Rick Grimes has, so far, survived five years of the zombie apocalypse without totally losing his mind (except for one time when he started seeing ghosts, but who’s counting). That’s five years of cannibals, eyepatch-clad dictators, corrupt cops, a best friend who tried to murder him, a self-sabotaging wife—and yet, Rick has seemingly never faced more insurmountable odds than during Sunday’s Season 6 premiere of The Walking Dead, “First Time Again,” when he came face-to-face with a massive quarry crawling with tens of thousands of undead flesh-eaters on the verge of busting loose and ravaging the town of Alexandria.
Containing the masses would have been challenge enough for Rick (Andrew Lincoln) but, on top of that, he also had to deal with the constant, fatal screw-ups of his greenest allies. Between half-treacherous Carter’s (short-lived newcomer Ethan Embry) unfortunate zombie run-in and whichever loon back home decided to start blaring a horn in the middle of Rick’s plan to divert the walkers away from town, Alexandria is now hopelessly doomed—and there’s not a thing Rick can do about it.
That’s not for lack of trying, of course. After the events of Season 5—when the group came upon the sanctuary town and Rick met and fell in sorta-love with Jessie, then shot her drunkard of a husband in the face in a heated blast of revenge, jealousy, and self-righteous heroism—Rick now functions like a well-oiled survival machine. He is decisive, efficient, and an innovative planner, but being responsible for an entire town’s survival is tipping Rick back to the naughty end of the spectrum between Farmer Rick and Ricktatorship—that is, he is ruthless about the realistic value of a life like Carter’s. If that dude won’t give up part of his cushy daily routine to enhance his town’s chances of survival, what good is keeping him alive?
In a rare admission of his darkest impulses, Rick tells Morgan—another consummate survivor, but one who values human life so much that he even shows mercy to his enemies, like the Wolves—what he should have done after finding Carter plotting against him: “I wanted to kill him so it would be easier,” Rick says. “So I wouldn’t have to worry about how he could screw up or what stupid thing he’d do next. Because that’s just who he is… just somebody who shouldn’t be alive now.”
The Walking Dead’s world doesn’t have room for spoiled crybabies. Rick acknowledges this fully: “I realized I didn’t have to do it. He [Carter] doesn’t get it. Somebody like that, they’re gonna die no matter what.” Minutes later, after a walker takes a meaty chunk out of Carter’s screaming (and screaming and screaming) face, Rick plunges a knife into the back of his head to shut him up. One less screw-up to worry about.
Rick’s cold decision was, of course, necessary—yet what he revealed about how little he valued Carter’s life to begin with felt disturbing. Robert Kirkman, writer of The Walking Dead comics and co-creator of AMC’s monster show, says this shift in Rick is “one of the more interesting things about the series.”
“Because we’ve lived with Rick Grimes and we’ve seen him experience all these horrible things over these multiple seasons, you can say, ‘Oh, [Rick was] right. Carter did mess up,’” Kirkman says. “He was correct in saying that but you have to also recognize that that’s an absolutely horrifying statement for a human being to make about another human being.”
“Because the world of The Walking Dead is so crazy and because the things they have to do to stay alive are so intense, there is kind of a buy-in—we do recognize that there’s an unequal value to lives,” he continues. “It’s such a weird situation to find yourself in where someone like Rick Grimes, who is very capable, has saved many people, and is clearly a good guy, says, ‘I provide a value. I need to survive. The other person? Not so much.’ And the audience can actually identify with that. It’s pretty fascinating.”
The audience, as Kirkman says, can see in hindsight that Carter was always more trouble than he was worth. While the would-be Brutus tried making up for his betrayal (he even admitted to Rick that the diversion plan was working), Carter was simply never meant to survive. How could he be, after a post-apocalypse life lived in relatively untouched first-world luxury…? Wait.
Are we the Carters here?
Condemning Carter’s lack of survival skills from our own cushy spots on the couch, in our own first-world cozy homes, is the ultimate case of the pot calling the kettle black. We might look down on him for being too slow to catch up with the brutal reality of his world, but would most of us really fare much better?
Kirkman agrees. Coming down too hard on Carter, he says, is “kind of like acting outside of your own best interests. Like, ‘Yeah, Carter, he’s terrible! The poor guy, he’s awful!’ No, he’s exactly like me. I’d say that about myself.”
That’s part of the beauty of zombie tales: When we imagine ourselves in them, the stories can act as “a shared emotional preparation—a collective therapy—for facing bad things to come,” as military historian Michael Vlahos once wrote. As fun as it is to imagine that we’re preparing ourselves for some inevitable, apocalyptic doom, though, the truth is we’re probably all Carters—and that’s OK. After all, a zombie apocalypse won’t ever really happen. Right?