I was one of those nerds who actually read all of the assigned reading in school. Things Fall Apart? They sure do and with lots of yams. The Scarlet Letter? More like: The Scarlet Symbolism For Dummies*.
*I’ll never get over the fact that a literary classic has a villain named “Chillingworth.”
But there was one high school reading assignment that was far too long, dense and complex for even my nerdy self to attempt: Crime and Punishment. Asking hormonal teenagers to wade through 700 pages of translated Russian is a tall task and certainly not one I was up for. So I read the Spark Notes…which were awesome. The Spark Notes of Crime and Punishment may be the best book I’ve ever read because they so clearly elucidate what Dostoevsky is going for.
Crime and Punishment is the relatively simple story of someone trying to become more than a mere human. The protagonist, Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, is an ex-student living in crushing poverty in St. Petersburg. Being a smart guy, he’s read up on the theories of Friedrich Nietzsche and the concept of an “ubermensch” or in English: the “superman.” The ubermensch is a human being of God-like perspective and influence. Since “God is dead,” Nietzsche himself having “killed” him, why wouldn’t humanity someday spawn the human equivalent? Someone who sets the tone and agenda for the rest of the world?
Raskolnikov thinks he just might be that guy. So he sets out to prove it: by murdering another human being. Murdering an old, rich pawnbroker would not only provide him with money to begin his new world order but the act itself would set him aside from the rest of humanity. Only the ubermensch gets to decide who lives and who dies.
Alas, much like Dr. John Dorian, Raskolnikov is no superman. He is racked with guilt and descends into madness.
Years later, in the balmy plains of Georgia and on an entirely new medium, pop culture would finally provide us with the Platonic ideal of an ubermensch. And that mensch is, of course, Rick Grimes. Rick Grimes is the strongest example of a Nietzschian ubermensch in an actually good product* yet because he has a quality in spades that few other heroes have: plot armor.
*Sure, I guess Steven Seagal is probably ubermensch-y in most of his movies, but do you really want to read about Steven Seagal?
Rick Grimes is absolutely untouchable on The Walking Dead because the plot needs him. His are the first eyes we see when the world ends in “Days Gone Bye” and his eyes will be the last we see when it begins again in the end.
Writer and creator Robert Kirkman can pay lip service to Rick being kill-able all he wants. Nothing the show has ever done suggests that Rick is wearing anything other completely bulletproof plot armor from head to toe.
And let me be clear: I don’t think this a bad thing or cowardice on Kirkman or the other writers’ part. The Walking Dead rightfully has a reputation where any character can be killed at any moment, and that’s thrilling. But it’s even more thrilling that Rick is so safe. Because, whether intentional on the writers’ part or not, Rick’s secure plot armor has led to the most fascinating exploration of a superman since Superman.
The Walking Dead can struggle when it’s trying to portray how the “average joe” or “real people” would respond to the unimaginable stress of being constantly attacked by the reanimated corpses of their loved ones. And the reason that the show struggles with that is that it’s exactly that: unimaginable. There’s no way to tell if the characters are behaving appropriately as there’s just not even remotely a real world equivalent of something resembling an undead Armageddon.
The concept of an ubermensch, however? That’s more interesting and weirdly more plausible. Frederich Nietzsche was a brilliant man and he didn’t come up with the concept of an ubermensch so that a basic cable TV show could comment on it one day. He did it because he thought the actual ubermensch was right around the corner: the man (or woman, but probably not in Nietzsche’s original conception sadly) who could make us forget about the illusion of God. And on some level, we’ve all internalized that, whether it was through a careful reading of Crime and Punishment or just listening to artists who were influenced by artists who were influenced by Nietzsche.
So, beyond mere plot armor, how else does Rick establish himself as the ubermensch? Well as it turns out Raskolnikov was not far off in thinking murder was a good start.
Despite Rick’s early moral code that “we don’t kill the living,” Rick is usually forced to kill the living with alarming frequency. And as fate (and plot armor) would have it: he’s quite adept at it.
His first two kills are in the season two episode “Nebraska.” Rick has met up with Hershel at a local bar after Hershel is devastated that all his zombified friends and family are now dead-dead, when two dangerous men enter the bar. They’re clearly intrigued by the thought of taking over Hershel’s farm as their own. And as things are about to escalate Rick shoots them both dead in seconds with stunning precision. It’s the first moment that shows just about everyone might be helplessly overmatched against Rick Grimes.
