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The Walking Dead's abrupt, surprise finale is the only way it could've ended

By Trent Moore
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It started with Rick — and though it didn’t seem like it at the time — it ended with Rick, too. Robert Kirkman and Image Comics shocked the world by abruptly ending The Walking Dead comic with no warning, even releasing fake solicitations for non-existent future issues to keep the surprise intact.

**SPOILER ALERT: Obviously, spoilers ahead for the final few issues of The Walking Dead, including Issue 193**

It was an ambitious gambit from a creative standpoint, but far more from a financial perspective. The Walking Dead has grown to be one of the most popular comic books on the market, typically leading bestseller lists across the board. That success hasn’t really waned, which makes the series’ end all the more surprising. It's the comic-book-world equivalent of if Marvel Studios decided to suddenly stop making superhero movies — just as Avengers: Endgame is cracking box-office records and making money hand over fist.

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The Walking Dead is one of the biggest independent entertainment properties on the planet, from the hit AMC series, its spinoffs, and upcoming Rick-centric movies all the way back to the comic that started it all and ran nonstop for the past 16 years. But it became such a cultural phenomenon thanks to the same reckless abandon that surrounds its surprise cancellation. This comic has never, ever pulled its punches. It’s killed off scores of main characters like they were wearing red shirts, torched entire settings and story arcs with no warning, and kept the story barreling ever onward no matter what happened the issue before.

It was a comic about the shock, terror, hope, horror, and excitement of life after the end of the world. How else could it end? The comic’s bread and butter over the better part of two decades was in shocking deaths, from Shane to even Rick Grimes himself right here at the end. Of course the comic would end in much the same way, the final surprise death to end them all. This ends the series on a shocking high note. One of the biggest pop culture surprises of the decade. One last jaw-dropper.

Seeing where Kirkman chose to clip the story also made it clear that, despite the comic’s frequent focus on the ensemble of survivors making their way through this broken apocalypse, this was always Rick Grimes’ world. We were just living in it. Rick went from wayward survivor to legendary hero over the course of those 193 issues, and though it seemed like Kirkman was finally preparing to pass the mantle to Rick’s son Carl and the other survivors to keep the torch burning for another decade run or so, he was really wrapping up the story of The Walking Dead itself, which ended where it began — with Rick Grimes.

Though fans are still shell-shocked, it’s a fitting end. The TV series and its subsequent spinoffs have made the case that this franchise is bigger than one man. Rick’s gone on the flagship TV series (though a trilogy of TV movies are in the works), and Rick has never had anything to do with the spinoff series Fear the Walking Dead. But the comic was a different animal. Rick was and has always remained central to its narrative. We just never realized it until it ended, with Kirkman finally giving us the full, final context of this journey.

As for the final chapter, Issue 193 jumps the action decades into the future to explore the world Rick Grimes helped create and left behind after his shocking murder, just an issue ago. We find Carl, now a grown man himself, trying to find his way in a world that is quickly forgetting the bloody chaos and horror that forged it. He’s married to Sophia, and they have a daughter of their own, named in honor of Andrea. It’s Carl’s story here, but it’s still Rick who looms large over it all.

He may be gone, but we get a glimpse at the reality all his hard work helped create. The safe zones extend across cities and cities, and the survivors are working to connect with another group across the country, seemingly bringing the entire world back together, realizing the dreams Rick could barely dare to dream back when he first tried to establish a permanent settlement in a hollowed-out prison all those years ago.

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Rick didn’t live to see it, but he won. He rebuilt the world, and there’s even a larger-than-life Rick Grimes statue looming above to remind us all who to thank. The central conflict finds Carl at odds with Maggie’s now-adult son, who runs a traveling road show of walkers. One escapes, and Carl kills it, then he goes back and kills the entire exhibit’s worth of walkers, because he’s one of the few people left who remember how big a threat they actually are.

Carl is a man torn between these two realities, and looking ahead to the stories that won’t be told, it’s clear the world of The Walking Dead will have a hard time reconciling the deadly crucible that brought it to this point. But that the world is safe enough to have that discussion in the first place is the point in itself.

Rick’s legend is now told in children’s stories, as the closing few pages lay out. The man who saved the world.

The actual finale is a far cry better than Kirkman’s original plan to wrap up the comic years ago, around Issue 72, which he ultimately (obviously) scrapped. The story would’ve originally ended with Rick giving a rousing speech about fighting for humanity, and Alexandria, then fade out to a statue of Rick’s face. Alexandria would’ve thrived, for a while, with a statue built in Rick’s honor.

But a flash forward would reveal the city has long since fallen, and walkers have long since reclaimed it in the decades to come. The moral of that story? No matter what, humanity is doomed to fail.

“It was a TERRIBLE ending,” Kirkman admitted. "Bleak, sad … made the whole story pointless. What can I say … I was young, and most of the endings I wrote or came up with back then … were pretty bleak.”

Yeah, we’ll take grown-up Carl rocking his daughter to sleep — telling her stories of her grandfather’s heroism — over that downer every time.

Thankfully, Kirkman decided to keep the story going for another several years, bringing us to a much wider world. That extension seemingly gave him the time to figure out exactly what kind of story he was telling all along. It’s a story of hope. Sure, the title might be The Walking Dead, but this has always been a story about the living. And in the end, that’s what Carl and the world Rick built will keep on doing.


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The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.