On Sunday night, the unthinkable is happening: Rick Grimes is exiting The Walking Dead. For longtime (and arguably long-suffering) Walking Dead fans like myself, it’s a shocking turn of events. We’ve followed Rick, played by Andrew Lincoln, for nine seasons, over 100 episodes, and countless mumble-growls about stuff and thangs. In the pilot, we watched Rick stumble out of a coma into a desolate world with confusing signage like “DON’T DEAD, OPEN INSIDE.” From there, Rick has experienced about everything you’d expect from a fully realized zombie apocalypse: He’s fought and killed countless walkers, lost loved ones, forged inseparable bonds with fellow survivors, and even ripped out a dude’s throat with his mouth when his son was threatened (it was gnarly).
But after the fourth episode of Season 9, “The Obliged,” Rick has reached the end of the road, and with a cruel, ironic twist of fate at that. You see, Rick is going to die because of a really stupid plan he hatched.
If there is one constant to The Walking Dead outside of its endless zombie hordes, it’s that Rick Grimes likes to come up with a plan, and more often than not that plan is disastrous. It is legitimately strange that nobody from the group has questioned Rick’s leadership long enough to supplant him with someone else. Sure, Rick’s had some solid leadership moments: He did sneak up on the Terminus cannibals and hack their insidious leader to pieces, and he did help conceive the zombie-guts-as-immersion tactic, but how many times has Rick’s planning gone awry and led to some of his own people getting slaughtered?
Something finally gave in “The Obliged.” Once again, Rick devised a nonsensical plan: He would single-handedly shepherd a zombie horde away from the construction of a bridge that’s essential for establishing trade routes. Of course, this bad plan went awry when he was surrounded by a second horde, and as the realization hit that this was probably a terrible idea, his horse threw him off its back, impaling him on some sharp rebar as the undead descended on him.
It’s difficult to imagine The Walking Dead without Rick, and despite his frequently questionable leadership, he’ll be sorely missed. To commemorate Rick’s final episode, my Ringer colleague Ben Lindbergh and I—two people who have committed a disconcerting amount of time to this undead universe—are ranking all of Rick’s horrible plans over the years, from the least bad to the absolute worst. — Miles Surrey
16. Sophia’s Choice (Season 2)
Surrey: Carol’s daughter, Sophia, went missing at the start of the second season, when she ran into the woods after the group’s RV was surrounded by zombies on a highway. Losing a child is obviously quite tragic (even if the character rarely spoke and was treated more like a MacGuffin), so Rick decided the group would stay at Hershel’s farm to try to locate her, which took up an entire half-season.
Rick’s decision to hunker down is a failure on a couple of levels. First of all, if the chances of finding a missing person is increasingly unlikely after 72 hours in normal human society, how bad are those odds in a zombie apocalypse? The dreaded farm season was also The Walking Dead’s first sign of trouble, as the series eschewed any progress or zombie-infused action for narrative stagnancy and developments like Daryl finding Sophia’s goddamn doll in the woods being a Big Deal. Worst of all, Sophia was there all along: She was already a zombie, locked away in Hershel’s barn until Shane went berserk in what I’m going to qualify as a moment of meta-frustration.
In Rick’s defense, he did need to stay at the farm after Carl was inadvertently shot—and how could anyone have possibly known Sophia was a zombie chilling in a barn? And at least his commitment to Sophia earned him a loyal companion in the group, as Carol quietly transformed into a badass capable of blowing up cannibal outposts. It wasn’t a total loss—which is great by Rick’s standards—but it was an extreme waste of time and energy.
15. Alexandria’s Near Civil War (Season 5)
Surrey: Off the bat, we should talk about Rick’s intentions in this situation, which were good. Near the end of Season 5, Rick confronted Alexandria’s resident surgeon Pete, an odious man who’d been beating his wife, Jessie. This tension wasn’t resolved peacefully and Pete goaded Rick into a fight. This part wasn’t on Rick—when Pete asked him who the hell he thought he was, Rick, a goddamn legend, responded, “Someone who’s trying not to kill you.”
But the optics of the encounter were wild. Most of Alexandria only saw this tussle when it unspooled in the town square, which was when Rick brandished his pistol and told the residents that “we”—meaning the group he entered Alexandria with—should “control who lives here.” It was an aggressive approach, and perhaps one that might have gone better if Rick didn’t look like this:
If you want to convince people that your way is the best way for a community, you probably shouldn’t try to make the point with your face covered in blood, right after nearly choking a man to death! The only thing that rescued Rick here was Pete’s stupidity, as an episode later he inadvertently killed a man with a katana in a fit of rage—which made Rick’s town-square ultimatum seem quaint by comparison.
