The horizon fractures the sky and land. And from it a man walks forward. His gait, his lean, raw-boned frame immortalised in innumerable battles. His face scarred and remade hard through myriad acts of anguish. He has lived and died a hundred times in the last six years, and each time he has returned to us transformed as a more perfect leader. He is the Messiah of Dystopia and Moses of the Wasteland, leading the last remaining tribe through the parted waves of insanity in a world in which order, compassion and frailty are anathema. He walks towards us, and then miraculously breaks into an infective grin, saying, without a hint of southern twang: “Welcome to the Cotswolds.” And you realise it’s not Rick Grimes, the protagonist of the world’s most-watched television programme, The Walking Dead, but the affable London-born, Bath-raised, Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts-trained actor who plays him, Andrew Lincoln. (For those unfamiliar with rural southern- England geography, the Cotswolds do not look like the setting of the zombie apocalypse. They look like the Shire in The Hobbit.) Even 30 minutes later it’s something of a mind-fuck, because despite being kitted out in largely Grimes-like Western shirt and jeans (minus the Colt Python and machete), what’s troubling the slayer of zombies and the saviour of humanity is the question of how best to mix milk and tea. “I’ve always been taught it’s the milk first,” Lincoln says, beatifically and eruditely, before adding, with typical diplomacy: “Although I tend to defer to the regional practice depending on where I am.”
Let’s back up. Who the hell is Rick Grimes? Well, if you’ve been living in a cave, practising some arcane form of mystical asceticism, lifting rocks with your dick, eating gnats and chanting to the moon, we should recap. Father, husband, killer, leader, friend, brother, monster, messiah: Rick Grimes is all of these things and he is more than these things. If you were to combine the rationalist humanist philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the visceral transcendence of the post-death of God, Übermensch from Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, then parachuted him into the zombie apocalypse armed only with his skinned bloody knuckles, his Colt .357 Magnum, his red-handled machete, the unceasing desire to protect his family, and a resilience found not in one in one million but one in one million-million men, you would have Rick Grimes. Because Rick Grimes was not so much born from the fecund imagination of comic-book genius Robert Kirkman and brought to television reality by the visionary director Frank Darabont. Rather, he was manifested into being by the collective desire of global audiences for a hero that railed against the prevailing trend for anti-heroism and reconnected us with an ancient mythological archetype.
Accordingly, Grimes represents something more than the single most compelling screen hero to emerge in a decade. He represents a return of the Joseph Campbell Hero with a Thousand Faces-type saviour of the universe. Cue a Queen soundtrack and think Prometheus, Buddha, Jesus of Nazareth, Luke Skywalker. And it couldn’t have come at a better time. Because we’ve been in the wilderness, deprived. Shivering loose-jacketed against the cold and starving for the return of the archetypal hero. Says Lincoln: “Ever since The Sopranos, there’s been this legacy for subversive characters.” And gazing at the litany of contemporary television’s most popular protagonists — everyone from the matricidal Antigone with an XY chromosome Jax Teller in Sons of Anarchy to the murderous, corrupt, pathological Vic Mackey in The Shield to the philandering and ennui-stricken Don Draper in Mad Men — it is clear there has been a two-decades-long prevailing belief in television that moral ambiguity creates greater character complexity.
Lincoln doesn’t buy that. He says: “I don’t think that’s what we want and that’s not who Rick is. He’s not morally ambiguous. I think he’s just a victim of environment and circumstances. And that’s the point of the show. It’s that anybody can be anything or do anything under certain circumstances and stresses. That’s to me infinitely more interesting than the anti-hero that has been the populist paradigm of late.”
You see, Rick Grimes is a mirror, a tripartite Freudian reflection of us as our feral instinctive id vies with our rational ego — even as we struggle to impart that portion of our super-ego related to conscience to our sons and daughters amid a landscape of unspeakable horror and regression towards the most primal, survivalist instincts. And maybe Rick Grimes came when he was most needed. As the man who has inhabited him on the game- changing series for six years says: “I think we are in a time when people are more connected than they’ve ever been and at the same time more isolated. And I think it’s the family aspect of the show that hooks them. They feel part of this larger collective thing.”
Supporting Lincoln’s claim is the irrefutable fact that the show is a bonafide, jugger-mother fuckin-naut of a hit, sending Nielsen ratings through the roof, reaching a larger audience than any other programme in existence and collecting palmarès, including the Golden Globe Award for Best Television Series — Drama. When asked what the core theme of The Walking Dead is, what it is that makes the show so relatable to so many, Lincoln says: “It’s primal. It’s essential. It’s about pulling apart all the mores and social graces and you’re just left with who you are. And the question is in that life or death situation: who are you? It forces you to confront yourself.”
So what is the one defining trait, the blip in his genetic make- up, that makes Rick uniquely equipped to become the leader of humankind? “I think it’s Rick’s tenacity,” Lincoln says. “His ability to get up after a beating — I mean, a real pummelling. That he pulls himself off the canvas and keeps going is incredibly powerful.”The Walking Dead is decidedly ‘third millennium’, in that it isn’t afraid to show a leader who is imperfect and fallible. Says Lincoln: “What I like about Rick is that we are trying to mould the perfect leader. But that leader is imperfect because he’s human. He fails. And he rebuilds himself and attempts another way, and then he fails again. What empowers him is that extraordinary resilience, and that’s what is so compelling about him.”
“What I like about Rick is that we are trying to mould the perfect leader. But that leader is imperfect because he’s human."