Back in March, several months after Andrew Lincoln left The Walking Dead television series to make The Walking Dead movies, Norman Reedus recounted a conversation he’d recently had with Lincoln. Lincoln had said to him, “Man, I picked the wrong time to leave the show because it’s so f**king good right now,” to which Reedus replied, “Yeah, you did, dude. You picked the wrong time.”
What’s interesting about that exchange, however, is that The Walking Dead is “so f**king good right now” because Andrew Lincoln left the series. That’s not a knock against Lincoln, who successfully steered the ship for eight and a half seasons as the nominal lead and the face of the AMC’s all-time most popular series. Much of the show’s popularity, in fact, can be attributed to Lincoln, the character around whom the show revolved. There are so many iconic moments and pivotal scenes from The Walking Dead for which Grimes is known, and it’s unlikely that another actor could have successfully evolved from naive police officer to weathered, veteran leader of essentially several communities. By the time Lincoln left the series, we could almost see in the lines on his face and the shape of his beard what eight years of the zombie apocalypse had done to him. As viewers, we all miss him, and no one else could have done that job as capably (not even Tom Jane, the first choice to play the role).
But the show has gotten much better without him, and that’s not just me saying that: It’s viewers and critics alike, who have given some of the best scores since season five on IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes, respectively. In fact, season 9 of The Walking Dead is the best reviewed season ever for the series.
Granted, it’s not because the rest of the show’s characters are better than Rick Grimes; it’s that his absence has allowed the series to become a true ensemble for the first time. With Lincoln off the series, Angela Kang has been able to distribute screentime to other characters. While a lot of it has been apportioned to Daryl, Michonne, and Carol, the series has also been able to give several new characters — like Yumiko, Lydia, Magna, Luke, and Connie — more story and better development.
Moreover, while Rick Grimes was a terrific character, after eight and a half seasons, his arc on the television show has run its course several times: He starts out as a good leader, the stress and loss gets to him, he begins to crack, he loses control, and then he has to rebuild himself again. After the death of Carl, there just wasn’t anywhere left for Rick to go, except to repeat his character arc all over again and, in the process, take the show’s narrative along on that trip.
Rick was such an integral part of the show that, as long as he was on it, the writers were forced to feed the ball to him, so to speak. Without him taking all the shots, the rest of the team has had to step up and fill the hole he left. It turns out, the team can score more points when they’re all working together to win instead of in support of one player.
Rick’s absence in the series has also allowed The Walking Dead to become more unpredictable. While he’s still in the comics, showrunner Angela Kang has had to be more creative about how she assigns Rick’s comics storylines (that’s also been true of Carl and Maggie’s storylines, as well). That, plus a new mix of original storylines — some of which have grown out of Rick’s departure — has allowed The Walking Dead to be truly surprising again.
Ultimately, though it is set in the zombie apocalypse, The Walking Dead is a character drama, and the show is best when it has new and different ways to develop these characters. Rick had long ago exhausted his character in the television setting, and the only truly exciting thing left for Rick Grimes in season 9 was in how he’d be written out of the series. That will probably hold true, to some extent, for Michonne in season 10. It feels like we know as much as we can possibly know about Rick and Michonne, and the great thing about The Walking Dead is its ability to move new characters in and out of the series, which constantly allows the writers to come up with new ways to develop them along with new story arcs.
In other words, Andrew Lincoln is the best thing to ever happen to The Walking Dead. But the second best thing to ever happen to The Walking Dead was Andrew Lincoln’s decision to leave.