14. Randall Acts of Violence (Season 2)
Ben Lindbergh: Remember Randall? He’s the stray that Rick’s group picked up when Hershel went on a brief bender and Rick made a run into town to reclaim him, only to kill a couple of oversensitive interlopers in an abrupt barfight. Randall is one of the randos’ vengeance-seeking friends, and during an ensuing scrum his leg was impaled on a fence as walkers swarmed. Naturally, both of Rick’s companions wanted to leave or kill the complete stranger who was recently trying to shoot them, but Rick insisted on saving him—which is, of course, consistent with his character except for the equally frequent moments when Rick argues for killing someone that everyone else wants to save.
Later, Rick and Shane drove Randall away from the farm, intending to set him loose. “You can’t just be the good guy and expect to live,” Shane told Rick, about seven seasons too early. Then Shane decided to kill Randall, Rick intervened, the two tussled, and ultimately the trio returned to the farm, mission unaccomplished. Another productive day.
An extraordinary series of misadventures and flip-flops followed: Daryl tortured Randall; Randall kinda confessed to rape; Rick decided to kill Randall; Rick agreed not to kill Randall immediately; Rick decided that OK, now it’s time to kill Randall; Rick realized that he couldn’t kill Randall; Rick planned to free Randall; Shane killed Randall, unbeknownst to Rick; Rick wasted time searching for Randall before using his extensive law-enforcement experience to crack the case and deduce that Shane killed Randall; Rick killed Shane, and Carl killed Shane’s shambling corpse. Poor Randall suffered through all that indecision to end up undead anyway. He would have been better off with a bullet in his brain, impaled on that fence forever.
13. Rick’s Way Is the Wrong Highway (Season 5)
Surrey: At this point in the show, Rick’s group was right to distrust strangers: They’d nearly been slaughtered by a bunch of cannibals with a faux-promise of a safe haven called Terminus. But Rick’s skepticism for Aaron—a genial man claiming to be from a place called Alexandria that was looking to add more people to its ranks—took a turn for the stupid when Rick willingly led his group through a highway, at night, that was ultimately littered with zombies. Considering how many awful things had happened to Rick’s group on highways—see: Sophia—you’d think the guy would be more careful about using the things.
From Rick’s purview, taking Aaron’s suggestion of using a different highway—one he said had been cleared of the undead, unlike the highway Rick ultimately chose—could’ve been a trap. Sure. But Aaron had already risked his life by revealing himself to a hyper-aggressive group that promptly punched and interrogated him. In a pre-zombie-apocalypse world, Rick was a police officer, and The Walking Dead has generally posited that he’s a good judge of character. But with Aaron—a very good dude who actually led Rick’s group to Alexandria, a place that’s still standing and has served as Grimes Home Base—Rick made a big misfire that nearly cost everyone their lives in the process.
12. Rick Helps Ron Shoot Carl (Season 6)
Lindbergh: On the same day that Rick killed Ron’s father, Ron ran into Carl holding hands with his quasi-girlfriend Enid. As one might expect, this combination of events somewhat soured Ron’s opinion of the male members of the Grimes clan, which wasn’t improved by Rick having the hots for his mom. After Ron declared that Rick was dangerous and expressed animosity toward Carl—which manifested itself via subtle signs like brawling with him and staring at him menacingly while holding his knife—Rick decided that the best way to defuse the situation and bond with Ron might be to give him a gun and teach him how to use it.
The lessons went great, and Ron soon felt comfortable enough with the gun to draw it and try to kill Carl. Carl foiled Ron’s plan, but no one wanted to hold one measly attempted murder against him, so Ron got a gun again as the group tried to escape from the city. That time he used it to try to kill Rick, but Michonne stabbed him through the heart, which caused the shot to strike Carl, blinding him in one eye. To sum up, Rick removed Ron’s abusive father from the picture and somehow managed to make the situation worse. The lesson: Always arm your mortal enemies.
11. Visiting Atlanta, a Zombie City, by Horse (Season 1)
Surrey: To be fair to Rick, when this happened, he’d just awoken from a coma and received a crash course in zombie apocalypse survival from Morgan. It was a lot to take in for a guy whose last memory was getting shot on duty. But still, had Rick ever seen a zombie movie before? Typically, the worst places to go are densely populated urban areas, and Morgan did warn him that Atlanta’s streets “weren’t fit to be on.” So what did he do at the end of the episode? He hopped on a horse and trotted down the streets of Atlanta.
It took but a few minutes for Rick to be surrounded by erstwhile civilians, and for his poor steed to become zombie chow. Rick’s only refuge was hiding inside a tank and eventually getting rescued by Glenn, who justifiably called him a “dumbass” over a walkie-talkie.
