Rick Grimes is Basically Mega Man
It is said, “a hero is only as good as their villain.” Taken at face value, this basically just means that the more challenging an obstacle is to overcome, the more triumphant the hero’s victory. In literature and film, satisfaction of this assertion typically demands that villains be imbued with fully-formed and relatable-if-not-entirely-reasonable motivations.
We don’t all have to agree with Shane’s conclusion that the weak are best used as walker-horde fodder (poor Otis) or that Lori and Carl would be better off if Rick were dead (didn’t work out so well for Shane in the end…), but we do need to understand the validity of his decisions. In this way, the hero is challenged not only by obstacles set by the antagonist but also by a conflicting and convincing philosophy. The more persuasive this opposing philosophy, the greater the challenge to the hero. In the walker-infested post apocalyptic world of The Walking Dead, Shane’s somewhat extreme insistence that – as the group’s defacto leader – Rick is obligated to put the safety and protection of those closest to him above the lives of others (and his own basic human decency) is… actually very persuasive.
A common but fair example of such a villain – one whose counter-philosophy is equal in measure to our “hero” – would be the X-Men’s arch-foe and self-proclaimed “Master of Magnetism”, Erik Lehnsherr (Magneto to his besties). Here’s a character who believes in mutant dominance over their evolutionarily disinclined Homo sapien cousins – an ideology in direct contrast to Xavier’s faith in peaceful coexistence. Leaning on such source material as Civil Rights movement leaders, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X as their bedrock, both Xavier and Magneto (respectively) often duel as frequently with evangelical and cogent rhetoric as brute force.
Despite this, rarely – even over the comics’ 50-plus years of publication – does Xavier ever falter or even amend his own philosophy without quickly returning to a familiar and comfortable status-quo. Magneto is most certainly a sympathetic and compelling villain but he serves primarily as the unstoppable force to Xavier’s immovable object – not always the most psychologically thrilling of scenarios.
I would argue that the aforementioned adage be amended to include the following check, “such that the hero may learn, change and grow from conflict.” If The Walking Dead’s “villains” – specifically Shane and the Governor – succeed in one regard, it’s in their ability to influence Rick’s own philosophy and actions even after their own demise.
For what I consider the perfect exemplification of this concept, let’s switch gears from television to video games (as all lessons are best learned).
Now, if you fancy yourself a “gamer,” then there are certain games that you must have played at some point in your life. Which particular games those are will depend on who you ask, but every self-proclaimed “hardcore gamer” has their shortlist. It’s a conceit of utter snobbery – and every one is a little guilty of it – but tell me you’ve beaten Super Mario Bros and I know you get it. Mega Man, and I know you’ve put some real time in.
Aside from just its relentless, pattern-based punishing difficulty, Mega Man also offered the industry its first taste of player-driven character development. This character growth was achieved through the game’s main conceit – namely, that upon defeating each of the challenging and varied nemeses, Mega Man would attain their special ability and then decide which of the remaining bosses to tackle next; new abilities in hand. Mega Man not only not only overcomes his many foes, he also learns and grows from the experience – the influence of his encounters informing his actions and strategies moving forward (sounds familiar, don’t it).
While literally stealing abilities from dispatched enemies is all well and good for everyone’s favorite 8-bit Blue Bomber, characters on The Walking Dead aren’t quite as cut-and-dry as “hero” or “villain,” and the effects of Rick’s lessons learned are of a subtler kind. Instead of a Rolling Cutter to best Elec Man and his Thunder Beam, Rick Grimes takes what lessons he can from his foes and puts his new perspective to use protecting his family (er… what’s left of it at this point) while trying to hold on to what scraps of humanity he still can.
In just over five seasons now, we’ve seen Rick learn the value of perseverance, the necessity of survival, the dangers of trusting others and the lengths to which he will go to protect those he loves. The influence of the two shadows looming largest over the Grimes family – the Governor and Shane – has seemingly only grown since their demise. In season six, Rick has apparently gone utterly cold – actually ordering his crew to leave any useless Alexandrians behind if they hinder the mission. A far cry from the man who, in season two, wouldn’t abandon an injured stranger – even at the risk of endangering his own family.
Last season, Rick treaded some familiar ground – tripping on his own power, falling for a married woman, and even publicly beating and eventually killing her husband (succeeding where Shane had failed, I suppose). Rick has not only learned from Shane, he’s become Shane.
In the first episode of season six, Rick pulled a trick out of the Governor’s back with his “we have to come for them before they come for us” strategy for walker-threat nullification. How long before he begins to apply this ideology to human threats? And now, with a town of his own in Alexandria, and Deanna seemingly supplanted, is Rick about to show us all just how much he’s learned from the Governor, a la a second Woodbury? And what horrific lessons might Rick learn from his latest enemy – the Wolves?