For one of the first times in The Walking Dead, our crew appears in charge of their own destinies. Alexandria survived the collapse of a major segment of wall, and any potential danger posed by Negan and the Saviors seems negligible following their complete dispatch. Sure, the Wolves are still out there, and we don’t know what to expect from the communities the Hillside is contact with, but on the whole, things should be looking up. So why is everything falling apart?
Now, it may be hopelessly naïve to think life could ever truly improve during the Zombie apocalypse. Walkers and bands of murderous humans will always threaten Alexandria with complete annihilation. But, as we’ve seen throughout the show, herds of zombies tend not to destroy entire communities, corrupt and tyrannical leaders do. So the walls of Alexandria may be rebuilt and the group’s military might proven once again, but Carol still chose this moment to disappear into the wilderness.
Rick will lead Alexandria to destruction. He has demonstrated again and again that the only tactics he understands and permits are violence. In the final scene of “The Same Boat,” Rick murders the prisoner Primo when he claims to be Negan, an idiotic attempt to destroy, rather than understand, the group they had just butchered. The deal Maggie struck with the Hilltop may have included killing Negan, but there was no reason why Rick needed to kill a captured prisoner, full of valuable information, on the spot.
The moment after Rick kills Primo, the camera pans to Carol, who is fresh off her own brutal kill streak, but now, she looks truly distraught. Sure, impaling Carol and burning half a dozen men in a locked room was sickening, but the butchery was justified by the danger of the Saviors together. Killing Primo, an individual after the battle was won, crossed the line. In her note announcing her departure, Carol declares that she cannot stay, because she understands it will mean having to kill humans again. Her leaving is the first departure from the group based on moral reasons. Clearly, the violence is getting out of hand if Carol has lost faith in the group’s actions.
And now we may never learn anything about Negan’s compound. Primo may have known about additional scouting groups or hostile communities in the areas. That’s a major strategic blunder — especially considering all the risks the group took to destroy them. And Rick is prone to these kinds of errors too. The most critical of his errors was convincing Alexandria to end its recruitment of new members. Of course, Rick’s group found the community only through the help of Alexandria’s scouts, but surely everyone else is too dangerous to trust. Rick even chides Morgan for building a jail cell, like the one that saved his own life, in the hopes it might prevent further brutal slaughter. Rick looks sourly unimpressed.
It is a fundamental question of the show: Can the group survive while keeping their humanity? Morgan and Carol clearly believe they can, while Rick does not. Rick may seem more honest or pragmatic in the near term like a Machiavellian renegade who is willing to do whatever it takes to protect those closest to him. Except, everyone in the apocalypse looks out only for themselves — that’s part of the problem — and until now we rooted for our group, because they were fighting for more than simply survival. And as should be clear from Carol’s departure, capricious violence is not only tactically questionable and morally questionable, but it corrodes the soul of a community. The Governor’s barbarity led to the unraveling of Woodbury, and now a similar specter haunts Alexandria.
And it is not simply a matter of whether authority of any kind ultimately corrupts. Alexandria grew under Deanna Rose, as she carefully selected survivors she could trust and rejected those she could not. It seems likely that had Negan found Alexandria before our group had entered, the Saviors would have exhorted it just like the Hillside if not taken it over altogether. But the point is that Deanna was willing to let the group in and eventually turn over control to Rick when the situation demanded it.
Rick has not always been a bad guy or even necessarily a bad leader. He relinquished control after his wife’s death threw him into a downward spiral, and he risked his own position in the town to save Jessie and her kids from Pete’s abuse. But his current rule has already driven Carol to leave and the rest of Alexandria to factionalize. The threat may not yet appear grim for Rick, but Carol’s departure and the recent attack that killed Denise hang heavily. The group will soon have to confront these new threats, which will in turn require it to address Rick’s militant trajectory.
Survival in The Walking Dead has always demanded a careful balance. Rick is taking Alexandria on a path to destruction by neglecting the reason we root for them in the first place. It’s undoubtedly harder to choose life over death. Daryl’s own conflict may have led to Denise’s death, but on the whole, society demands compassion. That’s why we don’t mind when they slaughter Saviors or Wolves, because they’ve lost what makes them human. It is what has made Alexandria strong, and what may take Rick’s death to preserve.