Is Rick Grimes only a hero because someone worse is out there?
Last August, before the start of the sixth season, I wrote a piece concerning whether or not Rick Grimes had become a villain using the definition created by Chuck Klosterman in his book, I Wear the Black Hat. According to the definition a villain is someone who knows the most, but cares the least. Using that interpretation of villainy I went with yes. Or, at least, “yeah, kinda”. He had gone from a man who knew little of what was happening in the world, but was deeply disturbed by it, to a man who’d seen way too much and no longer cared about those around him (outside his core group, but even then he would disregard their feelings and thoughts in favor of his own). I ended on a note of hope that Rick could change, go back to the more heroic guy he once was.
So, with a season passed, has anything changed? Has Rick been redeemed in the arms of Alexandria? A little, perhaps, but not really. While he’s certainly getting along better with others, managed to see the Alexandrians as his people, it took some extreme events to have that happen and he’s generally not any kinder or gentler to those he still considers not “his people”. The biggest difference, really, is that those around him have (mostly) stopped opposing him. The original Alexandria citizens have stopped questioning him; when he says “this is how it has to be”, that is how it has to be. Nowadays Rick might not be considered a villain only because everyone else is just as bad…or there’s someone who’s worse, who knows more and cares even less, like Negan and his Saviors.
Speaking of Negan and The Saviors, they are probably the best comparison to make in showing how Rick is both still a villain and, kind of, a hero…
Negan and The Saviors are a group that “offer” surrounding communities protection from Walkers and other potential threats (presumably like The Wolves) in exchange for food, weapons, and pretty much whatever else they want. The catch, of course, is that there is no option of refusal. If a community declines the Saviors attack until they fold and accept the deal or are destroyed. Even the initial offer comes with a pretty high price as The Saviors are known for introducing themselves by killing a member of the other group in front of everyone. It is, pretty much, extortion. A villainous act by definition and obviously not the way Rick and The Alexandrians work, but there are numerous similarities between Rick’s and Negan’s people nevertheless.
Though unplanned, upon meeting those at the Hilltop Colony Rick does end up killing one of them in front of everyone else. While the act shocks and horrifies those at Hilltop, Rick simply stands up, covered in the man’s blood, looks around, and asks, “What?”. Even the closest combat and bloodiest murders don’t phase Rick and he doesn’t get why it might bother others. It was an unfortunate incident, but a justified one, one that had to occur, by Rick’s standards. And those who rush to defend their fallen community member? They’re met with guns from Rick and nearly all of his people…it’s Jesus, the seeming behind-the-scenes leader of Hilltop, who ends up having to intervene to prevent further violence. Intentional or not Negan and Rick’s groups essentially make the same intimidating first impression to their neighboring community.
The deal Maggie negotiates with Hilltop’s leader, Gregory, is basically the same one he made with The Saviors as well. Protection for supplies. Rick and his group will kill off Negan and The Saviors in exchange for half of everything Hilltop has. Now it’s possible that this was setup as a onetime deal, unlike The Saviors’ “subscription plan”, but that seems unlikely…both communities acknowledge Alexandria has little else to offer the Hilltop Colony. Assuming killing off Negan and The Saviors worked Alexandria would no doubt still want to trade with Hilltop, but would still only have their protection services to provide so, really, Gregory simply replaced one muscle-for-hire with another.
There are also a few, slightly unnerving, subtleties that point to Rick and the group’s darker tendencies while they’re at Hilltop. When Gregory initially seems disinterested in doing business Rick tells Jesus that they came all the way there and weren’t about to leave empty handed…something that can be seen as a threat. I also found it interesting that as Rick’s crew packs up their payment — they apparently got at least a substantial portion, if not all of it, up front — Jesus comments that not even The Saviors took so much straight off. These two details, combined with the rest of the initial meeting of Alexandrians and Hilltops, show how closely Rick and his people mirror Negan and his.
How Rick chooses to address The Saviors is infinitely clearer in its villainy…So much so there isn’t really much way to defend it. Based mainly on the word of Hilltop and a single run-in by Daryl, Abraham, and Sasha it’s decided that everyone in Negan’s crew have to be eliminated. Rick goes to Alexandria’s people, his people, with the explanation that they have to hit first and “kill them all” to be safe; an echo of what The Governor said concerning Rick’s group back at the prison. Their exact plan is to trick and force their way into a compound where The Saviors reside and systematically kill them in their sleep. It’s a pretty brutal way to deal with another group, no matter who they are.
When Maggie and Carol are taken by a small group of Saviors one of them, ‘Chelle, tells Maggie: “You’re not the good guys. You should know that”. She’s completely right, especially in that moment. If you view the events from the perspective of The Saviors, Rick and the rest are absolutely the villains. Unprovoked, they creep into a residence of The Saviors and murder them in their sleep, then ransack the place. This viciousness continues even after Maggie and Carol escape when, instead of just leaving, they kill those holding them then lie in wait for their backup to kill all of those Saviors as well.
For most of season 6 it seems like Rick is still the person who knows the most and cares the least; he’s got the drop on Negan and The Saviors and he uses it to slaughter Saviors in their sleep. He does this without a second thought or consideration for the defenseless nature of those within the compound. Afterwards he’s confident to the point of arrogance as he relaxes and basks in a new relationship sure that he and his people can handle anything. He’s seen nearly shirking off preparations for a potential attack, clearly unworried that he might be in over his head. So then what, exactly, might make Rick still a hero? The arrival of Negan, mostly.
Negan knows infinitely more than Rick in the end. He knows more about the area, the communities, and how best to manipulate this new Walker-filled world to his advantage as his success over Rick (and others) shows. Negan appears to know a great deal about Rick’s group, certainly more than Rick knew about The Saviors. More importantly, Negan revels in that knowledge, seemingly delighting in watching Rick and his group’s world crumble before their very eyes. He enjoys knowing the most, but also clearly cares the least…almost to the point of being sadistic in his torments of Rick’s group both in the buildup to and actual face-to-face meeting. Rick did some terrible things, he didn’t care, but he wasn’t exactly having a party while doing them…Negan is though.
In truth I’m not sure Rick will ever go back to that truly heroic man he once was; this world seems unwilling, unable, to allow that for him. I’m not sure the Walker-filled world will allow that for anyone in the end, though I root for the holdouts…those that, no matter how much they know, still care deeply. Those like Morgan, Glenn, and Tara (who cringed at Rick’s “kill them all” declaration and remained unsure throughout their attack on The Saviors). As far as Rick? The best that can be hoped for is that he never becomes the worst out there…but that’s not a hope to root for either because, in the end, those are the people Rick and the rest for will no doubt have to deal with.