In his book I Wear the Black Hat Chuck Klosterman defines a villain as someone who “knows the most, but cares the least”. Makes sense. The hero often knows only a fraction of what the villain does and one already assumes the hero cares the most while the villain cares little if at all. As a story progresses the hero may learn more, but usually that only pushes him or her to care all the more. This definition can also become rather dynamic if, by the end, it is the hero that knows the most, but cares the least. Has hero become villain? For example: Could Walking Dead’s Rick Grimes be considered a villain at the end of Season 5?? …Perhaps…
In the beginning there is no argument that Sheriff’s Deputy Rick Grimes is a hero. The hero. An honorable man who falls into a coma after being shot while performing his honorable job. A man thrown into the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse without any idea of what’s going on or what to do about it when he wakes up. He sees gore and chaos everywhere without understanding why and, in an attempt to grasp what’s happening, gets a little too close to a hospital door that warns “DON’T OPEN DEAD INSIDE” before Walker fingers start to reach out for him. Rick’s knowledge really doesn’t increase as he manages to get out of the hospital and in the direction of his home. He’s so naive he waves to a Walker slouching towards him thinking it a regular person. Ultimately fellow survivor Morgan has to help him orient himself to Walkers and what’s happened to the world as a result of their appearance. Basically, Rick Grimes knows the least.
Because this is all horrifically new to him, Rick Grimes also cares the most. He cares about all the signs of violence, about each of the innumerable dead covering the streets, about what people have done in their panic, and about what might have happened to his town and those in it. He cares that those who witnessed the dissolution of society seem to not care; that they are so willing to turn their backs on and even attack others. And of course he cares about what might’ve happened to his loved ones…his wife (Lori), son (Carl), and friends.
Even after he gets situated in this new world – reuniting with his family and settling into the eclectic group that also includes his former partner and friend, Shane – Rick remains somewhat behind compared to the rest. He’s playing catchup both on information and processing what he learns while everyone else has moved on and are looking ahead.
This is never clearer when he is compared to Shane. Shane who saw society break down, people turn on each other, kill each other without consideration, right in front of him. Shane who no doubt witnessed so much chaos in those weeks/months Rick was out that by the time they see each other again he’s numbed to it. He’s already had to survive in this new Walker-ridden world long enough he’s used it. He’s moved on to pure, animalistic, survival instincts. So much so when (presumed-dead) Rick’s reappearance threatens Shane’s set-up as leader of the group and new patriarch of the Grimes family he has little trouble making the decision that his old friend and partner has to go.
Truth is, when it comes to who lives and dies Shane never seems to have much trouble deciding. He will always pick himself first. He is more than willing to leave behind or outright kill others. Should others die so that he can live, so that he can get what’s needed, is fine with him. He’s not about to risk his life and the lives of those he cares for (Lori and Carl). Shane wants to burn Hershel’s barn full of Walkers, he wants to kill a youth leftover from a gunfight, and he doesn’t see the need for debate. A Wallker-filled barn and kid who can lead less-reputable/more-dangerous men to the group are threats and threats have to be eliminated. No question. No debate. Just do it and move on.
For that same period of time, virtually the whole first two seasons, Rick has the opposite of this mindset. Rick is still a sheriff’s deputy at heart. He wants to save everyone he can. He’ll leave no man, woman, or child behind. He gives the vast majority of people the benefit of the doubt, even when it might risk his group’s safety. Rick might dislike Hershel’s rules, might disagree with his belief that Walkers are merely sick people, but Rick respects the man’s wishes while at his farm. When disagreements occur he is open to discussion and debate; he believes the group should run as a democracy and actions should not be taken until there’s at least a majority consensus. Even threats should, if possible, be peacefully removed as opposed to violently eliminated.
As time passes a LOT of shit happens actually…a lot of crazy shit. There are countless losses in the continuously growing and shrinking group: Ed (Carol’s husband), Amy (Andrea’s sister), Jim (bitten and left on side of the road), Jacqui (blew up with CDC building), Sophia (Carol’s daughter), Dale, Shane, T-Dog (an original member), Lori, Merle, Andrea, Karen (Carol killed and set on fire), Hershel, Mika and Lizzie (girls Carol cared for), Bob (“tainted meat!!”), Beth, Tyreese, and Noah…and I’m not including those tangentially related to the group, but who still had an affect on them.
The group also comes across a great many different adversaries and all of them make Shane seem like a pretty reasonable fellow. From The Governor and his followers to The Claimers to the cannibals of Terminus to a dysfunctional hospital run by Officer Dawn Lerner…each alone is enough to lose one’s faith in humanity. Each have their own version of madness and dangerousness that reflects the now Walker-filled world. Each one teaches Rick that the concepts of fairness, decency, and altruism are lost. So lost as to be dangerous if one still follows them blindly. His old ways of doing things are over and he needs to adapt or die. The laws he built his whole life on are gone, now it’s the laws of nature that rule and they are brutal.