This stupid, short-sighted plan was a harbinger for things to come, as Rick evolved into a leader with frequently questionable tactics that constantly put himself and others in danger. Also: That poor, innocent horse! It feels like cosmic justice that Rick might’ve sustained a fatal rebar wound in his penultimate Walking Dead episode from a horse knocking him off his back. That’s basic Horse Karma.
10. Abandoning Sophia in the Woods (Season 2)
Surrey: We’ve already established what happened to poor Sophia and how detrimental that whole farm time was to the story line, but remember how this mess happened in the first place? In the Season 2 premiere, Sophia ran into the woods while being pursued by two walkers—sidebar: The Walking Dead was definitely still working out the kinks for its zombie rules, as these two climbed over a rail instead of mindlessly running into it—before Rick rescued her. Except that he didn’t really rescue her.
Really, Rick put her down beside a creek, told her to hide, and offered some instructions to make sure she knew her way back to the highway if he didn’t come back for her: “Keep the sun on your left shoulder.” Let’s begin with this: Sophia was a frightened, traumatized child, and those are vague instructions to expect her to follow without getting lost or attacked by other zombies lurking about. (Remember, Carl was also pretty inept at the time and needed seasons and literal years on the show before he became a pudding-loving badass.) Second, why didn’t Rick just tell her to stay hidden until he came back for her? Isn’t that the much easier alternative? Granted, Sophia did leave her hiding spot shortly after Rick distracted and killed the zombies, but perhaps she wouldn’t have attempted anything if he had offered much simpler instructions? Stay here until I come back. IS THAT SO HARD?!
9. It’s Over, Rick, I Have the High Ground (Season 8)
Lindbergh: We have to hand it to Rick for his assault on the Sanctuary, a pretty piece of work that temporarily pins the Saviors inside. Unsurprisingly, though, Rick squandered that tactical advantage, and in the final confrontation between forces, he was outfoxed, outmaneuvered, and outgunned. As Negan gloated, “I ambushed your ambush with an even bigger ambush.”
Although Rick was completely played by Negan’s misdirection—orchestrated, if you can call it that, via a decoy map delivered by Gregory, of all the entirely unreliable sources—and commited his whole force to a battle where it was outnumbered and didn’t have the high ground, he was bailed out by Eugene, who secretly sabotaged the Saviors’ bullets through no doing of Rick’s. Not since the Battle of Endor has a military leader stumbled into a bigger trap and emerged victorious. And that was a long time ago.
8. Rick Banishes the Prison’s Most Competent Person (Season 4)
Lindbergh: During the idyllic days between avoidable wars with despots, when Rick relinquished his leadership and entered full-on farmer mode, a possibly pig-borne flu infected much of the prison’s population. The sick were quarantined, but the sickness spread and the situation was dire. Budding badass Carol—who, against Rick’s wishes and without his knowledge, had been teaching the kids to use knives, an entirely reasonable response to an undead infestation—took it upon herself to protect the prison by killing and burning the bodies of David and Tyreese’s crush, Karen, who both seemed to be circling the drain. Rick’s sole contribution to the situation was to brutally beat up a distraught Tyreese when the latter lashed out.
Then, when Rick confronted Carol about killing Karen and David—an admittedly drastic solution that Rick nonetheless would have advocated himself in one of his more merciless moods—she explained that she’d do anything to protect the group and that she killed them to end their suffering and prevent the spread of the virus. He told her to leave because Tyreese would try to kill her and because he couldn’t trust her around his kids. “I thought you were done making decisions for everyone,” Carol responded, as if anything short of a rebar through the spleen could stop Rick from constantly seizing control and imposing his opinions on everyone. “I could have pretended that everything was gonna be fine,” she continued, still spitting fire (figuratively, for now). “But I didn’t. I did something, I stepped up.”
As usual, Rick failed upward: Because he banished Carol, she was free to save his ass and everyone else’s when he later got the group captured by the cannibals at Terminus. “If it happened today, I’d thank her,” an older, debatably wiser Rick says to Morgan about Carol’s body-burning in Season 6’s “East.” “Or I would’ve killed them myself. She was right to do it. They were sick, spreading a disease. They weren’t gonna make it.”
7. Going Full Mad Max on Negan (Season 8)
Surrey: The “All Out War” between Alexandria and the Saviors was in full swing, and the devastating loss of Carl had left Rick on EDGE. So, instead of relaying the route of Negan’s convoy in Season 8’s 12th episode, “The Key,” Rick elected to sneak up on them and ram his car into Negan’s. This was an impressive accomplishment, considering the timing that has to go into perfectly slamming into a nondescript car from an obscured alleyway.
