The Ones Who Live: The Walking Dead’s Return From The Grave



The Walking Dead and The Ones Who Live


The Ones Who Live, a 6-episode miniseries follow-up to AMC’s The Walking Dead, just aired its finale last Sunday. The Walking Dead is far from the cultural juggernaut it was a decade ago, but The Ones Who Live proves that these old, decaying bones can still have life in them. But what makes this show so good isn’t just its award-worthy performances, whip-smart writing, and masterful character work, it’s the fact that this is a homecoming the fans have been waiting on for a long time, and it delivered. As one of those fans, I can tell you that this is more than a return to form, it’s a new bar of excellence. 

The Walking Dead’s biggest asset has always been its tremendous cast of characters portrayed by critically underrated actors. The Ones Who Live strives to reunite the show’s central couple, Rick and Michonne, after years of separation from one another. Rick was taken to a place called the CRM, the Civic Republic Military, which is depicted as a barracks encampment just outside of Philadelphia, and Michonne left Alexandria, their home community in Virginia, to find him and bring him home.

Rick Grimes, played by Andrew Lincoln, is television’s greatest protagonist. Yeah, I said it. He’s the most dynamic character, let alone protagonist, I’ve ever seen. From small-town deputy to hardened survivor to humanity’s greatest leader, Rick’s journey has never been easy or simple. He embodies the show’s ambiguity regarding what it means to survive, and beyond that, to truly live. And Michonne, played by Danai Gurira, is his equal in every way. From a stoney swordswoman to a heart-on-her-sleeve hero, she’s changed the most out of any survivor. Gurira portrays her as a pillar of endless strength born from a well of bottomless hope. Together, the samurai and the cowboy transform this tale of undead survival into a love story starring the strongest people in the world. That’s what The Ones Who Live is: a love story. It puts Rick and Michonne’s connection front and center as not just the driving force of the story, but its thematic backbone. 

Rick (right) and Michonne (left): Reunited and it feels so good

TOWL’s premier is its best episode; it might as well be the highlight reel for Andrew Lincoln’s Emmy nomination. Its opening scene depicts one of Rick’s failed escape attempts. He volunteers to clear out the dead after a forest fire, and with a chained bangle on his wrist, he hacks away at his own hand in order to flee, which adapts Rick’s amputation in the comics that was left out of the main show. The CRM is an amazing setting in its capacity to compel Rick, and the rest of the cast, to action. He’s placed in a military chain of command where his only choice is to comply if he ever wants to live to see his family again. His amputation doesn’t just represent his sacrifice, but the prosthesis he’s given after becoming a soldier, a black hand always balled in a fist, sees the CRM literally become a part of him. Its my favorite bit of writing from the show, especially how Rick turns it against the CRM with its built-in blade. 

TOWL hits the ground running and pulls no punches. The Walking Dead cast off its language and violence restrictions long ago, but I’m talking about the emotional stakes. Rick is a very different man than the courageous freedom fighter, or even the bloodthirsty killer we knew before. He’s a soldier now, who salutes his superiors and follows orders. He’s hardly recognizable, which is Michonne’s main conflict. She had a codename for him, “the brave man”, that she used when radioing their children back home. She’s hurt that she can’t see “the brave man” in him anymore. The CRM are bad guys, that much we can gather from their vast arsenal of military hardware and scary black outfits, but they also kill anyone who knows about them to preserve their own secrecy. In the second episode, told through Michonne’s POV, we see how they kill people, and through Rick, we see how they break people.

Twins: Both TV and comic Rick rock their prosthetics

Post-reunion, the meat of the show is exploring Rick and Michonne’s new dynamic. Their external conflict is that if they stage another escape, the CRM will find and bomb Alexandria. Rick wants to stay to ensure Alexandria’s safety but Michonne won’t go home without him. They fight—many, many times about this—each one getting more nasty and personal, but the amount of times they effectively have the same conversation can test your patience. It also paints Michonne’s radical optimism as almost naivete, as she never has a great rebuttal to Rick’s “but they’ll kill everyone we love” argument. 

