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Rick Grimes' Entire Walking Dead Backstory Explained

Up until the early episodes of the ninth season of AMC's "The Walking Dead," Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) is our POV character that gives viewers a perspective of the zombie apocalypse. The series kicks off with "Days Gone Bye," when Rick awakens from a coma to discover that he's alone in the hospital and has quite literally slept through the end of the world. So, we discover this new, terrifying reality through his eyes. 

As the series expanded to include a massive cast and various storylines and subplots, Rick's journey long remained the glue that held the story together. With inspirations like Gary Cooper's Will Kane in the Western "High Noon," this cop-turned-community-leader's arc will always be a major part of the show's legacy.

Andrew Lincoln's departure from the series was announced in 2018 ahead of the 9th season (per The Hollywood Reporter). While his exit did have some benefits, such as the chance to focus on characters who were often relegated to the sidelines, there is still much to be said for the moral center that his character gave to the series. Even at his worst, Rick is committed to the question of what's right and wrong in a world where the very concept of ethics has been flipped on its head.

He doesn't always make the right decision, and there are a lot of mistakes behind him, but as his story is set to continue in the 2023 miniseries "Rick and Michonne," there's no time like the present to look back at the many moments that made him such an unforgettable character in the world of "The Walking Dead."

Warning: major spoilers below.

Making a life pre-apocalypse

If there ever was a man set up for a simple, salt-of-the-earth life, it was Rick Grimes, and it's not his fault that it all gets pulled out from under him in the first episode of the show. His mother and father loved him, and they each inspired him to lead with his morality even in moments of hardship. Though he isn't always able to honor this goal of righteousness, this early sense of peace is important to his arc. As a kid, he befriends Shane Walsh, and the two are even closer than brothers. Not only do they go to college together, but they ultimately work together as police officers.

When Rick and Lori fell in love, the two made what appears to have been a relatively happy life with their son, Carl. Rick makes a habit of regularly going on long walks with Carl, telling stories and instilling various life lessons on the boy. However, even before the societal collapse occurs, Rick isn't a perfect man, and he refuses to discuss marital issues with Lori. Instead, he opts to close himself off and bury himself in his work. 

This behavior eventually comes back in a very big way. Though Rick clearly loves Lori in the early seasons of the show, there is a level of understanding and openness that he is never able to give her, which leads to arguments between them.

Waking up to a whole new world

During a shoot-out, Rick falls into a coma, so he literally sleeps through the zombie apocalypse. When he wakes up in the hospital, he is horrified to discover that he's alone in a world that's seemingly been abandoned. However, it gets worse once he realizes that there are actually plenty of people around ... they just happen to be undead. 

Rick attempts to navigate the haze of his disjointed memories to piece together what exactly happened since he fell into the coma. He finally meets some living people, who can help him understand and adjust to this new reality: Morgan and his son Duane.

Though Duane is sadly not long for the world, Morgan is one of the most important recurring characters of "The Walking Dead," who also plays a major role in "Fear the Walking Dead." He and Rick form a long-lasting bond, even though it is regularly challenged due to the chaotic circumstances of their lives. 

Still, they are forced to part ways when Rick insists on continuing his search for Lori and Carl. Although he nearly dies while riding into Atlanta, he soon meets other survivors, who get him back to his family. It's an unexpected reunion, as Lori has believed Rick to be dead this whole time, so she's been romantically involved with Shane. Rick's return ends that relationship and instead, he and his family try to survive alone in the wilderness together. But soon, they find a relatively safe haven.

Finding stability with the Greene family

While it's obvious from the start that Rick navigates and adapts to challenging situations well, we first truly see him in his own element when he's on the Greene family farm. The former veterinarian Hershel Greene is his family's patriarch, and wants Rick's group of survivors to leave his family alone. So, Rick sets to work to show Hershel how helpful he and his people can be.

Rick taps into his childhood experiences and is able to charm Hershel. Though the Greene family takes a lot of hits due to their association with Rick's crew, it's clear that they all form positive opinions of him and his group, despite the fact that their presence ultimately makes the farm uninhabitable.

Hershel dies in the fourth season during an altercation with the Governor, but it's clear that his moral code inspires a sense of comraderie in Rick, and they develop an interesting dynamic. After Hershel's demise, his daughter Maggie continues on with the group. 

