The Transformation of Rick Grimes: Strategy and Mindset Analysis

Major spoilers for AMC’s The Walking Dead. SEASON 7 UPDATED!

The Walking Dead is one of the most intriguing shows I’ve ever watched. While it can often seem slow-paced, it does an amazing job of developing the psychology of its characters. The central point of the series are not zombies, but people: What would happen to our society if all the laws and order suddenly disappeared? How would people cope? How would it affect them?

The more detailed I looked into these elements, the more I became interested with the lead character of Rick Grimes. Although a bland and uninteresting character at first, over the years he’s been navigating gray areas between good and bad, emotional and apathetic, naive and strategic.

That’s why this article will not focus a single flow of mindset change ( A → B), but will serve as an overview of how Rick’s mindset has been adapting and how he has been applying selective strategy in various situations.

Of course, many elements of Rick’s actions are the result of storytelling, character development, and various plot devices, but this analysis will focus exclusively on his behavior within the world his character belongs to.

Rick’s friends and allies will be referred to collectively as The Group.

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SEASON 1: “We don’t kill the living”

Pre-apocalypse, Rick Grimes is a sheriff’s deputy, living in the metropolitan area of Atlanta, Georgia. He is shot on the job, and wakes up from a coma several months later with no information about what had happened in the interim. 

Rick is immediately faced with an abandoned hospital scenario straight out of a horror movie, dead bodies in the streets, and undead people trying to eat him. Overall – a world gone to literal Hell, with no traces of a functioning society.

His first instinct is to find his way to his house and see if his family is there. They are not.

He manages to get a grip on reality and recover from his gunshot wound through the initial hostility, then southern hospitality of Morgan Jones, a stranger who takes him off the streets. After getting back on his feet, dusting off his old uniform, and stocking up on weaponry and some supplies, he heads over to Atlanta to start a search for his family.

1.1. SEARCHING FOR THE FAMILY

Under the assumption that the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), a national health institute headquartered in Atlanta, is working on a cure and providing shelter for the survivors, Rick heads over to the big city.

STRATEGIC: Starting the search

Since the epidemic was still in its beginnings and there hasn’t been any information about the stories of the alleged “safe camps” being just rumors, Rick’s plan had good foundation. If there actually was hope of a haven, and his family was still alive, this would be a good place to start his search.

NAIVE : Executing the search

Rick casually rides in Atlanta on a horse, with no particular course of action in mind. While it’s true that starting the search from the nearest major city makes sense, he ignored several important factors.

He should have realized that months have passed since the initial outbreak, so even if his family did travel to Atlanta then, it is unlikely that they will still be there. Also, even if they were there, they wouldn’t be roaming the streets like he did. Most importantly, he managed to overlook the fact that streets will probably be filled with hundreds, if not thousands, of living monsters.

If his logic was that “people will flock to big cities”, then it was also logical to assume that those places will have the highest concentration of the undead.

REPERCUSSIONS: Rick almost dies

Soon enough, Rick runs into a big group of zombies, gets cornered, and hides below an abandoned tank. He’s cornered from all sides and gets ready to blow his brains out, but sees an open hatch at the last moment and takes temporary refuge inside the tank.

He’s stuck within an enclosed vehicle with no supplies, a handful of bullets, and literally no way out. If it wasn’t for the mercy of yet another random stranger (Glenn), he wouldn’t have survived for very long.

Glenn: You the new sheriff come riding in to clean up the town?
Rick: It wasn’t my intention.
Glenn: Yeah, whatever. Yeehaw. You’re still a dumbass.

At this moment in the series, a dumbass he most definitely is.

PROPOSED SOLUTION: Plan ahead

Rick’s plan is a perfect example of a “good idea, but poor execution”. He should have prepared in advance and examined the layout of the city, including the location of the CDC headquarters. This would have allowed him to take the quickest and safest route there.

Instead of casually roaming the streets, he would have been better off searching the buildings and scoping the streets from the safety of a rooftop. Considering it was highly unlikely that he will find his family on the first day, he was probably going to have to spend the night in Atlanta.

Hence, he should have set up a safe zone first, drop off his equipment, and move to exploring his surroundings afterwards. This would have allowed him to be quicker on his feet, harder to spot, and more likely to escape when things got heated.

1.2. ESCAPING FROM ATLANTA

After being rescued by Glenn, Rick meets up with a small group of survivors stuck in the city. They are hoping for a quick and silent supply run, but the sound of Rick’s gunfire attracts the nearby zombies, preventing them from leaving. They are completely surrounded.

