Rick Grimes’ last episode of The Walking Dead was just as moving as you’d expect. It brought his story full circle, as he returned to many of the show’s old haunts – like the Greene farm and the hospital where it all started – and there were even some emotional cameo appearances from the likes of Jon Bernthal’s Shane, Hershel (the late, much-missed Scott Wilson) and Sonequa Martin-Green’s Sasha, which took the form of Rick’s near-death hallucinations.
However, one face was conspicuous by their absence: his son, Carl Grimes, who was tragically killed back in season 8. Rick’s been dedicated to upholding his late son’s vision of a peaceful future of late, so it was curious that Carl wasn’t on his mind during what could have been his final moments…if he wasn’t transported away by Anne in a helicopter, that is.
So, why didn’t Chandler Riggs return for the episode? Showrunner Angela Kang was asked this question while speaking to ComicBook.com and revealed the thinking behind choosing the cameos that they did. First off, she explained why these old characters even came back in the first place.
“We dove into this idea of the ‘third man phenomenon. When people are close to death, sometimes they imagine seeing somebody that they knew or that they don’t know that helped drive them to survive and keep them going.”
From this starting point, Kang and her writers decided upon those three individuals that featured. Though all were of importance to Rick, none of them were his family as it was felt that if, say, his late wife or son had appeared to him, the character’s emotional journey would’ve been over.
“We had these three particular characters [Shane, Hershel and Sasha] who are sort of filling an emotional need for him in the moment, but Rick’s entire journey is looking for his family, and I felt, creatively felt, that if he sees Lori or Carl he would feel like, ‘OK, I fulfilled my mission. I found them. I’m home. I can lay down and die now.’”
The fight to find his family – and the ultimate realization that he’s been with them all along – were what was keeping Rick alive in this moment, so a cameo from Carl would have undercut all that.
“He needed to keep going for the family that is still there, and so to have that kind of restlessness of like, ‘I still haven’t found them. Where are they? Where are they?’ bringing him back to realizing his family has always been there all along ― that the people he’s fighting for now are still his family ― that’s what keeps him going. So he can’t find them, otherwise it’d be too easy for him to give up.”
When explained like that, it makes sense that Carl didn’t return. Perhaps if Rick had died, he would have run off into the afterlife in the arms of his son. However, Rick survived to live another day – or, more specifically, to star in three spinoff movies. Perhaps Riggs will get the chance to reunite with Andrew Lincoln in one of those then, the first of which is due to start production in 2019.
In the meantime, The Walking Dead season 9 continues Sundays on AMC.