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‘The Walking Dead’ finale ending with Rick and Michonne explained

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SPOILER ALERT: This article contains spoilers for The Walking Dead series finale.

The Walking Dead easily could have ended its epic 11-season, record-breaking run with Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus) riding off into the distance on his motorcycle. And for a minute there, as the screen faded to black, it appeared it would. And then a match was lit.

The series finale took a dramatic turn in its final few minutes, looking both ahead and back as viewers saw the return of Andrew Lincoln‘s Rick Grimes and Danai Gurira‘s Michonne — who will be returning for a 2023 spin-off series on AMC. While the duo were in separate places — and, it would seem, separate times — they were connected through images of campfires and the sounds of their voices reciting words they were each writing in a journal. The same journal, it turns out.

The Walking Dead series finale

Andrew Lincoln on ‘The Walking Dead’

| Credit: Curtis Bonds Baker/AMC

That’s because as we saw Rick (shoeless and wearing jeans and a Civic Republic Military jacket) in one scene put his boots, journal, and phone in a bag and then toss it on a boat to avoid it being confiscated by an approaching CRM helicopter, we also saw Michonne with that very same bag, journal, boots and phone in another — the clues that have led her on her journey to find her lost husband.

“I think of the dead all the time,” Rick wrote in his letter as the faces of friends both living and dead— shout out to T-Dog! — flashed across the screen. “And about the living. Who I lost. I think about them all every day. Their faces. What I learned from them. How they made me who I am. So much more than all of this made me who I am.”

Michonne then sprung into action, sporting a fancy new samurai-like suit and slicing the head off one walker while galloping by on horseback, as Rick was approached by a helicopter informing him that “you’ve been located and are instructed to surrender. Remain in place with your hands up,” and then adding, “C’mon Rick. It’s like she told you. There’s no escape for the living.”

Then, before Michonne rode her horse straight towards what just may be the biggest herd of zombies we have ever seen, her letter to Judith finished: “Remember what I said. It’s what he said. Hold it to your heart. It’s true. Forever.” And with that, we flashed back to more images of other Walking Dead characters over the course of the series as we heard their voices repeat the same words: “We’re the ones who live.”

The final scene ended with Rick’s arms raised, surrendering as the helicopter descended from the sky between him and a devastated city across the water. Rick looked up and… smiled? The scene then cut back to his children, Judith and RJ, at the Hilltop, where Judith told her little brother, “We get to start over. We’re the ones who live.”

How did this final montage come to be? Where and when was it filmed? Which former cast members returned to lend their voices? And where exactly is Rick, anyway? We have answers below! (And check out Greg Nicotero’s exclusive storyboards to the scene and answers to the other finale burning questions as well.)

The Walking Dead series finale

Credit: Curtis Bonds Baker/AMC

When and where was the final Rick and Michonne sequence filmed?

While production wrapped on the finale in April, a crew — including finale director Greg Nicotero — returned to The Walking Dead‘s base of operations in Senoia, Georgia, four months later in August for a two-day shoot to film the final section with Lincoln and Gurira.

“At one point people were like, ‘Hey, we want to shoot in Savannah with the Fear the Walking Dead crew,'” Nicotero tells EW. “Or ‘We want to shoot in New Jersey.’ And I said, ‘Guys, I really want to use the crew from The Walking Dead. I want to shoot it at our home base. I just think it’s meaningful and important for us to take the show out with the crew that did the show.'” The network and other producers ultimately agreed.

“From a filmmaking standpoint, we didn’t have this endless amount of time,” chief content officer Scott M. Gimple says. “We were ramping up this production again after the production had stopped, so it was a smaller crew. Greg, [showrunner Angela Kang], Andy, Danai, and I — we knew pretty much every shot. This wasn’t tons of footage to go through. We didn’t have that kind of time. And yeah, we poured over what was said and what was shot and certainly the relationship to stories in the future, but luckily, we knew a lot of where this was going.”

That was thanks to some prepping that Lincoln and Nicotero did across the country prior to filming. “Andy came and stayed with me for a week in L.A.,” the director says. “And we really peeled all the layers back on it. We just jumped right back into it like [we] hadn’t stopped. It was pretty great.”

The Walking Dead series finale

Credit: Curtis Bonds Baker/AMC

When did producers land on this as their series finale ending?

The plan to bring Rick and Michonne back was in Kang’s mind from the very beginning: “From the first pitch I did for the ending of the series, I said to the network and the producers, ‘Hey, I really feel in my heart of hearts that the show is not going to feel totally complete unless we have Rick and Michonne back. I know that there are all these universe implications where I don’t have total control. But I’m putting it out there that this is the ideal version.”

Getting that ideal version took a lot of work. “From there, it was a very, very, very long process to actually lock it all up,” reveals Kang. “Because there were all these moving pieces in the universe, too. So it took a long time and a lot of conversations and there were business aspects that needed to be worked out. But from that point we were like, ‘Well, what is this piece and what does it feel like?'”