Although Rick's finding Lori and Carl in the first season helps renew his belief in creating a more stable life for them all, meeting the Greene family also contributes to this. Rick's experiences on Hershel's farm give him a glimpse of the sort of life he might yet be able to build with his family, even within the zombie apocalypse.

Losing Lori and Shane

Well before the situation comes to its head, it's clear that Shane is vying for leadership of the group, and resents Rick's amicable nature that encourages the others to put their faith in him. To make matters worse, Shane's affair with Lori places incredible strain on everyone involved, and only adds to Shane's sense that Rick needs to be removed as leader. 

Meanwhile, Rick sees Shane as the legitimate threat to the safety of the others that he is. Ultimately, Rick's need to survive and to protect the others causes him to trick Shane into lowering his weapon, only to knife him in the chest. This wrecks Rick, but it's only one of a number of major losses he experiences through the series.

The loss of Shane could have led to a reconciliation with Lori but instead, Rick remains distant and unforgiving of her following Shane's death. He focuses his attention on fortifying their new home in an abandoned prison rather than providing support to his wife. Rick doesn't get the chance to repair their relationship, since Lori dies during childbirth. He's destroyed by the loss, as he must confront his callous treatment of her. As a result, these two tragedies place his son Carl squarely at the center of his universe, as he vows to keep his boy safe.

Building a community

After losing Lori and Shane as well as the stability of the Greene family farm, Rick teeters at the edge of his sanity. He loses sight of his sense of morality and starts making harsh, unreasonable decisions for a group that increasingly questions his ability to lead. Andrea's death causes him to reassess what he's doing. He loosens his control over the crew and instead focuses on building a sustainable home until it becomes clear that the Governor is preparing to make a move against their newfound sense of security. 

Sure enough, the attack comes, and the group is scattered to the winds. Yet, Rick has recently gone through the process of reexamining his role as a community leader, as well as a father. So, his mission continues to evolve, as he starts to make room for the possibility of being both.

On the way to the false sanctuary of Terminus, Rick takes animalistic vengeance on a group of men that attempt to harm Carl. It's an eye-opening moment that allows him to make some peace with his dark side and accept that his friends — lost though they may be — actually need him. In Terminus, Rick's trust issues are at an all-time high, but he still manages to extend himself to the survivors there. 

Though he is unreasonably demanding of newcomers like Aaron and Gabriel and continues to act out of paranoia, it's hard to blame him for these actions after watching countless people betray him over and over again. Regardless, even with all of his flaws very much present, Rick's willingness to go to bat for his people is clear.

Feeling the pressure in Alexandria

Once Rick his crew make it to the Alexandria Safe-Zone, we start to see how much he is cracking under the impossible pressure he has put on himself to keep everyone alive despite overwhelming odds. The leader of the community, Deanna, appoints Rick and Michonne as constables, but Rick immediately plots to overthrow the system and take over. 

It doesn't quite go according to plan: He winds up fighting one of the (admittedly terrible) residents in the street and gets clocked by Michonne, who puts an end to his outburst. Let's face it: He kind of deserves it at this point, but this is far from the end of the Alexandria story.

Many of Alexandria's residents die in walker invasions and Rick finally steps into leadership of the community following Deanna's death. His relationship with Michonne helps him lighten up a bit and he and the others even find other nearby communities to reach out to and form alliances with. Sadly, it is this newfound sense of peace that causes Rick to become cocky. 

When Negan and his Saviors start popping up as a threat, Rick is far too willing to engage in all-out war with them, which costs several lives and puts the future of Alexandria and his group under threat. Rick in Alexandria is far from Rick at his best, but this is an important step in his evolution.

Meeting his match with Negan

Even after everything he's been through, Rick's ego becomes a serious threat to Alexandria's safety in the sixth season. He refuses to show mercy, makes it clear he's willing to kill innocent people, and unnecessarily challenges Negan and his Saviors. Rick fully meets his match with Negan, a comparatively cool but ruthless man who delights in taking Rick down several pegs. 

When Rick goes a step too far, Negan shows up to kill multiple friends — including Glenn and Abraham — and nearly forces him to cut off Carl's arm. Negan then sends Rick on his way but never allows him to forget that he owns him and that the group at Alexandria will have to obey him or else lose absolutely everything and everyone that matters to them.

