The Walking Dead is purportedly about zombies, but it’s actually about Rick Grimes. Since the time he awoke in that hospital — “Don’t open it. Inside, I’m dead “— Rick’s desire to assist and defend people has pierced the chilly core of this zombie series.
Even four years after Andrew Lincoln departed The Walking Dead, his character’s journey continues to move the story forward, whether it’s Daryl going out to locate his friend or Judith, Rick’s daughter, carrying the torch for a whole new generation.
Given all of that, it would have been strange to end the program without having Rick back, even if just for a quick appearance.
And if Rick comes back, then Michonne needs to join him as well, because her story is intrinsic to Rick’s at this point, not to mention the show as a whole.
Fortunately, showrunner Angela Kang felt the same way (via EW):
“‘Hey, I genuinely feel in my heart of hearts that the show will not feel completely complete unless we bring Rick and Michonne return,’ I remarked to the network and the producers in my first pitch for the series’ finale. I’m aware that there are cosmic ramifications over which I have no complete control. But I’m going to say right now that this is the best version.”
So what did this “ideal version” end up looking like? Did Rick and Michonne show up guns blazing and katanas swinging? Or did the cutest apocalyptic love story ever told return in just a brief post-credits scene? Here’s how The Walking Dead brought back your faves and accidentally overshadowed everything else that happened before.
How The Walking Dead reintroduced Rick Grimes and Michonne
The Walking Dead’s final episode was a lot, and not just because of its extended runtime. If you’re looking for more info on how the show ended, we’ve got you covered right here. But what happened after Daryl drove off into the sunset (without Dog in tow, we might add)?
Just as we hoped, Rick and Michonne showed up in dramatic lighting right at the very end. But not together, unfortunately. It seems that Danai Gurira’s character is still looking for her other half, just like she was when Michonne left the show in season ten, episode 13.
Except now, she’s closer to Rick than ever. At first, you’d be forgiven for thinking that they’re sitting around the same campfire together, speaking directly to each other. But it turns out that Rick and Michonne aren’t in the same location at all. Instead, they’re connected through words written in a journal that they both have access to.
“I think of the dead all the time, and about the living,” writes Rick as old friends flash across the screen. “Who I lost. I think about them all every day. Their faces. What I learned from them. How they made me who I am. So much more than all of this made me who I am.”
But who is Rick today? The last we saw of him, Jadis had whisked Grimes away in a CRM helicopter. While we’ve been drip fed some clues on what’s happened to him since, this is the first time we’ve actually seen Rick appear on screen since, and he’s looking a little worse for wear.
Following the campfire scene, a grubby, shoeless Rick is seen throwing his boots, phone, and that journal into a boat. It turns out that a CRM helicopter has found him, so Rick hides his gear away hoping that Michonne will one day come across it. And she does, clearly, because we then see her with that exact same bag, reading through the journal he wrote in earlier.
An unknown amount of time has passed for Michonne, but she’s clearly on the right track, which means it shouldn’t be too long until they’re reunited in the flesh (just in time for 2023’s Rick and Michonne limited series, which will be set within this same Philadelphia skyline seen right here, if online sleuths are indeed correct).
Rick, on the other hand, has to raise his fashion game when they finally rejoin, because his tattered CRM jacket won’t make it compared to Michone’s amazing samurai-like attire. But, sadly for them, Rick’s links to the CRM aren’t going away anytime soon.
According to chief content officer Scott M Gimple, “there is a narrative behind [Michonne’s costume] that will be told,” but not yet. “Rick is in a totally different situation, and it’s not just geographical. Obviously, there’s a lot going on, and the armor she’s wearing is part of a larger story.”
That “big story” Gimple speaks of probably has something to do with Michonne galloping into the biggest herd of zombies this show has ever seen. Meanwhile, in another time and place, Rick is approached by a CRM helicopter that demands he surrender, before adding, “C’mon Rick. It’s like she told you. There’s no escape for the living.”
Rick’s response? A smile. And not just any smile. We’re talking a big old grin, like he’s won the lottery or just found out his shabby hobo look is in this season. Now, that’s not exactly in character for Mr Grimes, and it’s certainly not how we expected to say goodbye to him at the end of this show.
So why would Rick smile at the idea of being recaptured by the CRM again? “Rick still has some fight left in him,” Gimple told EW. “Rick is not yet broken, Rick is defiant. And Michonne is defiant. These people draw strength from this continuum of love that they have created out of nothing, or even out of tragedy and loss.”
“He is totally screwed there — and I’m speaking like Ezekiel here — and yet he smiles, because he still has some fight in him, and he is not yet laying his head down.”
“And what gives him that is the same thing that gives Michonne the strength to go into that walker herd,” adds Gimple. “That gives Judith the strength to look at that future and say, ‘We’re the ones who live.’ It’s the strength that’s going to get her through. So that smile is indicative of the strength that is drawn through 11 seasons of The Walking Dead.“
This through-line is key to the emotional punch of the ending as all your fave Walking Dead characters, past and present, suddenly appear, repeating the same phrase over and over: “We’re the ones who live.”
Longtime fans might recall that these words were first spoken by Rick himself in season five when he was trying to rally Alexandria into action: “We know what needs to be done and we do it. We’re the ones who live.”
Since then, the phrase has become a meaningful mantra for Rick and Michonne. Back in season seven’s midseason finale, Michonne repeated those words back to Rick while they were stuck in prison, and then again one episode later when they survived a zombie encounter.
“I never took it as just applying to the living people,” says Gimple, “because that seemed a little much to be like, ‘Hey, we’re the ones that live, too bad about all those people we love.’ No, to me, it felt like there’s a continuum of a relationship and love that cannot be extinguished. And that is what is forged in this hell that we’ve lived through together. The triumphant thing is that we forever lived through each other and beyond.”
It’s the perfect summation of everything that’s come before, and it’s made all the more perfect by how everyone’s voices are united in this moment, binding all the characters in Rick’s story together as one.
It’s not just current cast members who get involved either. Lennie James, who appeared in the pilot alongside Andrew Lincoln, gets in on the act too, along with other former castmates who returned to say this one line. including Laurie Holden (Andrea), Chandler Riggs (Carl), Michael Cudlitz (Abraham), Sonequa Martin-Green (Sasha) and Steven Yeun (Glenn).
There was a plan at one point to bring these ex cast members in to shoot a new scene too, but logistics got in the way of realising that dream. “The speed we were moving at, it didn’t seem we could do it visually in a way that seemed awesome,” says Gimple.
Fortunately, the scenario functions quite well without it. In fact, hearing these voices from the past as they were, rather than seeing them as they are today, may be more poignant. And the play concludes on a beautiful, cyclical note with Judith’s final statement, an echo of her parent’s catchphrase.
Everyone on The Walking Dead is linked by Rick’s journey, but they’re not simply supporting characters. They’re all family, even if they didn’t know Rick personally, and that relationship will now be strengthened by Judith, whose desire to aid and protect others will remain at the core of this tale long after Rick and Michonne’s journey concludes.