Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes, sits at a desk with a prosthetic hand.
(Gene Page/AMC)

When Rick Grimes Lost His Hand, ‘The Walking Dead’ Gained a Disabled Fan

The Walking Dead franchise on AMC caught my attention for the first time in almost a decade with The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Lived.

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No, it wasn’t the hot romance between Michonne (Danai Gurira) and Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), though that ultimately contributed to my enjoyment of the series, as it was refreshing to see able-bodied Michonne stick by her man. (Honestly, George A. Romero’s Monkey Shines is one of the few other on-screen examples of sex between a disabled man and an abled-bodied woman I can think of.) Instead, it was because it decided to return to a popular disability storyline from the Robert Kirkman-penned comic books: when Rick loses his hand and then learns how to adjust to the amputation.

I will briefly recap what happened in the series premiere of The Ones Who Lived shortly, but first, how I got here with a franchise I once loved, because I know I’m not alone. It’s a fandom story I hear so often that the opinion is almost fact: The worst thing the original TWD series ever did was its handling of Glenn Rhee’s (Steven Yeun) death. After teasing fans with a fake-out death in season 6, episode 3, “Thank You,” where viewers saw Glenn fall into a hoard of walkers and scream in anguish, it was later revealed that the character somehow survived the zombie hoard, allowing him to briefly return so that he could be unceremoniously killed off in the season 7 premiere, “The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be,” by Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan).

Glenn’s death was the last episode of the series I watched, though, unlike other TWD fans, I did continue watching the spin-offs. In Fear the Walking Dead, Nick Clark (Frank Dillane), recovering heroin addict and son of Madison Clark (Kim Dickens), was one of the best depictions of addiction and recovery on television EVER, with Nick’s nihilism and street smarts proving essential to the family’s survival in the zombie apocalypse more than once. Speaking from experience (February 2024 marked my 13th-ish sober birthday), I do think most current and ex-drug addicts would have the skills to survive any apocalypse. Do you know how to stitch up your own wounds? I do.

With Glenn out of the way both figuratively and literally, let’s get to Rick and the second worst thing TWD has ever done: the decision not to have The Governor (David Morrissey) chop off Rick’s right hand, along with other ableist changes to the character, who sustained multiple injuries in the comics and adapted to them.

Early in Kirkman’s TWD comics, Rick severely mangles his hand during the prison story arc. After he learns that living among the group of survivors at the prison is a serial killer who is hunting the others, we see the former sheriff go into full frontier justice mode, beating the man to a bloody pulp in a fit of rage. Sometime after Rick sustains this unrelated (but relevant to this article) hand injury, it’s amputated by The Governor during a confrontation in Woodbury when the former refuses to tell the latter that his group of survivors has found safety at the prison. (If you aren’t familiar with the storyline, the key point is that cutting off Rick’s hand isn’t an act of mercy but manipulation.)

Though I’m not an amputee and can’t speak to those tropes, I have a disability that sometimes impacts the use of my limbs and can attest to how ableist tropes impact the broader disabled community—and me, more specifically. As a fan of the comics, I enjoyed Rick’s post-amputation storyline because it was singular for forcing the character to adapt to the change to survive without it being a moral lesson for the reader. Furthermore, he was one of many protagonists in the comics who had to learn to adapt to their physical and psychological trauma, and while the process was often messy, the rawness felt similar to the true-to-life struggles of those in the disability and chronic illness communities.

When Kirkman announced TWD, his concept was, “What happens to the protagonist of a zombie movie post-credits?” Although Kirkman has questioned his decision to amputate Rick’s right hand since he says it created subsequent storytelling challenges, those challenges also helped the comic stay true to the original concept. I had hoped forcing himself to envision living in our shoes would create more empathy. Still, despite Kirkman’s reservations, to those of us with disabilities, it was a bold, impactful move to have a character that we could point to that normalized amputee bodies in mass media, and furthermore, showed that they could be capable. This is because the decision forced the comics into avoiding the common ableist trope known as the “single-episode handicap” (or, in this case, single-issue handicap), where a protagonist is struck by a short-lived disability only to be cured by the next storyline.

That representive power was undermined by the TWD‘s refusal to do the Rick hand storyline at first, citing, in part, that it was hard to write around a one-handed hero. Instead, the show opted to remix Rick’s prison storyline where he gets a nasty gash on his hand in a tussle with The Governor’s group in “Thank You,” the very same episode as the fake-out Glenn death mentioned above. In that episode, a rival group intercepts the ex-sheriff while he’s dealing with a walker herd and his hand is injured.

As a disabled viewer (and maybe this is a small blessing), I wasn’t even given the episode to hope for the possibility that the series would give me the amputee representation of the comics, as the showrunner was immediately on a press tour telling everyone that Grimes’ hand would not be amputated.

“I’ll give you an absolute because I’ve been dealing with a lot of ambiguity in storytelling here in protecting the story: Rick’s hand is safe,” showrunner Scott M. Gimple told The Hollywood Reporter in 2015. “You can proclaim it from the mountaintops: His hand is safe! He will be wrapping it. There will be some ointments involved.” In other words, G-d forbid a character to learn to adapt to a disability, that would make my job hard! Now, imagine how hard it must be to actually adapt to the able-bodied world when you live with a disability.

So I got emotional when I returned to the franchise with the premiere episode of The Ones Who Lived, which opened with Rick amputating his left hand. That happened a lot differently than in the comics—namely because the hand he amputates is notably not his right one, meaning not his dominant hand, an important distinction.

But the storyline that got Rick to the disability is not what matters to me, it’s what the show did with it afterward. While sometimes skirting the terminal illness trope (noting here, though, that sometimes this trope is used by able-bodied folx in non-terminal situations), the show also touched on a part of the disability experience not often represented in media: the relationship between disability and suicidal ideation. And much like what I loved about the comic, Rick’s journey was raw and messy, not a moral story for able-bodied consumption.

(featured image: Gene Page/AMC)


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Author
Rebecca Oliver Kaplan
Rebecca Oliver Kaplan (she/he) is a comics critic and entertainment writer, who's dipping her toes into new types of reporting at The Mary Sue and is stoked. In 2023, he was part of the PanelxPanel comics criticism team honored with an Eisner Award. You can find some more of his writing at Prism Comics, StarTrek.com, Comics Beat, Geek Girl Authority, and in Double Challenge: Being LGBTQ and a Minority, which she co-authored with her wife, Avery Kaplan. Rebecca and her wife live in the California mountains with a herd of cats.