For the most part, the second half of The Walking Dead's eighth season has been the AMC horror drama's best stretch since at least the first half of Season 6. But not everything has been perfect, with the most glaring flaw being how the show has handled the squishy morals of its de facto protagonist Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln). All signs point to Sunday's finale giving Rick a redemption that he has not quite earned after some of the truly abhorrent things he's done this season. Rick is not an unredeemable character, but this arc will only work if the finale is the start of Rick's redemption, not the end.
Rick vowed to kill Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) way back in the Season 7 premiere after the head Savior bashed Glenn's (Steven Yeun) and Abraham's (Michael Cudlitz) brains out. That conviction has not wavered, even as Rick has flip-flopped on the indiscriminate murder of non-Negan Saviors. He started the season being disturbed by Daryl's (Norman Reedus) nihilistic executions of Morales (Juan Gabriel Pareja) and another Savior redshirt. Rick had promised to spare the man's life in exchange for information, and then after he delivered it Daryl killed him anyway. That led to Rick and Daryl eventually coming to blows over their different ideologies about how to handle the Saviors. In the first half of the season, Rick was at his most pragmatically reasonable.
That changed after Carl (Chandler Riggs) died. Even though the Saviors had nothing to do with Carl's accidental death, and Carl's dying wish was for Rick to make peace with Negan, Rick doubled down on his commitment to killing Negan, and now his wrath extends to all Saviors. In "Still Gotta Mean Something," the season's fourteenth episode and the most recent one to heavily feature him, Rick gave some Saviors holding him and Morgan (Lennie James) prisoner his word that he'd allow them to come live peacefully at the Hilltop if they let them go. The Saviors untied them and fought alongside them as they all took out a walker swarm, but then Rick and Morgan betrayed the Saviors and slaughtered them in cold blood. Rick even shot one in the head as the dying man channeled Carl's assertion that it didn't have to be like this.
We've seen Rick do horrible things before (don't forget that this whole business with the Saviors started because Rick volunteered to murder the whole crew of a Savior outpost while they slept), but this was the worst. io9's Rob Bricken called the episode a "thorough, uncompromising look at how low Rick will stoop so he can kill everyone he feels is an enemy, regardless of circumstance," an analysis Bricken correctly called an "objective fact," not a "value judgement." Bricken identified that the problem with this is the show's insistence that Rick Grimes is still someone viewers are supposed to root for. The Walking Dead is not the story of a man's descent into wickedness like Breaking Bad, Bricken writes; it's the story of a fundamentally decent man who has to do some unsavory things to protect the people he loves, and those people still love him back. But the show has pushed Rick so far past the point of reasonable behavior that it's impossible for viewers to think of him as a "good guy" at all.
Bricken arrives at the conclusion that Rick is "an albatross" and the show should kill him off. I'm not that down on the character, nor do I think killing Rick is even a remote possibility anytime soon. Bricken mostly dismisses the idea that the show will redeem Rick, but I think that's obviously what's going to happen. The "my mercy prevailed over my wrath" flash-forward indicates that Rick is going to spare Negan's life at the last minute after finally admitting to himself that Carl was right. Rick spares Negan in the comics, and the storytelling of Rick resisting Carl's request so forcefully and then finally reading Carl's plea for peace telegraphs that he will spare him on the show, too. Theoretically, I have no problem with a Rick redemption narrative. But I agree with Bracken that "The Walking Dead isn't deft enough anymore to examine its characters beyond an episode or so every half-season." I worry that the show is going to say, "OK, Rick is redeemed now" in the Season 8 finale and then move on with Rick being a good guy again. He killed those Saviors in cold blood too recently for us to buy that.
The better way forward is to have Rick sparing Negan be the first step toward redemption, not the single act that absolves him. He'll have to let the surviving Saviors join his community without conditions and forgive them when they step out of line. He'll have to reckon with why he couldn't do what Carl wanted in the first place, even though his last words to the dying boy were "I'll make it real." Rick regaining his humanity should be a thread throughout Season 9, not the place where it starts.
I'm not confident this is what's going to happen, since the show would have to tie itself in a little bit of a knot to get there. As Bracken points out, the show knows that Rick is immoral and needs to be redeemed, but the other characters don't. Michonne (Danai Gurira) still loves him, and people still look to him as a leader. He doesn't have anyone to win back over. Rick's emotional stakes are pretty low, and the show would kind of be creating them out of thin air. It's actually going to be easier to buy Negan's redemption, since the writers have done a better job of seeding Negan's humanity. But if the writers decide to externalize Rick's internal struggle in Season 9, Andy Lincoln is a good enough actor to sell it.
The Walking Dead's Season 8 finale airs Sunday, April 15 at 9/8c.