Shane certainly was. By the end of that same season, Shane doesn’t kill Rick quickly enough and Rick stabs him to death in moments. Soon after he leads an expedition off of the farm, he famously announces that their group is no longer a democracy. With Rick present, it never really was or could be.
That’s not even to mention Rick’s most brutal act of violence – his “confrontation” with the Claimers. After Rick’s group is separated due to the destruction of their prison sanctuary, Rick, Michonne, and Carl come across the group that Daryl has been spending his time with. The Claimers want to kill Rick for killing one of their men in self defense. In one of the most brutal and uncomfortable scenes in a show filled with them, Rick has a gun to his head while one of the Claimers is about to rape Carl. Rick backwards headbutts the man holding a gun to his head in the crotch and the gun goes off sending Rick’s ears ringing. That moment of Rick’s ears ringing is spectacular. It’s like he’s not just experiencing tinnitus but rather the true awakening of something monstrous inside him. He dispatches Joe, the head Claimer easily and then brutally stabs the one threatening his son to death.
With Rick’s violence bona-fides establishing his status as the ubermensch, The Walking Dead is then able to explore the implications of having such a powerful person amongst a group.
Most interestingly is that sometimes Rick is just crazy. The stress of always being the one to make the decision combined with the general stress of his ultra-violent, nihilistic environment can occasionally separate Rick from reality. In the prison, after his wife, Lori, dies he sometimes hallucinates her form and talks to her on a disconnected phone. When Hershel asks him what he’s up to, Rick famously, distantly answers “Things…stuff…”
Later in his post-prison existence, Rick grows what is just objectively a crazy person beard and has to resort to eating wild dogs to survive. It’s the kind of circumstances that can make a man say “shut up” to a dead body after that dead body was moments ago a fairly innocent man.
This level of mental instability is fascinating when viewed through the lens of Rick as the ubermensch. It’s like if Superman got accidentally wasted one day and stumbled around Metropolis shooting eye-lasers into parked cars. What do you even do? And with Rick, there isn’t even any a reserve supply of kryptonite to combat him.
The members of Rick’s group are often too focused on the stress of their situation to confront the “Rick problem” but every now and again there is a palpable and fascinating unease towards him. When Aaron arrives to recruit Rick and his followers into Alexandria, most of the group seems willing to believe but Feral Rick isn’t. And the group, even with strong men and warriors like Abraham, Daryl, and Michonne appear uneasy with the fact that the only man whose opinion in the group matters, disagrees with them.
That unease with the reality of Rick and a plot-dictated superman is never more pronounced than it is in the Alexandria plotline from season 5. It’s also no coincidence that the Alexandria episodes are so far among the most sustained level of excellence the show has achieved yet. When Rick’s group arrives in Alexandria, it’s almost as if they’ve arrived in the television watchers living rooms. The neighborhood is pristine and the danger is minimal. These are “normal” people. And now they have to not only deal with these seemingly feral intruders but also their bearded leader who is seemingly indestructible.
Even the timid and civilized Alexandrians soon realize the benefits of living with the superman, however, as they get in line behind his leadership and then later choose to follow him into battle against ubermensch-esque Negan.
The Walking Dead does like to play the hero/villain “you’re not so different, you and I” game between Negan and Rick. In this case, the show may actually be onto something. No Rick and Negan’s methods aren’t similiar – nor are their general demeanors. But they are both operating under a simple principle: in this new, cruel world, only someone truly special – someone beyond human can keep their people safe. Negan is just a little more arrogant about it – calling himself a “Savior.”
By establishing Rick as a Nietzschian ubermensch, The Walking Dead created a fascinating scenario in which it has to confront the unsettling reality of such a person – through the relatively normal citizens of Alexandria. And that is far more interesting than witnessing the struggle of other “normal” characters to stay alive.
I don’t know if Robert Kirkman was aware he was creating a Nietzschian archetype when he decided to let Rick Grimes live through hell. But I suspect the writers of The Walking Dead are now at least somewhat aware of the over-powered superman they’ve spawned, and they are continuing to use him in fascinating ways.
This will undoubtedly continue as Rick’s last episode wasn’t the death knell we all thought. Rick will be making the jump to theaters to continue to story of pop culture’s most unkillable ubermensch.
A version of this article ran on October 13, 2015.