In just over four seasons, The Walking Dead’s Rick Grimes has evolved from the reluctant leader of a group of zombie apocalypse survivors to a true champion of the new world. His evolution follows the classic pattern of the hero’s journey, a narrative structure that dates back to ancient times.
Although we are only a few episodes into Season 5, we are clearly dealing with a new incarnation of our main character. No longer burdened by his role as leader, he is fully accepting and even embracing its uncertainties. His judgments are not rash or driven by insecurity, fear, and a longing for the past. To be a leader in this world, one must be fair and yet willing to protect those he loves by any means necessary. Rick possesses these traits now.
This achievement was a journey full of trials, mistakes, loss, and self-discovery. Broken down, Rick’s story follows the pattern of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, or hero’s journey. In the book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell explores the similarities among heroic tales from all cultures and time periods. He notes that most of these stories follow a three-cycle structure. The hero first enters a period known as separation, where he leaves his past and enters a new life of adventure. Next, he enters the initiation phase, traveling through the underworld to face a series of trials which transform him from the person he was into the hero he is meant to be. Finally, in the return, he emerges anew, free from the troubles of the past.
All of the aspects of this cycle are metaphors for self-discovery and conquering one’s fears. After all, it is only when we are free from our own inner demons that we can become everything we are meant to be. Odysseus and Heracles are prime examples of this journey, but the monomyth is not relegated to mythic stories of the past: In the absence of a strong American mythological history, it is our pop-cultural narratives that provide us with our heroes.
Whether intentionally or not, Robert Kirkman, creator of The Walking Dead comic book series and executive producer of the TV series, has given us a classic hero who follows the monomyth. Rick Grimes, played by Andrew Lincoln, begins the series reluctant and bitter. His journey is fraught with dead ends and failed salvation. The CDC, Fort Benning, and the solace of the prison all fail to give him the comfort of the past. Much like Odysseus’s journey home, every stop brings Rick more tribulation. At the same time, they move him closer to understanding his worth as a hero and his strength as a leader.
The first two seasons of the show chronicle Rick’s journey through the separation of what his life was and what it is now. Previously, his life was relatively simple. He had a normal marriage. As a police officer, his community respected him. Everything changes when Rick slips into a coma after being shot while pursuing a criminal.
The monomyth always begins with the hero in the normal world, but that world soon shifts to a mystical one. For Rick, who awakens from his coma months after the dead have risen, the world changes overnight. Thrust into a world of seemingly supernatural monsters, his adventure begins. And almost immediately, his fellow survivors flock to him, seeing his potential to be a great hero. They believe in him. Despite what people see in him, Rick has no desire to fulfill their expectations.
He does take up a leadership role, but his motivations are somewhat self-centered. He only wants to protect his immediate universe, namely his wife and son. His actions may save other people, but that’s merely a by-product. This is not unusual for heroes. Heracles goes on his twelve labours, not to better mankind, but to achieve immortality and atone for his own sins.
In Season 1, Rick leads everyone to the CDC. He does not do this to provide hope to his fellow survivors. He wants to return to the world of the past and save his wife and son from a horrible fate. These motivations remain in Season 2. When the group lands at Hershel Greene’s farm, Rick is desperate to stay in this seemingly safe place. He negotiates with a hesitant Hershel who allows everyone to remain on the farm. This is good for the entire group, but all Rick cares about is providing a safe environment for his pregnant wife and young son.
Yet, the group clings to Rick. In a world where the dead feed upon the living, many have been shaken out of their faith. They need something to believe in. Rick is that something. No matter how reluctant and bitter he may be about his place in the group, it is his leadership that gives them hope for a better future.
For the monomyth, Rick’s stay at Hershel’s farm serves a significant purpose. According to Campbell, every hero encounters a wise mystic who helps him embrace his destiny. Hershel Greene is the mystic of The Walking Dead.
Hershel first appears as a healer, saving Rick’s son Carl from a gunshot wound. In a small nod to ancient stories, Hershel is not a doctor, but a veterinarian. Mystics are often depicted as being one with nature and having a strong relationship with animals. From the start, Hershel, who is driven by his deep faith in God, guides Rick to make peace with the new world. In the second episode of Season 2, he says, “Mankind has been fighting plagues from the start. It’s nature correcting itself. Restoring some balance.”
Hershel also believes that a higher power has destined Rick for greatness. He tells him, “You were shot, in a coma, yet you came out of it some how. In all the chaos you found your wife and boy. That tells you nothing?” At this point in the arc, he doubts what Hershel is telling him. He believes people have cast him in a role for which he is not suited. As he says later in the series, “These people look to me for answers. I don’t know why, but they do.”
His self-doubt prompts him to exert more control and project bitterness. His decision to become the group leader at the end of Season 2 is still a selfish move. This is evident in the tantrum he throws in that season’s final episode. He takes charge almost out of spite, shouting at his companions that “this isn’t a democracy anymore.”
This begins what is dubbed by fans as the “Ricktatorship.” Rick is a leader now, but he is not a hero. To be a hero, you must accept your fate and relinquish control to it. According to Campbell, accomplishing this is no easy task. The hero must descend into the darkness of the underworld, face challenges and battle monsters before he can emerge free from all that hinders him.
For most heroes, the second cycle of the monomyth involves a physical journey into the underworld. This descent and all of its trials serve as metaphors for the brutal task of breaking the chains of guilt, fear, and doubt. The Walking Dead’s underworld skips the metaphor, jumping right into Rick’s mental downward spiral.
