“The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live” Review – Rick Grimes Returns in Exceptional, Emotional Premiere

It’s been 6 years since Rick Grimes was flown away on a helicopter at the end of Season 9’s “What Comes After,” leaving Michonne, Daryl, Carol, Judith, and the rest of his family behind. Two seasons, a canceled movie announcement, and several spin-offs later Rick and Michonne’s story is finally continuing in “The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live.” 

Set within the ever-growing “Walking Dead” universe, “The Ones Who Live” serves as a sequel to the flagship series, filling in the gaps after Rick Grimes departed the main series and Michonne set off to find her long-lost lover. Rick has been held in captivity by the Civic Republic Military (CRM), a vast government organization that has been consistently teased and touched on in nearly all “Walking Dead” media. Meanwhile, Michonne has begun the ultimate journey, traveling far and wide in hopes of crossing paths with Grimes. 

The first five or so minutes of episode 1, titled “Years,” sets a very striking tone almost immediately. Our first glimpse at Rick Grimes sees him holding a glass shard up to his neck, contemplating giving up on it all. He stares out of a small window, watching wind turbines rotate endlessly, a visual that I can only assume reminds him of Alexandria’s farmlands. 

The booming and ominous score from Sam Ewing truly emphasizes how bleak Grimes’ current situation is. The cinematography is appropriately foreboding, casting Andrew Lincoln in harsh shadows amongst a dark green room. As always, Lincoln brings an unrivaled emotional approach to his performance as Grimes, conveying so much in such a short sequence without any dialogue. 

If the opening wasn’t bleak enough, things continue to darken as a title card ‘5 YEARS AFTER THE BRIDGE” is followed by a menacing sequence in a dimly lit forest. CRM soldiers wield Grimes and others on retractable rope, letting them only go as far as they’ll let them. Equipped with hatchets, the prisoners are sent out into a burning forest, tasked with clearing out the ember-infused walkers that meander about. Razor sharp editing ramps up the tension, as the sound of Grimes’ “leash” detracting from the CRM soldier blares over the action. 

Rick Grimes dashes through the woods, hacking and slashing at walkers; beautifully shot and lit with orange hues. Bright red lights illuminate the silhouettes of the CRM soldiers supervising the operation. The visual identity of “The Ones Who Live” is strong, stylized, and striking. 

The scene climaxes with a historic moment that has been speculated about for months and pays gruesome tribute to Robert Kirkman’s comic series. To free himself from the leash contraption, Rick Grimes takes his hatchet (heated by the charred walkers) and CHOPS his own hand off. Lincoln plays the pain and contemplation to the max, showcasing more of his ever-so-incredible acting chops (pun intended). To make matters even more painful, Grimes cauterizes the wound in the burning carcass of one of the fallen walkers.  The now freed Grimes is only able to get so far before being tazed by a CRM soldier, and forced to watch a walker corpse burn beside him as he realizes there is truly no escape no matter what he does. 

Throughout the episodes we get flickers of one of Rick’s dreams, a well-lit meet-cute between him and Michonne. In these sequences, Rick and Michonne don’t meet under the circumstances of the end of the world, but instead on a lunch break in the park. The scenes are well-acted, and it’s a pleasure watching Andrew Lincoln and Danai Gurira flex their on-screen chemistry. At times, it is quite jarring to go from intense sequences to the glossy clean snippets with these two apocalyptic lovers. While they are just dreams, seeing Lincoln and Gurira share the screen together less than 10 minutes into the episode feels a bit unearned given that the main hook of the show is the duo finally reuniting with one another. 

Following Rick’s gruesome escape attempt, we’re finally keyed in to more of the processes, operations, and hierarchies of the CRM. Soldier Donald Okafor (Craig Tate) reveals to Rick that he has continued to vouch for him despite his rebellious tendencies. He sees a leader in Grimes, and hopes he’ll join in on his secret plan to refine the CRM’s military operations. Pearl Thorne (Lesley-Ann Brandt), another rebellious captive that Okafor sees potential in, is invited to join in on this conversation as well. The scene is beautifully lit under the moonlight, set amongst the jagged remains of a football stadium. 

Okafor explains the meaning of the “A” and the “B” labeling, something that’s been of much conversation in “The Walking Dead” fandom for years after Jadis used the term when helicoptering Rick away in Season 9. He goes on to say, “A’s have a strength, A’s will die for what they believe in. People follow A’s.” On the other hand, “B’s are “Everyday people who are just trying to survive. B’s get in, A’s are sent away and killed…” Rick Grimes is most certainly an “A” yet back in Season 9 Jadis radioed in that she had a “B.” It seems evident that Jadis lied to ensure that Rick was kept alive, and knew he could do some good for the CRM. It’s quite cool to see something mentioned over 6 years ago finally receive pay-off in this new series.