Another complaint of mine comes from the show leaning into its own myth. The Ones Who Live is acutely aware of its main characters’ status as fictional icons. And frequently they talk about “saving the world” or say “we can do anything together” with starry-eyed optimism that’s inappropriate for the setting. Rick Grimes is not a hero, that’s what makes him compelling. If he were, Michonne’s idealism wouldn’t be nearly as impactful. Ultimately, Rick is dynamic while Michonne is stagnant. His drastic personality shifts and her unshakable faith are their appeals, but how much they contrast is most apparent here. Rick gets an arc and Michonne doesn’t. He has to break his CRM conditioning while Michonne’s central conflict comes from Rick not being the person she wants him to be, and it’s hard to take her side when we know what he’s been through. I don’t need these characters to act perfectly, just appropriately to the situation. 

Nevertheless, it can’t be denied that Gurira and Lincoln show us what real on-screen chemistry looks like. When they’re not taking every opportunity to make out with one another, they’re turning in Emmy-worthing monologues. I can’t say I’m surprised; after all, they serve as creators, executive producers, and writers on this. They know these characters better than anybody, and it shows. The character work in this show was even able to redeem Jadis, the back-stabbing leader of a group of landfill-dwelling freaks who sold Rick out to the CRM. Jadis is the exact opposite of a fan favorite, but she was given depth in her final outing, and coupled with Pollyanna McIntosh’s performance, was able to make me care about a character I previously had much disdain for. 

Jadis (Pollyanna McIntosh), the traitor with an unfortunate haircut

Unfortunately, its Terry O’Quinn as Major General Beale, head of the CRM, who is criminally underserved. What makes him a compelling antagonist is the zeal with which he believes in the CRM’s mission, which is to gobble up other communities in order to have the best chance at total human survival. His philosophy, “The sword that kills is the sword that gives life”, echoes the sentiment of the franchise itself. It often supports the notion that in this world, killing is the greatest act of love one can perform for another person. There’s a kind of beauty in that violence that I’ve always appreciated. With his little screentime, Beale challenges the sentiment by taking it to its furthest extreme but the show doesn’t have much of a rebuttal. Rick kills Beale with his own sword (awesome), but Michonne shouts “Love never dies” in a crazed tone of voice that genuinely broke my immersion. They stopped the senseless slaughter of an untold amount of innocents, but again, the show has to mythologize these two into heroes who were simply born different than the rest, that their love is some supernatural force that allows them to beat the odds, not that they’re just really, really good at killing people. 

Barring some self-indulgent dialogue and tonal inconsistency, TOWL is nearly perfect. Its final scene is pure fanservice that is so, so earned. Rick, who began this story searching for his family, returns home to Alexandria to see the children he had loved and killed for but never got to raise. It’s beautiful and tragic and makes up for every little writing quirk along the way. I experienced genuine culture shock even seeing Rick and his daughter Judith (Cailey Fleming), together again. Despite these two actors never sharing the screen before, I instantly bought their father-daughter connection. Rick’s son, Rick Jr,  meeting his Dad wasn’t as emotionally resonant, as RJ was never much of a character to begin with, but it’s about as good as it could have been. Ultimately, this could serve as the complete ending to The Walking Dead as a whole, perfectly bookending it. 

The Grimes family reunited

Across the board, The Ones Who Live is The Walking Dead at peak performance. This is a franchise I’ve followed for most of my life, and if this is where it were to end, I’d be okay with that. (Unless there’s a chance for a cast reunion, which I would appreciate, please and thank you). They chose to make Rick and Michonne’s story one of broken hearts and difficult questions, but ultimately, its about the hard, violent work we do for love, which is exactly how The Walking Dead is operating in its finest hours. 


The Walking Dead and The Ones Who Live can be streamed on the AMC+ app.