the fire that made their characters—and the “Richonne” ship—so compelling.

Rick Grimes has had more eras than Taylor Swift—from “Ricktatorship” Rick, to Farmer Rick, to Feral Rick, to Cop-on-the-Edge Rick—and one of Lincoln’s greatest gifts has been to make each of these phases make sense. Here, he’s just as grounded as always, making each and every one of Rick’s competing impulses legible on his weathered, terrified face. Similarly, Gurira remains an absolute marvel to watch: In physical fight scenes, you can feel her every blow, and in the episodes that follow her reunion with Rick, she seamlessly flies through every big, understandable feeling in the book: joy, heartbreak, anger, you name it. Supporting actors like Tate, Brandt, and Lost star Terry O’Quinn as the mysterious Major General Beale deepen the show’s emotional well even further, but in reality, it’s all about Richonne.

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