Rick Grimes reluctantly agrees to train to become a CRM soldier. The series showcases its healthy budget as Rick goes through various stages of training, even learning how to fly a helicopter. Rick is outfitted with a prosthetic hand attached to a retractable knife, something Merle would’ve killed for. The sheer size and intricacies of the CRM’s military arm is of a technical scale that we have yet to see in “The Walking Dead’s” universe. It feels reminiscent of Daryl’s quick stint joining the Commonwealth’s military, although much grander. Surprisingly, Rick doesn’t happen to mention anything regarding his former experience as a Sheriff, something that I feel like would’ve come up during the extensive combat training. 

It’s truly surreal to see the legend that is Rick Grimes suited up in grade A military gear and equipped with high tech weaponry. Audiences have watched this character brave the worst of the worst, living in barren, horrifying conditions. It’s both rewarding and strange to watch a new Rick Grimes in such a vastly different world than the one before. Some fans have chimed in on how they long for the show’s more intimate, family-against-the-world style storytelling but for a series that’s been telling new tales for over a decade now, evolution is the key to longevity. 

Grimes uses a military mission to try and forge another escape, but Thorne and a few walkers stop him in his tracks. Thorne reveals that if he had tried to escape, Okafor would’ve found him and came for the ones Rick is looking for as well. She reveals that Okafor somehow knows everything about Rick, and who he’s so desperate to find back out in the world. An angered Rick confronts Okafor in his quarters, who reveals that he read Rick’s letter to Michonne and saw the drawings on the phone screens. Things turn violent as Okafor reveals that he would’ve been the one sent to kill Rick and Michonne if Rick successfully escaped. It’s a tense sequence, wonderfully performed by Lincoln and Tate as they riff off of one another. Okafor also reveals that he was involved with the Atlanta and Los Angeles bombings.

Lincoln chillingly delivers the line, “You don’t get to choose for the world. You don’t get to choose for me…My wife is my choice. My daughter is my choice.” Okafor closes out the argument with, “They’re still with you. But you fight here now. You fight for them. You already made the choice.” This entire scene is a genuinely interesting interaction, with two characters believing so strongly that they are in the right. Afterwards, Rick is assigned to a project involving the opening of a new base.

We arrive back at the moment from the opening, with Rick contemplating using a broken glass to end it all. He decides against it, and then starts writing one final letter to Michonne. Rick writes, “This is my last one. The last letter I write to you that you’ll never see. I love you. I don’t see the dead anymore. Or the ones I lost, or the sun, the sky, or the water…I don’t see you anymore. I just see what’s ahead…I tried. But I failed.” The final letter serves as an almost direct contrast to the heartfelt message read aloud in the series finale of the flagship series. Rick Grimes has been broken. 

Rick begins work on the new base, and a time-lapse showcases the mindless computer and construction work Rick oversees over a long period of time. 

We fast-forward to a helicopter ride with Okafor and Rick. Grimes tells a tragic story about how he awoke one night as a child to find the crops on his family farm burning and his dad wounded with burns. “It may look like the end of the world. But it’s only just the beginning,” his dad told him. The fire would result in a much better harvest the next year, but in the moment things had to burn and be destroyed. It’s intriguing to get new, emotional information about Rick Grimes’ upbringing so many years after we met this iconic character.

Just when we thought we’d seen the gnarliest that this premiere episode had to offer, the helicopter is suddenly struck by a projectile which embeds itself right into Okafor’s stomach. Within seconds, the device explodes, splattering those in the helicopter with his bloody entrails. It’s a sudden, shocking death for a character that was genuinely interesting. 

After the helicopter crashes, Rick and the surviving soldiers scurry from the wreckage, only to be quickly disposed of by a very familiar katana. Just as the assailant is about to slice Rick’s neck, they remove his helmet. The look of shock and emotional catharsis on Rick’s face says it all. The assailant is indeed Michonne, and she has finally found Rick. 

Many fans expected Rick and Michonne’s reunion to not come until at least the third installment of this new series, so to see them together again so soon is truly a treat. For a universe that has historically had issues with overdrawn plotlines and slow pacing, major props to “The Ones Who Live” for delivering on expectations so soon. It seems likely the next episode will follow Michonne’s journey up until episode 1’s final moments, setting up episode 3 as the true reunion episode if things follow suit. 

Overall, “The Ones Who Live” is an exceptionally strong return to “The Walking Dead” world. A healthier budget lends itself to consistently stunning set-pieces and cinematography. Andrew Lincoln continues to wow with his emotional and powerful performance as Rick Grimes. The pacing is brisk, and always keying in audiences with new information and exciting events. It wouldn’t be “The Walking Dead” without walkers, and of course they look great and gnarly as always. One thing above all that will keep this show fresh is its refusal to pull any punches. The offing of Grimes’ arm nearly 5 minutes into our long-awaited return to this iconic character’s journey is the perfect kind of macabre storytelling “The Walking Dead” excels at. 

4.5 skulls out of 5

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