However, the sequence that followed—the slowest car chase in postapocalypse history; both cars crashing; Negan and Rick duking it out in a dark, damp basement—was all ludicrous and unnecessary. Were The Walking Dead even remotely tethered to reality, this brash attack would’ve resulted in one of them getting killed—probably Rick, since he was the one attacking dozens of Saviors by himself. Luckily, unbeknownst to Rick, Negan’s right-hand man Simon was in the midst of a revolt, so instead of the Saviors helping out, Simon had convinced them all to let Negan handle it on his own. Really good timing for a rebellion, as far as Rick is concerned.
So, yeah: This was a brash plan fueled by Rick’s id. What’s worse is that Rick enacted the plan almost immediately after reading a letter Carl wrote before he died pleading with him to make peace with Negan and move on. In summary, Rick did not listen to what was basically his dead son’s last will and testament.
6. Striking First at the Saviors (Season 6)
Lindbergh: Maybe it’s just me, but in a postapocalyptic country that’s mostly unoccupied (at least by the living), I wouldn’t risk my life and the lives of all my loved ones fighting for a small sliver of real estate that’s situated so close to a megalomaniacal, tribute-extracting tyrant and his band of sadistic goons. That’s a neighborhood feature that most real-estate listings don’t specify, so I don’t blame Rick for not knowing about it initially, but once it’s discovered, it tends to depress property values. Yet Rick was convinced that Alexandria was America’s only gated community and must be defended at all costs. It’s a classic case of the endowment effect: Once Rick settles somewhere, he’s willing to go to war rather than risk losing the patch of land he has. I understand the impulse to be behind walls in a world of walkers, but there are 33 state prisons in Georgia alone, and most of them are not next door to the Governor.
True to form, when the Saviors emerged as a threat, Rick announced, “We’re gonna have to fight” and “We kill them all,” then led an expedition designed to do just that. Except that Rick’s intelligence was terrible, and what he believed to be the Saviors’ headquarters was just a small satellite station. His intended killing blow only provoked his opponent. In “East,” the penultimate episode of Season 6, Rick confidently proclaimed, “The world’s ours, and we know how to take it,” but his bravado didn’t age well. By the end of the next episode, he and the rest of the group were on their knees before Negan, and we know what happened next. Sometimes, good leadership means knowing one’s enemy, and in turn, knowing when not to pick a fight. Ultimately, Rick’s alliance prevailed, but only at great cost—nothing good ever happens at Tobin’s house—and his planning hindered as much as it helped.
5. Rick Declares a Dictatorship (Season 2)
Lindbergh: At the end of the second season, after walkers overran Hershel’s farm, what was left of the group reassembled by the side of a road. Some of the survivors understandably started questioning Rick’s leadership and proposing that they go their separate ways given how well things went at the farm with him ostensibly in command. Rick got snippy. “I’m keeping this group together, alive,” he said, ignoring the many members of the group who were dead by then. “I’ve been doing that all along, no matter what. I didn’t ask for this.” It’s unclear whether anyone asked for this, but no one said so, even though Rick had just revealed that Dr. Jenner told him at the CDC that everyone is infected and turns after they die, knowledge that Rick decided to conceal even though it’s pretty important from a survival perspective.
”Maybe you people are better off without me,” Rick continued to rant. (Probably!) “Go ahead. I say there’s a place for us, but maybe it’s just another pipe dream. Maybe I’m fooling myself again. Why don’t you go and find out yourself? Send me a postcard. Go on, there’s the door. You can do better? Let’s see how far you get.” Improbably, no one accepted this challenge, despite having every reason to. “No takers?” Rick concluded. “Fine. But get one thing straight … you’re staying. This isn’t a democracy anymore.”
Remember that, because before long ...
4. Rick Re-Declares a Democracy (Season 3)
Lindbergh: Less than one full season later, after wrestling with whether to hand over Michonne to the Governor as the condition of a proposed peace, Rick slightly amended his message.
“What I said last year, that first night after the farm … it can’t be like that,” he says. “It can’t. What we do, what we’re willing to do, who we are—it’s not my call. It can’t be. I couldn’t sacrifice one of us for the greater good because we are the greater good. We’re the reason we’re still here, not me. This is life and death. How you live, how you die—it isn’t up to me. I’m not your governor. We choose to go. We choose to stay. We stick together.”