At this point, Rick very well might have climbed to the bottom of a well and stayed there if not for Michonne, Carl, and their community, which demands a better life than the one that Negan has forced on them. Though there are more casualties — including Sasha — Rick and the people of Alexandria are able to rally together and take Negan out of power for good. 

Naturally, this involves a man-to-man fight that nearly ends in death. But Rick is able to reach into his heart and find his long-since decayed morality to show mercy to Negan, regardless of what the other man has done. However, this life lesson from Rick comes at a very serious cost.

Grieving over Carl

As Michonne steps into a leadership role in Alexandria and King Ezekiel and his Kingdom vow to show support against the Saviors, Rick continues to spiral and lose sight of what matters, as he reckons with all that Negan and his Saviors have taken from him.

Determined to knock Negan out of his position of power, Rick acts ruthlessly toward others. For example, he chases the helpless Siddiq away despite the anger it creates in Carl, who always encourages his father to lead with mercy rather than revenge.

If Rick had listened to his son, he might have been prevented from making some of his most serious mistakes. As it stands, it takes Carl's death to encourage Rick to look back into his heart to find a more peaceful way of doing things.

Carl opts to help Siddiq kill some walkers in the hope of seeing their spirits released from their earthly prisons and he gets bitten by a walkerin the process. He accepts his impending death with a serenity well beyond his years and sets about saying goodbye to his loved ones like his sister Judith and best friend Michonne.

In the end, Carl implores his father to go back to the man he once was. He begs him to stop allowing the world to shape him into a fearful person and asks him to return to the days when he wouldn't have chased Siddiq away. Though it takes time for him to get there, this is one of the most important moments in Rick's trajectory, as he is very much a changed man going forward.

Creating a new type of family

The 9th season sees Rick taking a different, more diplomatic approach to his role as a community leader. Rick insists on sparing Negan and imprisoning him rather than kill him, even though many disagree with this. Ultimately, this decision leads to Negan's own quest for redemption, which continues to cause ripples in "The Walking Dead." 

Rick joins Michonne in caring for Judith and R.J., which seems to at least partially return him to his early life. He tends to the land and works in service of the community rather than trying to get everyone to bend to his will. Not surprisingly, this leads him to have greater influence than ever among the people of Alexandria.

Though at this point Rick has lost so many beloved people in his life, it's important to note who has stuck around. Even in Rick's worst moments, Michonne has remained steady as a rock and she has helped him each step of the way. She rallied behind him even when Rick was a broken man and he gets to a place where he can finally be there for her as well.

Judith and R.J. benefit from Rick's new, less desperate outlook, and they all remain affected by the memory of Carl. Meanwhile, Rick finds a new brother figure in Daryl. While the two argue early on, Rick finds trust in Daryl that allows him to build a closeness that's a far cry from what he once had with the conniving and malicious Shane. Even after so much loss, Rick still puts family at the center of his world, even if it doesn't look like what he once imagined.

Becoming a true leader

Though "The Walking Dead" comic and the TV series diverge in several major respects, one thing they share is Rick's character arc. Rick is a flawed man, who is constantly forced to get over himself to become a bigger person. Otherwise, he can lose both his sense of moral and ethical grounding, as well as the relationships with the very people who matter the most.

In the comic books, Rick dies a brutal death during the Commonwealth arc and is turned into a martyr (per Den of Geek). However, the TV show has yet to conclusively end Rick's story, even though his character leaves the main series in the 9th season.

While building a bridge to facilitate trade and transportation with other communities, Rick realizes that the plan isn't going to work. However, unlike the Rick we've seen in earlier seasons, he doesn't let this knowledge wreck him. Instead, he takes proactive action to protect his people.

When he sees zombies using the bridge to attack the communities, he leads the walkers away and blows up the bridge. He seemingly dies, but we later learn that he survived, although his current fate is unknown. His story will continue in "Rick and Michonne," but the series finale of "The Walking Dead" sees him getting rescued by a helicopter, thinking of the people who died that made him the man he now is.

His earlier proclamations in the series of "we are the walking dead" are starkly contrasted in this final moment, when Rick whispers that "we are the ones who live." It shows a level of evolution we might not have witnessed a few seasons back.