Given all this it’s little surprise that Rick Grimes grows increasingly darker over the seasons. Less likely to trust even after some standard vetting – “How many Walkers have you killed? How many people have you killed? Why?”. Less likely to respect everyone’s opinion both outside and within his group – the phrase Ricktatorship popping up with increasing frequency amongst fans as seasons progress. What Rick does grow more of is quick and brutal in acting against a threat. Potentially dangerous individuals are, at best, given the chance to leave the group’s presence with agreements not to approach again, but if that offer is refused or otherwise disregarded Rick and crew are sure to completely eliminate them. Rick also grows more jaded. The horrors that shocked him before barely register and leaving no one behind is an antiquated notion.
(This last fact is best shown when Rick, Carl, and Michonne drive past a man with a backpack screaming for help without even considering picking him up and when they pass him again, dead and half-eaten by Walkers, they have no reaction. Picking up a stranger is high risk and a half-eaten guy is the same as trash on the side of the road…so common it goes unnoticed.)
Yet it isn’t until he and his group meet Aaron and the other Alexandrians that Rick Grimes starts to truly slip into Klosterman’s definition of a villain.
After over a year out in the Walker-entrenched world Rick knows a great deal more than when he woke up in his hospital bed. He knows how Walkers “live”, how they can be killed, and how people become them. He’s learned the best and safest places to get supplies, how to avoid Walkers when killing them would be the greater risk, and the type of person that needs to be eliminated before they become too great a threat. He knows that staying alive means being willing to kill, that people will take advantage of another’s weakness, and that while you shouldn’t link up with just anyone out there you shouldn’t be all on your own either. Rick Grimes knows this new world all too well and that’s one of the main reasons the Alexandrians are so interested in having him and his crew join them. It’s for all those reasons (and a spotted kind gesture by Daryl towards the rest of the group) that Aaron first approaches him.
When Aaron initially shows himself to the group he’s knocked out by Rick within the first few minutes. Rick isn’t interested in the latest “stay with us, it’ll be great, so safe!” pitch about a community – the last one tried to eat him. Greeting Aaron this way is rather unfair given he made no threatening actions, but that doesn’t seem to cross Rick’s mind. (Even if it did, he clearly didn’t care.) And while Aaron knows a bit from his recognizance he’s still uncertain what’ll happen when he comes to them with his offer of Alexandria while Rick and the others seem to have at least a basic plan already in place if anyone approaches with such an offer. …In this first meeting of Aaron and the group Rick’s the bad guy, even if understandably.
Rick doesn’t exactly improve his behavior or mindset once in Alexandria either. While the group takes up empty houses and seems to accept the offer of staying they are all still on edge. Untrusting. Again, understandably. What’s interesting though is when Rick is questioned as to what the group will do if the Alexandrians don’t listen to them and things go south he bluntly states: “…then we’ll just take this place”. Sounds more like something Shane would say. As does the speech Rick gives all of Alexandria mid-fight with Pete (a.k.a. Porch Dick). A speech that, ultimately, proclaims he doesn’t give a single fuck what anyone else thinks, feels, or wants…his way is THE ONLY way. Alexandria should, will, be that fan-popular phrase…a Ricktatorship.
Compared to the Alexandrians, Rick is almost the definition of a villain. He knows infinitely more and while they care deeply about democracy, decency, fairness, and are shaken by every death…Rick not so much.
Now it’s easy to balk and say: well OF COURSE he’d fit the Klosterman definition, who wouldn’t after that long out in the Walker world?! To that I respond: Morgan and Daryl. Both men have been through similar – if not the same – experiences as Rick and both seem to still care a great deal more. Morgan believes all life is valuable and therefore refuses to kill any of The Wolves that attack him and even honks a horn to ensure no Walkers are around when he leaves them unconscious in a car. When Morgan comes upon Rick as he kills Pete his face is one of confusion and horror. Meanwhile Daryl came into the group with his brother, Merle, planning to rob them and dash, but he grew to care for them…by Season 5 it is an act of caring from him that signals to Aaron the group would be a good fit for Alexandria. Daryl, unlike Rick, seems to have grown to care more instead of less.
Even beyond the Klosterman definition Rick’s still pretty villainous by the end of Season 5. He’s got no interest in others opinions, feelings, morals, or even rights. He’s violent and volatile. He gets so out-of-control aggressive that his own people knock him out lest he get himself (and possibly the rest of them) kicked out of Alexandria.
That being said I have little doubt that deep down Rick is still a good man. That he does still care and not just about his own family – biological and adopted both – but about humanity as a whole. That, if they let him, he will protect those in Alexandria as fiercely as he does his group. Whether or not this will happen remains to be seen, but we as viewers can hope. …Hope he’s given the chance to show he can change and be the hero once again.