TACTICAL: Zombie camouflage

Instead of panicking, Rick keeps a cool head and tries to think logically – how do zombies differentiate the living from the dead? How come they only attack living beings and ignore other zombies?

Assuming they act on pure instinct and make little to no use of their motor functions (as Rick witnessed with the “Bicycle Girl” zombie), it is likely that they navigate based on smell.

Rick proposes a plan for him and Glenn to cut up a walker, cover themselves in their guts, then walk through the herd camouflaged by the smell. This will allow the two of them to leave unnoticed and create a diversion, allowing others to escape.

This plan is almost ruined by unfortunate rain which removed their camouflage, but this was an uncontrollable circumstance.

1.3. DEALING WITH MERLE

Before planning the escape, the survivors holed up on a rooftop of the building they’re stuck in. Once there, Rick encounters Merle, an aggressive redneck who soonafter starts attacking, beating and racially insulting other members, threatening to kill one of them.

TACTICAL: Handcuffs Merle

Rick manages to incapacitate Merle and handcuffs him to a pipe to stop him from harming anyone else.

NAIVE : Has no plan

He didn’t think his actions through. Handcuffing Merle is a temporary solution and a good call – but what happens when they get ready to leave? He has to either leave him or uncuff him at a certain point.

During only five minutes of interaction, Merle had displayed disobedience of the law, aggressiveness and emotional instability, racial intolerance, violent behavior, and attempted murder. Would you trust a person like that with your life?

If Rick planned on letting Merle go in the future, he would have to not only rely on him during the escape, but also live with him side by side back at the camp. Judging by the kind of behavior Merle had displayed, he would most definitely attack another member again.

However, Rick is still set in his naive belief that this new world is temporary, that a cure will be manifested, and that things will soon go back to normal. And when they do, Rick is still hoping to be the same man, one who doesn’t kill people – no matter how much of an asshole someone may be.

REPERCUSSIONS: The war with The Governor

Since Merle unintentionally gets left behind, he cuts off his hand to survive and joins up with The Governor. He later resurfaces, kidnaps Glenn and Maggie, starting the feud between Rick and one of his worst enemies, The Governor.

PROPOSED SOLUTION: Kill Merle

From a strategic and survivalist standpoint, Rick should have killed Merle before leaving the rooftop. If he had, the people there would’ve gladly supported whatever story Rick made up regarding “what really happened”. It was obvious that nobody really liked Merle; in fact, most people didn’t even care that he got left behind.

Rick would have immediately asserted himself as the guy who “makes the hard, but necessary choice to keep you safe”. If he had known that his family was waiting back at the camp, he would definitely have thought twice about letting a person like Merle back to live next to his wife and son.

1.4. PROTECTING THE CAMP

After successfully escaping from Atlanta, Rick joins a group of survivors on the outskirts of the city. Amongst the survivors are his wife Lori, son Carl, and former partner and best friend Shane.

NAIVE : Confesses to Daryl

Daryl is Merle’s brother who was left back at the camp and, as Rick soon finds out, the two of them share many similar traits.

Simply telling the truth about Rick being responsible for Merle getting left behind is an understandable way of thinking from the current personality of Rick Grimes. However, it is still a bad option. Rick didn’t even try to break the news gently, explaining what Merle had done prior to the incident and why Rick’s choice actually benefited the rest of the Group.

Instead, he just came out like “Yo I left your brother there, wassup? He was an asshole.”

EMOTIONAL: Tries to save Merle

One again, from Rick’s current perspective it makes sense – he doesn’t want to be responsible for leaving someone to die, no matter how much of an asshole they are. But this was Rick’s selfish behavior; he felt bad and decided to go back for Merle to make himself feel better.

In the process, he was not only leaving his family alone again, he was putting the entire group in danger. Shane explains this perfectly:

 

Shane: Why would you risk your life for a douche bag like Merle Dixon? (..) The guy wouldn’t give you a glass of water if you were dying of thirst.
Rick: What he would or wouldn’t do doesn’t interest me. (…) We left him like an animal caught in a trap. That’s no way for anything to die, let alone a human being.

 

Within moments, Rick recruits more members to join his crusade, explaining to Shane that it’s “just four people”. Shane tries to reason with him again, stressing the imminent danger they are facing:

Shane: It’s not just four. You’re putting every single one of us at risk. Just know that, Rick. Come on, you saw that Walker. It was here. It was in camp. They’re moving out of the cities. They come back, we need every able body we’ve got. We need ’em here. We need ’em to protect camp.