After he makes the choice to step over the threshold of leadership, he is thrown into the underworld of depression when his wife Lori dies in childbirth. Lori and Rick had a fractured relationship, but to him, she symbolized the hope that one day life would be as it was. As a life of the past dies, a life of the future is born. Rick must shepherd his newborn daughter, Judith, through this world of peril. This is his next step to freedom, but it is not a trial he passes easily. It requires him to let go of Lori and his longing for the past.
In the Season 3 episode “Hounded,” Rick’s demons lure him out of reality with the comforts of the past. He receives phantom phone calls from people who promise him a safe haven. Kirkman does dip into metaphor here, as telephones are a symbol of our connection with one another. With Lori dead, Rick’s connection to the past is severed. It exists only in his memory, so he retreats into the confines of his mind. But even there, he is forced to face his monsters. The sanctuary the phantom callers promise comes with a price. Before they will reveal its location, he must tell them how his wife died.
No matter how much he burrows into his mind, he must face the demon of death. The wise Hershel helps him through the process. He tells Rick, “There isn’t anywhere else. I know you want to get away from this, but we’ve run already.” Hershel is directly referencing the possible new sanctuary. Indirectly, he is pushing Rick to acknowledge that this is the only reality. A reality where his wife is dead, zombies are real, and people need his leadership.
As this begins to set in, the phantom caller morphs into Lori, who whispers to her husband, “What happened, Rick?” After he admits his guilt at her death, Lori reminds him that he needs to live for their children. In the next scene, Rick finally embraces his daughter and the future she symbolizes.
Lori’s death is not the only trial on Rick’s path. For the remainder of Season 3, Rick battles his dark side in the form of the Governor. Prior to the apocalypse, the Governor’s life was similar to Rick’s—simple and normal. Unlike Rick, the Governor shirked the self-discovery of the hero’s journey and latched onto control and power. His twisted and murderous nature are a window to what our hero’s life could be if he doesn’t let go of what has been.
The Governor rules his people with lies and fear. Given Rick’s declaration of dictatorship at the end of Season 2, it is easy to see how he could adopt the same methods. The Governor taunts and threatens Rick into the middle of Season 4, tempting Rick away from the path of free hero and onto that of cruel dictator.
To keep him away from this path, a vision of Lori appears in “Home.” She is clad in a white silk gown. The perfect goddess. To his fellow survivors and to the audience, this delusion indicates another slip on a downward spiral. In actuality, an encounter with a goddess of the underworld is another step in the second cycle of the monomyth. She offers him unconditional love. Lori’s appearance as a glowing, beautiful angel signifies the peace that Rick is beginning to feel. He’s not yet finished with the underworld, but there is a subtle light in his darkness.
In Season 4, he abandons his “Ricktatorship,” assuming the role of farmer. We see that he has not shed his desire to return to a simpler life. Still, he cannot hide from his true calling as a hero; this is a world full of zombies after all. As they once again invade the safety of the prison that the group calls home, Rick is forced to take up the proverbial sword. It’s easy to fall into old habits, even for a hero. This invasion reminds him that he cannot outrun danger.
Once again, it is Hershel who provides the wisdom Rick needs. In the episode “Internment,” he reminds Rick of the dangers of slipping into darkness. “A sad soul can kill quicker than a germ.” He also notes that life is “always a test.” Rick better get used to torturous trials because they are never going away.
When the Governor slaughters Hershel, Rick heeds his beloved advisor’s words. Perhaps to honor Hershel’s wishes, he chooses to take up the hero’s mantle. With the wise man of the group gone, Rick realizes that his role is not only as a leader. He must be a symbol of decisiveness, wisdom, and compassion.
Rick flees the underworld, in this case the prison, and returns to the world as a hero. There is one final lesson to learn before he crosses the threshold from darkness to glory. He is ready for the third cycle of the monomyth.
Throughout his trials, Rick attempted to act as a lone wolf. He must learn that sometimes even heroes need to be rescued. Accepting your own limitations is a crucial part of the hero’s journey.
At the end of the fourth season, a band of criminals attacks the group. As they begin to assault his son Carl, all of the events of the past few years flash across Rick’s mind. You can see him weighing the options. Does he give in to the trauma or does he embrace all of the lessons he has learned?
With nothing left to lose, he lunges at the group’s leader, biting out his throat. This is a gruesome yet glorious scene. In this moment, Rick becomes everything that he is meant to be.
This violent act could have turned Rick into a monster, but his friends rescue him. After the attack, Daryl sits and talks with him, keeping him grounded. The scene is subtle and quiet, but powerful in what it represents. In this conversation, Rick realizes that to survive, he must tether himself to the present—to these people. Moreover, the group is now his family. He trusts and respects them. They are no longer burdens that he must carry.
After all of this, Rick solidifies his place as a hero when he tells Daryl that his actions during the attack were a conscious choice. “That’s me. That’s why I’m here now. That’s why Carl is. I want to keep him safe. That’s all that matters.” No more past. No more hiding. Reality is all that counts. Rick accepts this without bitterness.
As Campbell says, “the hero is a champion of things becoming, not of things become.”
A hero must live in the moment and immediately face the challenges before him. When the group enters Terminus, Rick does not hesitate to fight. There are no negotiations, only the resolve to show their captors exactly who they’re dealing with.
So far in Season 5, we see a hero willing to accept new people into the fold while staying mindful of potential threats. The bitter and guilt-ridden Rick of previous seasons would never have been able to do this.
There is no more Ricktatorship, either. He looks to his friends as much as they look to him. He may have the final word, but their advice carries more weight than it ever did. His need to control every situation no longer haunts him.
The Walking Dead, like the monomyth, is a metaphor for human nature and conviction of the spirit. There is no villain. The villains are the fantastical obstacles that represent real life challenges. And if there was a villain on whom to pin this whole struggle—it would be our inner demons. After four seasons, Rick Grimes has conquered his.