Spoilers below for The Walking Dead's latest episode, titled "The Obliged."
Unless situations change drastically in the opening minutes of next week's episode, The Walking Dead just set Rick Grimes up for a fairly depressing death. Which means the cliffhanger ending is bound to polarize fans as much as any other big moment in this franchise, if not more so. (All eyes, protruding and otherwise, are on Glenn there.) Let's lay out the way the show seems to be singing Andrew Lincoln's swan song, and why it's actually a fitting farewell.
How Rick Got Hurt
Season 9 has shown us that, during the span of the time jump, Rick's influence as a group leader has waned immensely. Going against Rick's call isn't just something done by weaselly semi-antagonists anymore, with Maggie and Daryl predominantly against the crumbling Ricktatorship. The All Out War, with Carl's death included, took a hell of a lot out of Rick, and these days, he's more prone to enjoying family time and planning infrastructure than actively enforcing justice.
Rick himself finally became aware of Maggie and Daryl's slow-burning coup in "The Obliged." Realizing that Daryl was intentionally keeping him from hindering Maggie's Negan-centric trip to Alexandria, Rick incited a roadside argument that left the scuffling men stranded in a giant hole. (Yeah, "WTF?" was my first reaction, too.) Each character made a decent pitch for their side of the Negan argument, with no one actually "winning" beyond both getting out of the hole in the first place. Neither knew that it would probably be their final meaningful conversation.
With a mass of walkers (or two) approaching, Rick's mind was entirely focused on guiding the undead herds in a different direction, as not to threaten the still-in-development bridge and the communities beyond. After finding that freaked-out white horse -- one he was riding in a previous trailer, sparking death theories -- Rick told Daryl to head back, thus leaving him all alone whenever disaster struck the hardest.
Rick and his doomed steed came across another swarm of walkers approaching from a different direction. In a moment that seemed far too quiet and subdued in retrospect, the horse panicked and hopped up on its hind legs. Rick was awkwardly thrown back, slamming his neck against the edge of the worst concrete slab concrete possible. A potential concussion or paralysis aside, Rick was truly boned by the rebar jutting through his torso, as well as his quick descent into unconsciousness.
So...is that actually it? After everything that Rick Grimes has lived through, and all of the accomplishments he made in the name of survival, was the comic book hero's TV fate really sealed by an over-anxious horse? If so, it might not actually be the most unexpected or illogical way for The Walking Dead to take Rick out.
Why It Makes For A Fitting Farewell
As it went with Carl's death, no other living human being should be directly responsible for killing Rick Grimes off. Not only to avoid showing that anyone else had the ability to do so, or how that character would continue living afterward. Rick ultimately needs to be responsible for his own demise, and he let his pride set up just such a scenario in "The Obliged."
In the face of learning that two of his most trusted fellow survivors no longer agreed with his perspective, Rick was once again bull-headed in dismissing Daryl's advice to go back to Alexandria on his motorcycle. Had Daryl not directly crapped all over Rick's bridge dream, the latter might have been slightly more welcoming to opposing opinions. At that point, though, he was wholly intent on proving his faith in the bridge wasn't all in vain. That will still be an arguable point until we see how things play out.
The creative team was likely calling back to Rick's roots here, too. Rick's first mode of transportation in The Walking Dead-verse was a horse, so his accident would be a proper (and antithetical) bookend in that respect. Plus, by giving Rick a white horse, The Walking Dead may have been tapping into Christian themes, where the animal can symbolize death.
Which is to say nothing about Rick's god complex or his correlations with Jesus Christ, who notably rode a white horse in the book of Revelation. Although it's pretty hard to avoid further Jesus comparisons with Rick suffering a potentially fatal "spear through the side" injury. Will he get a crown of thorns soon, too? Realistically, Andrew Lincoln's final episode may indeed use flashbacks and/or dream sequences to make Rick appear to rise from the dead, possibly after coming out from behind a big rock.
Even beyond the horse parallel, if Rick were to die under those circumstances, it would also (loosely) mirror the very first shot we see of Andrew Lincoln, where he was lying all alone and without any of his loved ones aware of where he was or what was happening to him. Ashes to ashes, and dust to dust, as it were. A hospital bed is surely the more comfortable option, but it's not a choice that Rick was afforded at either point in the timeline.
As bleak as the world may have looked to Rick when he headed across the already ruined Atlanta, things got far better once he came across others. Here, things may look bleaker than ever with Rick on the brink of death, yet he's leaving behind a group that is has come closer than ever to reaffirming civilization's upward swing. So, it's not all bad, right? It still sucks, though.
The Walking Dead airs every Sunday night on AMC at 9:00 p.m. ET, and it's very possible that next week will be the last time we see Rick Grimes on the zombie drama. (Outside of endless repeats, that is.) Be sure to watch to see just how emotional things get. Ahead of that, set yourself up for some other primetime action and drama with all the other fall TV premieres.