Some spoilers for Sunday night’s Walking Dead below.
In Sunday night’s Walking Dead, we found out that our longtime fearless leader, Rick Grimes, is (unsurprisingly) still alive. Shortly after he sprints past a swarm of zombies and through Alexandria’s gates, he delivers a motivational speech. “I know you’re scared. You haven’t seen anything like this. You haven’t been through anything like this. But we’re safe for now. … The wall’s gonna hold together. Can you?” Throughout the episode, we watch as the Alexandrians finally come to terms with their apocalyptic reality: Supplies are limited and zombies are growling at the gates. Their leader, Deanna, finally concedes, “They don’t need me, Rick. What they need is you.” It’s yet another episode that deals with the skepticism surrounding Rick’s leadership—we’ve seen similar efforts in previous seasons to talk up Rick’s leadership chops. The problem? Alexandria doesn’t need Rick. He’s a terrible leader. For the good of the show, it’s time to boot Rick from the role of protagonist and move him to the backburner.
We got the first hint of Rick’s leadership style at the end of Season 2, when he finally told the group that everyone was already infected with the zombie virus—and that he’d known as much for a while. When Glenn and others protested he should have told everyone, Rick curtly replied, “Well, I thought it best if people didn’t know.” Later, as the group became scared while camping in the woods, and some insisted they needed to move out before zombies came for them, Rick put his foot down with what endures as perhaps his most memorable monologue. He ended his chilling speech with a simple message: Anyone who wanted to stay with the group was going to play by his rules alone.
“Maybe you people are better off without me. Go ahead. I say there’s a place for us, but maybe it’s just another pipe dream. Maybe I’m fooling myself again. Why don’t you go and find out yourself? Send me a postcard. Go on. There’s the door. You can do better. Lets see how far you get. No takers? Fine. But get one thing straight: You’re staying, this isn’t a democracy anymore.”
His tone was severe, even threatening. But in Season 2, this was a necessary and viable message that everyone needed to hear. Aside from Rick and Daryl, the group was still largely helpless. Rick had certainly already fumbled a few decisions as de-facto leader, but without him everyone was unquestionably screwed. But now, every surviving member of his group—along with some of the new additions—can hold their own. And since Season 2, Rick has only proven less capable as a leader. For a few seasons, he was an indecisive fool who privileged his own selectively functional moral compassover the opinions of others—to the detriment of everyone. As we’ve seen repeatedly in this season, he has almost no problem letting however many people he deems necessary perish in the single-minded pursuit of his own plans and goals—as long as they’re not the few people he considers worth keeping alive. Whatever followers Rick has amassed in Alexandria has been through fear—of both the outside world and Rick himself. As Rick becomes increasingly Machiavellan—and at times mentally unstable—almost resembling a despot from Game of Thrones, one has to wonder: Why is he in charge, again?
For a long time, the answer was simple: If not Rick, then whom? But now there’s a painfully obvious answer in Michonne. When we first met her, Michonne was not a viable leader—she was closed-off, cagey, and—despite her close relationship with the group’s lost member Andrea—not clearly trustworthy. She could also develop tunnel vision around her goals, as in her highly personal quest to kill Woodbury’s villainous Governor. For a long time, we could have put her in the same bucket as gifted survivalists Daryl and Carol, both of whom are exceedingly combat-ready, but lack the big-picture tactical mind and desire it takes to lead.
Over time, though, Michonne has opened up and proven to be more than simply a lethal katana-wielder: She’s a quick thinker and effective leader. Her appointment to Alexandria’s town constable alongside Rick in Season 5 was our first signal of her leadership skills. The moment, episodes later, when she subdued Rick’s foam-mouth ranting by knocking him out, should have sent a clear message about who the group’s real leader should be. And although Michonne and Glenn’s attempt to make a break for Alexandria proved extremely lethal, Michonne shined as a tactician who knew when to boost morale, put skeptical troops in their place, and—most importantly—move on from lost causes. (Of course, next to Rick, who said for everyone to hear that Michonne and Glenn should sacrifice whoever necessary to make it out alive, anyone would look like a good morale-boosting leader.) The run was a fool’s errand no one could opt out of anyway, but Michonne led the charge as well as anyone could.
Several other shows have already shown us that it’s possible to smoothly downgrade a show’s main character into a more supporting role. Of course Game of Thrones makes bloody sport of this by killing off its heroes in order to force the show’s focal point to shift. But Orange Is the New Black, which is, like Walking Dead, an ensemble show, quietly moved Piper from lead role to ensemble member early on in order to invest more time in the more interesting backstories of its other characters; it made the show overall much better. AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire transitioned from spotlighting its clichéd male characters to focusing on their more fascinating female counterparts, which also gave the series some much-needed heart.
So The Walking Dead could make a similarly subtle transition after giving Michonne the well-earned reins, sidelining Rick and supplying him with a more marginal, but still interesting, role in the plot. This season has been grappling with the idea of optimism, and how it fits into The Walking Dead’s dystopian wasteland. Rick’s good-leader-gone-bad trajectory is by now a grim, well-trodden cliché—especially in dystopian narratives.
Michonne embodies optimism in the face of the apocalypse. Unlike Rick, she values human life against all odds. After five seasons and counting of Rick’s rule, the prospect of shunting him might be a daunting one for the show’s writers. But there’s a better life waiting for The Walking Dead if it makes that change.