What’s interesting to note here is that Rick turns away from focusing on Merle and starts gathering up other excuses:

  • First, it was about not letting Merle die.
  • Then, he said it was about getting the bag of guns he dropped so the could defend the camp.
  • When his wife urged him to stay, he explained how it was really about keeping his promise to Morgan, even though this was the last thing on his mind at the moment.

The truth is, Rick was being selfish and wanted to feel better. He noted the guns and radioing Morgan only as rebuttal against Shane and Lori’s convictions. He took several of the most able and skilled individuals on this mission, leaving the camp unprotected, only to fulfill Rick’s selfish reasons.

That is not what a good leader does. Oh, and in case you haven’t noticed, Rick never called Morgan while in Atlanta.

REPERCUSSION: Camp gets overrun, people die

The camp they had set up was terrible: no clear line of sight, surrounded by woods from most sides, no escape route, and no boundaries of any kind. While this area was partially secluded so less zombies crossed paths with The Group, all it took was one incident to bring a nearby herd to the camp.

The Group was left unprepared for an attack they should have expected. Rick and other members came back with guns at the last moment, but as Shane later noted: if Rick hadn’t had left at all, their losses wouldn’t have been so great.

PROPOSED SOLUTIONS: Prepare for an attack

Back when they were escaping Atlanta the first time, Glenn had brought back the car he used for distracting. Since he wasn’t able to turn off the sound alarm until he got there, it was logical to expect that the sound had drawn nearby corpses.

In fact, on the same day one of them was on the camp’s front steps. They move slow, but they were definitely going to make their way there fairly soon – an attack was imminent.

Strategic solution would be to set up better boundaries around the camp, and prepare for the attack; take greater precautions, keep weapons handy, stay on higher alert. Instead, Rick runs off with key members of The Group, leaving the camp much more vulnerable.

1.5. DEALING WITH VATOS

On their second run to Atlanta where they hoped to save Merle and bring back the bag of guns, The Group encounters a gang of latino survivors known simply as “Vatos”. They kidnap Glenn, while The Group escapes with one of their members and the aforementioned bag of guns.

STRATEGIC: Interrogating Miguel

To find out where the Vatos are stationed, Rick and Daryl apply the “good cop / bad cop” technique. Daryl starts beating and insulting their hostage, showing him Merle’s cut off hand saying “this is what happened to the last guy who pissed me off”.

Rick then manages to “calm Daryl down” and step in as the good cop, saying that “they just want to talk about getting his man back”. They find out the Vatos’ location and come over there to negotiate. Strategically, Rick positions T-Dog on a sniper position to cover them.

The Group meets Guillermo,the leader of the gang, who not only wants their member back, but also the bag of guns Rick has. He makes a bunch of threats and dangles hooded Glenn from the top of the building, saying that Rick can either come back with their bag of guns or come “locked and loaded”.

Rick realizes that despite wanting Glenn back, he cannot just hand over the guns, as they are needed to keep the rest of The Group safe. So, he opts for the other option.

NAIVE : Rescuing Glenn

This situation is somewhat peculiar. From Rick’s perspective, he handled the situation poorly. But if he had been thinking more strategically, he would’ve have actually behaved the same way.

In the show, Rick believed that Vatos were actually ready to start a war and were willing to sacrifice their own member in the process, just to take their guns. If Rick had truly believed that, then his plan make absolutely no sense. He showed up, went inside their headquarters, and pointed guns at their faces. Rick’s group consisted of just three members, while Vatos had at least 20 armed people surrounding them from all sides.

The fuck was the plan here, Rick? As soon as you take the first shot, they will all drop you down in an instant. This was about the dumbest as their plan could have been.

However, if Rick managed to read Guillermo’s behavior and nonverbal language, he could have predicted that they are not actually ready for a shootout. Guillermo displayed obvious empty threats meant to instill fear in Rick so he would surrender the guns over. Even when they came in all “locked and loaded”, Vatos didn’t start shooting and Guillermo actually tried to calm the situation and make more empty threats, instead of being true to his words and shooting them down on the spot.

If Rick had managed to read his true intentions in advance, then the bold stand they displayed on the show would actually make sense; they are not ready for a war, so just display bravado and make the vatos back down.  

As we’ve later found out, the gang was actually taking care of sick old people who were abandoned during the outbreak panic. Rick and Guillermo turn out to have similar values:

Guillermo: People here, they look to me now. I don’t even know why.
Rick. Because they can. [Reminds of his own situation]

1.6. THE CDC

After their camp got overrun, The Group’s plan was to go to the CDC in hopes of a haven and a possible cure. Once they arrived there, the place seemed locked down, but abandoned.