“Honestly, I really do think that some of the stuff came from some suggestions and ideas from Norman,” Nicotero says. “Because there was one point when Norman was talking about how cool it would be for Rick Grimes and Daryl to reunite in some capacity. And I thought, ‘Oh, that’s a really great idea. I would’ve watched that show.’ That was a year-and-a-half ago. And then the conversation started.”

What they ultimately ended up with was a collaborative process not just between Kang, Gimple, and Nicotero, but the returning stars as well. “Andy and Danai really wanted to have an idea of what it might be that they were signing onto,” Kang says. “It was really important to them that they didn’t feel like they overshadowed what the current cast was doing. They didn’t want it to be the very final piece of the show. So we would be integrating it somehow. There were certain things that were creatively off the table for them.”

“We didn’t want it to take away from the narrative that had been told for the last season-and-a-half,” Nicotero adds. “Because it wouldn’t make sense to just have Rick show up and save the day. And that would take away from some of the other characters. So we went back and forth for a long time about whether it was going to happen, whether it wasn’t going to happen, whether Danai was going to be available. We went back and forth on it a lot.”

Because Gimple is acting showrunner on the upcoming Rick and Michonne series, he took the lead on writing the scene. “To finish the story of The Walking Dead, we needed Rick and Michonne,” Gimple says. “And to show Rick and Michonne, we had to show them in circumstances that they’re in. And it really was like, no matter where these characters are, the situations they’re in, whether they’re living or dead, they’re forever connected by their time with each other. That they are part of a family that is unbreakable. And that is in some ways one long life, which is something thematically we have invoked throughout the series and in the even earlier moments of this finale. And that’s what we started with.”

“It felt like really the only way to integrate it if they weren’t showing up at the gates of the Commonwealth or Alexandria was to be more about how they are emotionally connected through this idea of, ‘We’re the ones who live,'” Kang says. “And that’s kind of how that all came to pass.”

The Walking Dead series finale

Credit: Curtis Bonds Baker/AMC

What is the significance of the “We’re the ones who live” line?

The line “We’re the ones who live” was first uttered by Rick in the season 5 episode “Try” after battling “Porch Dick” Pete in the street and challenging the more passive residents of Alexandria. “We know what needs to be done and we do it,” he told Deanna Monroe (Tovah Feldshuh) and the group. “We’re the ones who live.”

The phrase was then repeated back to Rick by Michonne in the makeshift Alexandria jail in the season 7 midseason finale, “Hearts Still Beating.” “We’re still alive, Rick,” Michonne said then. “So much has happened. So much that we shouldn’t have lived through. In spite of it, or maybe because of it, we did. We’re still here. The two of us. We’re still standing and we’re going to keep standing. So what do we do with that? How do we make that mean something. We’re the ones who get things done. You said that. We’re the ones who live.”

Michonne then repeated the words to Rick one episode later, in “Rock in the Road,” after surviving a close call with a herd. “We’re here! You can smile. We made it… we can make it. We’re the ones who live.”

“It was always this phrase that was pretty wild,” Gimple tells EW. “As much as there were so many people dying and being able to say, ‘We’re the ones who live.’ But I never took it as just applying to the living people, because that seemed a little much to be like, ‘Hey, we’re the ones that live, too bad about all those people we love.’ No, to me, it felt like there’s a continuum of a relationship and love that cannot be extinguished. And that is what is forged in this hell that we’ve lived through together. And the triumphant thing is that we forever lived through each other and beyond. That, to me, seems the message of the whole thing.”

Who are the voices repeating back the “We’re the ones who live” line?

As we hear Michonne’s voice reading her letter, the action cuts to a montage of scenes featuring current characters like Maggie, Gabriel, Aaron, Eugene, Ezekiel, Negan, Carol, Daryl, while we hear them repeating the “We’re the ones who live” line.

Also included is former TWD and current Fear the Walking Dead character Morgan (Lennie James), but he is not the only former cast member who came back to participate. Here is a complete list of the current and former cast-member voices that can be heard saying “We’re the ones who live” in the montage:

Lauren Cohan (Maggie)
Seth Gilliam (Gabriel)
Ross Marquand (Aaron)
Lennie James (Morgan)
Josh McDermitt (Eugene)
Laurie Holden (Andrea)
Khary Payton (Ezekiel)
Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Negan)
Melissa McBride (Carol)
Norman Reedus (Daryl)
Chandler Riggs (Carl)
Michael Cudlitz (Abraham)
Sonequa Martin-Green (Sasha)
Nadia Hilker (Magna)
Eleanor Matsuura (Yumiko)
Angel Theory (Kelly)
Christian Serratos (Rosita)
Paola Lázaro (Princess)
Cassady McClincy (Lydia)
Cooper Andrews (Jerry)
Okea Eme-Akwari (Elijah)
Margot Bingham (Max)
Steven Yeun (Glenn)
Danai Gurira (Michonne)
Andrew Lincoln (Rick)

Steven Yeun as Glenn Rhee – The Walking Dead _ Season 6, Episode 7

Steven Yeun as Glenn Rhee on ‘The Walking Dead’

| Credit: Gene Page/AMC

At one point, Gimple did not just want to stop at the voices. “There were visions I had in my head of even trying to shoot people in a way and integrate them into it,” he says. “The speed we were moving at, it didn’t seem we could do it visually in a way that seemed awesome.”

