Rick’s last episode showcases his legacy as a leader through four visions. Three of these reconnect with his past, but their overall message blends with the themes of this season of The Walking Dead. The visions highlight four main qualities of his leadership: violence, reconciliation, sacrifice, and resilience.
Shane’s scene recalls how Rick resorted to most brutal violence when ‘needed’. Killing Shane was a meaningful moment for Rick’s transformation in this direction, and Shane takes credit for it. This being an ‘asshole’ is not depicted as something negative here, but as a positive and ‘sexy’ quality of a strong leader. Being extremely brutal against ‘pieces of shit’ and ‘assholes’ is depicted as something that makes him extraordinary. Despite the peacebuilding turn this season, this sequence affirms that this side of Rick is still there.
In contrast, Hershel’s vision focuses on Rick’s peacebuilding efforts. The first four episodes of the season have been showing us how hard Rick has been working on building something bigger than him. This storyline probably ends here. The point of it is was to show that Rick is good and is goodness will have a legacy after he goes. Hershel’s appearance is significant not only because he had a positive influence on Rick, but also because of his tie with Maggie. We know by now that Maggie is coming around, so the peace vs justice dichotomy is settled, and Rick’s peace is not compromised.
Sasha then appears and tells us that the legacy of goodness, courage and love will continue. The theme of legacy is subtly linked to that of sacrifice: Sasha’s sacrifice and Rick’s own are not meaningless and they are not the end. Rick’s intense pain is very visible throughout the episode. Rick’s exit could not but be a selfless sacrifice, the ultimate leadership test, similarly to Madison in Fear. Lastly, and in relation to this, Michonne describes Rick as someone who keeps fighting and never gives up. Thus, to summarize it all: Rick is a leader who fights through all possible means for the love of his family. The perfect American hero!
The theme of family has been common to all the visions. What family is Rick looking for? While initially he seemed to be looking for Lori and Carl – as his old self was at the beginning of the show – we get the message that his family now is his community, the community that he has been trying to bring together.
The theme of transitional justice, too, comes to an end in Negan’s cell. Maggie and Michonne’s dialogue is once again emotional because it brings back Glenn’s loss. It is so personal that, here, it does sound more much more like revenge – the difference can be rather subtle. Her rage was anticipated by the scene where she overkills a walker. But then she states to Negan that it is not revenge: it is justice, which reconnects to the justice storyline that started with the hanging of Gregory. Negan himself seems to agree with the death sentence when he begs ‘he should be you’. So it is affirmed that death penalty would be a just punishment, except that Maggie decides that reclusion settles it.
Beyond the issue of justice, Negan begging to die shows him as a human being. When he was first introduced, we saw him as a scary, brutal villain who joked while killing. We still got a taste of this Negan, when he taunted Maggie about how he smashed Glenn’s brain. Then slowly, in seasons seven and eight, we have gradually seen his beliefs emerging and, more and more, his emotions. Emotions make a character human. The memory of his wife is particularly meaningful in this direction. And now we see him so broken that we feel for him… which probably indicates that his status is shifting from complex villain to no longer a villain.
Rick’s scene on the bridge has all the ingredients to be a powerful and memorable one. Action is mixed with love, courage and sacrifice. Rick just said goodbye to Michonne and all his friends. Well, it was vision, but it does not matter. He kisses Michonne one last time and he knows that he has found his family. And then they really are all there, bravely trying to rescue him. Walkers are falling, so that action is mixed with emotion. But Rick is a hero and has to be the one who saves all through his lone action. And everyone is there to witness the sacrifice. We see the blow, but it is the reactions of Michonne and Daryl that move us the most.
Jutith. Judith Grimes
The brief introduction of grown up Judith in the last scene is likely to induce some excitement. This sequence has a specific structure that I term ‘sexy violence sequence’, which is widely used in movies and shows and makes violence look exciting and attractive. It has three main elements. First, there is a tense situation of danger. Here, we see new people in a critical situation, which they cannot solve themselves despite being skilled fighters. Second, we have the display of a surprising move or weapon that generates surprise, in this case, the bullets from nowhere clearing a path for the group. Third, there is an amazed audience and dialogue. The rescued group look in disbelief at their savior, a young girl all by herself with a gun and a sword. Her name? ‘Judith. Judith Grimes’… and this is enough to love her.
The sequence is particularly effective as it comes at an emotional moment after Rick is gone. Also, it is the first time we see grown up Judith, and we are introduced to her as a heroine, a warrior child. She inherits Rick’s guns, Michonne’s sword, and Carl’s hat. And of course, all their skills.