EMOTIONAL: Pleading for help

By nighttime, The Group was out of supplies, low on ammo, and had no backup plans. They soon started getting surrounded by zombies, but Rick could not grasp the reality of their “dream solution” being yet another dead end.

At this moment, the show pulls a deus ex machina when Rick notices the security camera move and assumes that someone must be manually operating it. He starts banging on the door, yelling at the camera, and guilting the person inside to let them in.

This worked in the series, but it was pure luck. What would have happened if it didn’t work? If there wasn’t actually anyone inside? What would Rick do then?

PROPOSED SOLUTION: Use nearby army vehicles

The front yard of the CDC had multiple army vehicles, several tanks, and lots of guns lying around. They could have used the guns for fighting off zombies, cars for getting away from the city, or tanks to blast through the doors of the CDC.

None of them thought of that, least of all Rick who simply panicked and proclaimed them all dead.

NAIVE : Being candid with Dr. Jenner

As luck would have it, The Group is taken into the safe and fully-stocked facilities of the CDC by Dr. Jenner, the only member of the institute left. He feeds the group, lets them recover, and they all join in the festivities by getting drunk. In this state of mind, Rick talks to Jenner:

Rick: We would have died out there. There are too many of those things.

Once again, Rick fails to mind his surroundings and interpret the behavior of people he interacts with. Since the first moment they met him, Jenner displayed hopelessness and despair. Furthermore, Rick failed to consider some very important questions:

  • The place seems safe, but how do they get out to gather supplies?
  • Doors seem to be open electronically. What happens when the power runs out?
  • If many members of the institute committed suicide, where are their bodies? Were they prevented from becoming zombies?

Jenner didn’t think too far into the future because he had a death wish. Rick was so happy that the CDC wasn’t a dead end, that he firmly believed everything was exactly as he had imagined it, which blinded him from noticing the obvious downsides.

REPERCUSSIONS: Unable to leave CDC

Rick’s talk of “how bad it is out there” and how there are “too many of them” only pushed Jenner further to the final execution of his plan. The institute facilities will soon run out of power, and initiate a self-destruct sequence to prevent any harmful diseases held in the laboratories from escaping.

Jenner shuts the inner-doors manually because, based on what Rick had told him, it’s much more merciful for them to be killed by an explosion than ravaged by living corpses.

TACTICAL: Convincing Dr. Jenner

People start panicking and rioting, and Shane threatens to kill Jenner if he doesn’t release them. This is sort of a moot point, because the whole point is that Jenner wants to die.

Rick realizes that instead of panicking, their only option is to talk Jenner into opening the inner-doors and letting them choose their own faith. His plan succeeds.

S01: FINAL ANALYSIS

CONCLUSION: Following Rick will lead into certain death

Rick starts off as your classic, run-of-the-mill “good guy”. He is taken aback by the new state of affairs and it takes him a while to get used to it. This causes certain disputes with other characters who have been digesting this news over the course of several months.

During the first season, Rick is soft, indecisive, and weak. It’s Rick’s pre-apocalyptic nature and just the way he is. Most of his actions are led (?) by his personal desires and what he feels is the right choice, disregarding the objective reality or the needs of other members of The Group.

This is how his wife Lori describes him before the apocalypse:

Lori: I sometimes wish he would just have it out with me and blow up, tell me I’m being a bitch, if that’s what I’m being. Instead, he’s just so…ugh.

Even before this new world order, Lori is pissed at him for being too soft and letting her walk all over him. He doesn’t earn people’s respect and doesn’t show strength of character – this Rick is not fit to be a leader of any kind.

Despite seeming cold and harsh at times, Shane actually makes all the right decisions in this season. He has been the leader of The Group up until now for a reason; when the shit hits the fan, he finds a solution which benefits the entire Group.

When Rick arrived to the camp, Shane had already had several months of experience living in this zombie-infested world, while Rick was still coming to terms with what has happened.

When the CDC seemed like a dead end, Shane told Rick “No hard feelings, but we’ve got to go”. Shane didn’t even want to go to the CDC in the first place, but supported his best friend. When it turned to shit, he didn’t play the blame game or dwell on a hopeless cause. He was trying to find a solution, unlike Rick who was in a state of shock, unable to do anything.

It wasn’t until the last scenes of the season, when they were faced with imminent death, that Rick displayed true leadership skills and acted more rationally under pressure than Shane.

Rick realized that he is not a coward who shies away from challenges. He would rather fight until his last dying breath trying to build a life for his family than to the easy way out.

And this motivational display of courage is exactly what convinces Jenner to let The Group out of the CDC.