In the end, logistical concerns as well as the difficulty in visual matching led them to scrap the idea. “This was scheduled in a very tight way, and we would’ve had to schedule multiple shoots throughout the country to do it. Also, you know in older seasons of Survivor, when they went directly from the last Tribal Council to the live event, and everybody looks completely different over the span of 30 seconds? I was a little worried about that too. Josh McDermitt’s hair is blond right now.”

Seeing images from the 11-season journey with the newly recorded audio did the trick. Says Gimple, “At the end of the day, looking at what we did editorially, I was pretty psyched, because it came through. And I suppose there’s something to seeing the past.”

What is Michonne wearing?

While Rick is shoeless and rocking a raggedy CRM bomber jacket, Michonne is sporting much nicer duds — she wears an ensemble that makes the katana-wielding warrior look like a cross between a samurai and Marvel superhero (something Gurira knows a little something about). It includes a badass hood and cage mask combo.

The “classic Walking Dead wardrobe,” as Gimple describes it, was put together by original TWD costume designer Eulyn Hufkie, who is now working on the Rick and Michonne spin-off. Where did Michonne come across this battle-ready armor? “There is a story behind it that will be told,” Gimple promises. “But Rick is in very different circumstances, and it isn’t just geographic. Obviously, there’s a lot going on, and that armor that she wears is part of a big story with her.”

The Walking Dead series finale

Credit: Curtis Bonds Baker/AMC

Where exactly is Rick?

The montage ends with Rick standing across the water from a decrepit looking city. But what city is it? While Gimple will not state definitively where Rick is, he offers a few clues: “You saw that black helicopter. We know the helicopter is CRM. I mean, hell, we can see it on this jacket. So people could extrapolate beyond that, that the city may be associated with the CRM.”

On The Walking Dead: World Beyond, the CRM destroyed the city of Omaha using chlorine gas and covered up the assault by staging a large walker attack, so if you’re looking for a city that has clearly seen better days and has a CRM connection, that could be it. (Notice the instrument Rick uses to smash the zombie skull resembles a similar device used by Silas and others to de-brain walkers on World Beyond.)

But there is another World Beyond possibility as well. That series ended with the cast of plucky tykes saving the city of Portland from a similar fate as Omaha (or so we thought). We know the CRM is heavily invested in Portland, and the city sits on both the Columbia and Willamette rivers, which could explain the water separating Rick from the ruins.

But before you lay all your money down on a World Beyond connection, wait! Gimple has more clues! “I’ll say this: People have detected what that city is online, and you can look at that skyline and detect where that is. People have seen that skyline referenced already in promotion. It’s been referenced before. I think people could connect those dots.”

So let’s connect them. Back in the summer of 2019, it was announced that the first installment of what was then planned to be a trilogy of Rick Grimes movies would appear “only in theaters.” A short teaser video was produced, and that teaser showed a helicopter and a skyline — a skyline that appears to match the one that just showed up again in the final finale scene. That skyline has been previously identified by online sleuths as… Philadelphia (see video below).

It looks like we may indeed see how much brotherly love Rick Grimes is feeling in the zombie apocalypse.

Finally, why is Rick smiling?

The dude is shoeless, just had to ditch his bag with all his possessions, is surrounded by rotted corpses, totally needs a shower, and appears as if he is about to be apprehended yet again by the CRM, so why is the last image one of Rick Grimes smiling? “Rick still has some fight left in him,” Gimple says. “Rick is not yet broken, Rick is defiant. And Michonne is defiant. These people draw strength from this continuum of love that they have created out of nothing, or even out of tragedy and loss.”

Gimple continues: “And so he is totally screwed there — and I’m speaking like Ezekiel here — and yet he smiles, because he still has some fight in him, and he is not yet laying his head down. And what gives him that is the same thing that gives Michonne the strength to go into that walker herd. And that gives Judith the strength to look at that future and say, ‘We’re the ones who live.’ It’s the strength that’s going to get her through. So that smile is indicative of the strength that is drawn through 11 seasons of The Walking Dead.

And now, more spin-off seasons to come.

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The Walking Dead

AMC’s zombie thriller, based on the classic comic book serial created by Robert Kirkman.

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