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The Walking Dead, Lord of the Flies, and Rick’s ultimate end

As Andrew Lincoln wraps his run, we look back at a pivotal inspiration for the AMC series

Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes - The Walking Dead _ Season 9, Episode 1 Jackson Lee Davis/AMC

AMC’s adaptation of The Walking Dead is moving into a new phase. After nine years as Rick Grimes, actor Andrew Lincoln will depart the zombie drama in the new season’s early episodes. But where is Rick headed? At the conclusion of season eight, the ex-sheriff loses Carl and allows Negan, Rick’s latest, intimidating antagonist, to live. There’s a caveat to that decision, as Maggie says to Rick in the season nine trailer: “When we were fighting the Saviors, you told me that soon you’d be the one following me. But you didn’t because I wasn’t someone to follow. That changes now.”

As ominous as it may seem, Rick’s leadership choices echo a familiar story. Fans of The Walking Dead may recall their freshman year English classes of high school, reading William Golding’s novel The Lord of the Flies. The novel, both revered and reviled, lays bare the story of a group of boys’ tumultuous and violent fall into savagery following a plane crash on an uninhabited island. Their descent into a hellscape intertwines with the arc of another leader, Ralph, who is not unlike Rick Grimes.

Through its nine seasons, The Walking Dead has seemed to loosely adapt Golding’s structure and plot points, while drawing out the drama and further complicating the plot-lines, archetypes and characters along the way. And while Ralph isn’t a one-for-one match for The Walking Dead’s hero, revisiting his journey informs Rick’s own, establishing and complicating his leader-like qualities, and potentially foreshadowing where the arc may end in season nine.

Lord of the flies 1963 film adaptation Ralph and the boys
Lord of the Flies (1963)
Criterion Collection

To introduce us to the world of Lord of the Flies, Golding describes Ralph lowering himself from a tree, examining the world around him and aimlessly navigating this new setting. On the mainland in a steaming Georgia overrun by zombies, Rick’s eyes burst open, awakening from a coma. He too meanders the dilapidated world he once knew. But it is not only the audience alignment that forges a bond identifying the two as leaders, it is their ultimate selection and the subtle way in which Ralph’s appointment informs The Walking Dead’s hero.

The survivors’ selection of Ralph as a leader is far more democratic than the selection process Rick finds himself in, and after Ralph is voted in, he delegates a group — which he leads — to explore the rest of the island. It’s a cautious and selective process, allowing fellow survivor Jack the reins of lead hunter for the tribe. This occurrence in the classic novel reincarnates and updates to fill the intense post-apocalyptic world of The Walking Dead.

Rick finds himself in a similar situation. After being reunited with his family and a small group of survivors, the natural leader assembles a team to return into the heart of Atlanta in order to find Rick’s weapons, preparing them for the world in which they now live. The arc is then further drawn out into Rick’s confrontation with the leader of the Vatos gang.

But on an episodic, serialized path of The Walking Dead, Rick takes confrontation and turns it into accommodation, allowing the gang to keep some of Rick’s weapons in exchange for Glenn, whom the Vatos had taken hostage. While Ralph distills his own confrontation with Jack in a matter of sentences by compromising and delegating him the leader of the choir boys, Rick’s arc explores the compromises of leadership in a far more drawn out, mature fashion where the stakes are even higher. It is the obvious actions of Ralph that later inform Rick’s decisions with the same logic operating on a complicated level.

The biggest disconnect between the two characters is everything Rick faces as the hero of an episodic drama. Lord of the Flies is breezy, and establishes one main confrontation between Ralph and Jack, who goes from team player to a contender for Ralph’s seat, backed by his clique of choir boys. He is more intense and his ego is fragile. When placed in a position of power he wields it with cruelty. Jack is the archetypal antagonist, bent on turning those Ralph leads against him — it’s the singular confrontation to Golding’s novel. The Walking Dead adapts this very conflict by positioning antagonists to Rick, each more lethal than the next, bearing intense inverses of morality and civility.

But each time Rick comes into contact with a new manifestation of The Lord of the Flies’ Jack, another common man warped by disaster, Rick, in turn, falls further from the civility Ralph maintains throughout the novel. Succumbing to the world around him, the informed arc that Rick follows is further complicated with each new chapter; new season. As opposed to staying on Ralph’s path of maintaining civility and morality, Rick treads his own rugged road, adapting his leadership arc to verge on the monstrous but maintain the control both he and Ralph hold on to at the beginning of their respective stories.

the walking dead season 9 episode 1 rick Jackson Lee Davis/AMC

When faced with extreme conflict, as with Shane and Negan, Rick’s compromise and momentary ruthlessness is justified for the greater good. In the face of Negan, Rick uses the tragedy of his own son to buy him some time, before cutting Negan’s throat, destabilizing the tyrant. But he lets him live. Like in Lord of the Flies, Rick is informed by the just decisions of Ralph, whose own compromises lead him to his near-death fate. But unlike the classic, literary drama, the world Rick lives in requires justification time and again. A life for a life, vindicating the necessity for civility.

Rick’s arc offers characters who become foils and companions to his journey. Throughout the series, Carl, Rick’s son, remained the catalyst to Rick, reminding him to maintain his semblance of humanity in spite of the world, his parting words being, “You can still be who you are,” recalling the charismatic, merciful sheriff of season one. In the final moments of season eight, Rick utters an affirmation of sorts, “My mercy prevails over my wrath.”

Despite beginning on the same path, Rick takes a direction far more volatile than Ralph’s. As the story has drawn on, nothing about Rick’s leadership arc remains as simple as it was. He is no longer the savior the survivors were hoping for. Instead, he, like the world around him, is crumbling, constantly trying to find a new reason to keep leading. Where the two once began as similar characters, the quickened pace of Ralph’s story leads for little complication, whereas the nine years of The Walking Dead has served to build on the outlined themes of Golding’s classic novel, creating in time a leader curtailed by mercy, revenge and survival.

In 2014, The Walking Dead actor Michael Cudlitz made his own comparison to Golding’s novel, calling the series “a huge social experiment.” Golding’s framework may have been more explicit early on, but in his final stretch of episodes, Rick has a lived the episode of Lord of the Flies many times over. Could the book still offer his resolution?

Golding’s novel lays out the basic blueprint of Rick’s arc. The disillusionment of civility and humanity within these respective worlds befalls the mindset of Ralph and Rick, with the latter, subsequently, handling his path through compromise and vindication. Unlike Ralph, Rick’s logic on dealing with his adversaries is revered. His decisions are mostly respected, his leadership validated. But as the end draws near for Rick, fans continue to theorize their leader’s end. With Lord of the Flies, Ralph is completely turned against by the boys he once led. Hunted and nearly killed, he runs for his life before meeting a British naval officer on the beach, dropping to his knees and weeping at the sight of salvation. Rick could find his own salvation when he meets his end. But with The Walking Dead continuing on without him, a proper rescue — the kind that saved Golding’s vision of a leader —may not be in the cards.

Julia is an entertainment writer with featured work at The Playlist, Film School Rejects, HelloGiggles, PopSugar, The Young Folks, and Screen Rant.