Rick Grimes: Antihero or the Hero We Deserve?
For the past few years, the advent of the antihero–a flawed protagonist of loose morals and villainous traits–has challenged our perceptions of heroism and what it means to be good. The modern day antihero is a reflection of the increasing complexity of modern day life. The moral ambiguity of the antihero is relatable to our own, challenged every day as we grapple with life and doing the right thing.
However, the right thing is scantily simple and discernible. More often than not, it does not exist. Or rather, it exists in direct relation to the circumstances in which problems arise and choices are needed. Take the example of The Walking Dead’s Rick Grimes. When the series begins, Rick is an ex-cop, awaking from a coma into a world of chaos. The larger population has become a flesh-eating horde of feral undead beasts, making his family and friends the main course on the menu.
Oddly enough, as the story evolves, we realize that the zombies or “walkers,” as the survivors call them, are more a narrative inconvenience than the enemy. An obstacle that complicates our hero’s path. The real enemy instead, and brace your panties, are humans themselves.
To be fair, that’s really no big reveal, but it can explain the idea of how “the right thing” or “heroic actions” derive and are an answer to circumstance, rather than a dogmatic set of ideals. The Walking Dead’s world is a brutal one. The plight of zombies has decimated the human population. In turn, humanity’s fight for survival has brought out the worst in them. It is a world of dog eat dog, where you are measured for what you have, rather than who you are.
Convention Vs. Necessity
So we have the conundrum of our protagonist. Rick begins the show as a classic hero. Always making the morally right choices. Trying to save everyone that he can, stranger or friend. Believing the best of humanity and driven with a general sense of hope to overcome the nightmarish reality he lives in.
However, Rick slowly begins to realize it’s not that simple. His mistakes and impractical heroism end up costing lives and creating problems. He trusts strangers and is betrayed. He refuses to kill the living, friend or foe. His optimistic outlook on humans is proven wrong again and again. Until he is forced to change.
His classic brand of heroism does not work in this world.The status quo has changed and conventional heroics no longer apply. Rick becomes a ruthless killer. He embraces a life of violence, at one point killing a man the minute he realizes he “may” be dangerous. Transitioning, you might say, from hero to antihero.
Hero Vs. Antihero
However, antihero is a term we have fit into the molds of characters that exist in our contemporary world and relatively functional society. Rick, in his dystopian reality, does not fall into this category. He is neither a hero nor antihero. He is what his world requires of him. So that he is a villain, a killer, a hero, a father and even lunatic all at once.
At one point, Rick bites into a man’s neck and rips out his jugular with his bare teeth. He then proceeds to shoot down the other men and then senselessly beats and stabs the man trying to rape his son–sadistic? Perhaps.
At another moment, Rick encounters a man being eaten by a horde of walkers. Rick insists they hide in the bushes instead of helping, despite his sons protests. Rick explains the man had no saving and trying to help him would likely get them all killed. This is the man he becomes. While one might argue this effectively denies him the rank of hero or even antihero, I’d like to propose an alternative.
Rick is a broken man, and the hero we deserve. We do what we need to survive. Rick Grimes and his band of survivors do just that, but they do so together.
The pathos of their lives is governed by an inherent need to survive. Thus, “the walkers,” the root of their world’s problem, are just the element that fuels the greater problem of their world as a whole: the rest of humanity itself.
Human beings are flawed and selfish. We live for the individual rather than the whole. The world of The Walking Dead not only shows us this but also begs the question: what is it really, that makes us human? What defines morality and what distinguishes good from evil? There is a thin line that draws the distinction between the two.
Morality Vs. Reality
At one point, Rick Grimes makes a decision to attack a rival group of survivors on another camp. These other survivors are dangerous men and the group deems them killers who deserve, or rather, need to be dealt with. As Rick explains: “either we come for them, or they come for us.” So he and his group murder them in their sleep during a surprise attack. We see the survivors from Rick’s group struggle with the decision. Ultimately they come out on top, for a time anyway. We cheer for them because they are the good guys, no? But we are also cheering on a group of murderers, aren’t we?
Before we all sit here and consider that maybe we are all just sick people, we have to ask ourselves: don’t we do it to ourselves? We set the standards of our world and are merely reacting to it. Reacting to the ‘increasing complexity of life.’
The prospect of morality and heroism is a malleable idea, one that adapts itself to our circumstance and the solutions at hand. Our perception of a hero then, should be understood and directly attuned to our perception of reality. This reality in itself is fragile and evolving, breaking and rebuilding. We hurt and make mistakes because we do not always know who we are from one moment to the next. For the world of The Walking Dead, Rick is a necessary hero. Our hero, the hero’s we have begun to create, those broken, flawed men and women of violence are not antiheros. They are the heroes we deserve.