Oh. Well, OK, as long as we’re clear. And as long as you don’t pivot back to dictatorship a couple seasons later to save the Alexandrians from themselves (even though they’re perfectly fine until Rick arrives) or disregard previously expressed core principles like “We don’t kill the living.” (Granted, Rick later wriggled out of that one by explaining, “That was before the living tried to kill us,” although not killing the living if they aren’t trying to kill you seems like a pretty easy rule to abide by.) Nothing strengthens confidence in a leader like frequent, foundational shifts in systems of governance.
3. Placing Trust in Garbage People (Season 7)
Surrey: Rick’s grand design to defeat Negan and the Saviors in the back half of Season 7 was reliant on people who didn’t seem all that reliable. He struck an accord with Jadis and the Scavengers, a group that lived inside a junkyard. They were shifty, didn’t speak in complete sentences, and literally resided in trash. The Scavengers betrayed Rick because Negan secretly made a better deal with them that they were happy to accept.
For all intents and purposes, this should’ve been Rick’s last stand: He was betrayed, outnumbered, and Jadis had shot him in the stomach. But then, as he was being dragged toward Negan, who was about to deliver a fatal blow to Carl’s head with his beloved bat Lucille, this happened:
CGI tiger saves the day! Rick was undoubtedly grateful that Shiva Ex Machina showed up with perfect cinematic timing. But the point is he majorly messed up by trusting a group of people who were OBJECTIVELY untrustworthy. As The Walking Dead continued down its self-destructive path with increasingly absurd narrative choices—opening new ways for its characters to escape otherwise certain death—Rick’s methods also got even shittier. That’s probably not a coincidence.
2. Rick’s Junkyard Obsession (Season 8)
Surrey: Rick should hate the Scavengers. A lot. He was one dank CGI tiger away from his son getting walloped to death after their aforementioned betrayal. And yet. Rick remained steadfast that his group and the Scavengers could become allies against Negan and the Saviors. To forge this obviously stupid bond, he went to the Scavengers’ junkyard HQ by himself and guess what—he was abruptly, unsurprisingly, taken prisoner. They stripped him naked, imprisoned him in a hot-as-balls shipping container, and then Jadis forced him into a semi-nude photoshoot for her future sculpture work (everyone has their kinks). Oh yeah, they also ordered his execution via armored zombie.
But Rick, hands tied, got the upper hand by successfully incapacitating the zombie and two of Jadis’s goons. Where did the rest of the group go? I do not know. How did Rick manage to evade Jadis’s bullets within a few feet? I do not know. Was it a badass moment? Absolutely. Was it logical? HELL THE FUCK NO.
What kind of plan is this? “Plan” might be too generous a term since it suggests that thought went into it. Aside from exuding a lot of Big Rick Energy, this was a massive risk, the type employed by a character who has impenetrable plot armor. There’s so many ways this could’ve gone wrong: Rick could’ve actually been eaten by that gladiator zombie, or the Scavengers could’ve just summarily executed him with an actual gun instead staging a spectacle. The best part of it all? This moment of badassery was all for naught, as once the Scavengers did agree to help him take out the Saviors, Rick found out that Negan’s group actually escaped their zombie-infested compound.
1. Rick Leads Walkers Away From the Quarry, Turns Entire Town Into Quarry (Season 6)
Lindbergh: When Rick and Morgan discovered an admittedly massive mob of walkers that had been confined to a quarry close to Alexandria, they realized that this barrier had been protecting the town all along. So Rick decided to do the only logical thing: lure all the walkers out of the quarry that had been keeping Alexandria safe. “I know this sounds insane, but this is an insane world,” Rick explained to the townspeople. “We have to come for them before they come for us. It’s that simple.”
I’m just one man with zero walker kills to his credit, but I’d say the simple thing would have been to keep the walkers in the quarry. Maybe build a better barricade to seal them in more securely. Maybe construct some sort of funnel so that the herd emerges one walker at a time for easy slaughter. Maybe set them on fire, sit back, and watch them burn. There are options! Instead, Rick devised a complex plan involving flares and walls and vehicles that the group could employ to shepherd the walkers away and, presumably, inflict them on some other unsuspecting town.
One of the Alexandrians, Carter, protested that they couldn’t control that many walkers and that there had to be a better option. “What Rick wants to do is suicide,” he argued. Rick overruled him, and when one of the trucks sealing the quarry toppled out of position, he put the plan into action despite Carter’s protests that they hadn’t had enough time to practice.
The ill-conceived plan predictably backfired. A horn went off at Alexandria and lured half of the herd, which then surrounded the town. In the midst of the mayhem, a walker bit Carter, and Rick killed him to stop him from screaming. This disastrous episode was Rick’s crowning achievement in leadership. Naturally, it didn’t diminish his authority at all.