‘The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live’ Review: Andrew Lincoln and Danai Gurira Take Charge in Anticipated Spin-Off

Rick and Michonne’s long-gestating reunion takes center stage in the fast-paced AMC series

Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes in "The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live" (Gene Page/AMC)

It’s been a long road to “The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live,” but Rick and Michonne are finally back for more love and war.

The continuation of Rick Grimes’ story was originally imagined as a trilogy of feature films, long-gestating at AMC since his departure from “The Walking Dead.” Instead, they settled on a six-episode spin-off for fans who have been awaiting Rick and Michonne’s return to the small screen. They’re joined by returning favorites like Pollyanna McIntosh, reprising her role as Jadis, and new faces, played by “Lost” alum Terry O’Quinn, Lesley-Ann Brandt and others.

Five years after Rick (Andrew Lincoln) was presumed dead in a bridge explosion, we catch up with the once unstoppable protagonist, here unhappily working for the Civic Republic Military (CRM), a powerful military organization first introduced in the eighth season of “The Walking Dead” and briefly explored on both “Fear the Walking Dead” and “The Walking Dead: World Beyond.” The mysterious CRM is front and center on this show, and we finally start getting answers to its inner machinations through the eyes of Rick.

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Danai Gurira as Michonne in “The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live.” (Gene Page/AMC)

Of course, his primary goal is to get back to Michonne, whom he writes letters to and dreams about constantly. Lincoln is right back at home in this character, imbuing Rick with all the messy complexity and rage-filled desperation we remember from his heights on the original series. His attempts to escape the CRM get more desperate than the last, and his arc through the first few episodes is dark and moving.

Michonne’s (Danai Gurira) side of the story is just as emotionally devastating. After finding clues that Rick is alive back in “The Walking Dead” and leaving the show in its tenth season, we follow her treacherous misadventures on her search for Rick — despite not confirming if he is actually alive — with the help of some new friends.

Gurira is as good as ever reprising one of the most iconic characters in the franchise. She also contributed as a writer, penning the fourth episode.

The four episodes provided to critics for review build up hope only to rip it away, and in classic “Walking Dead” fashion, dispense with human life as soon as you find yourself invested. These are cheap stakes, but they work in the context of a brief, six-episode revisitation of this world. At times this accelerated pace (particularly in the first two episodes directed by Bert and Bertie) works quite well compared to the drawn-out storylines from the last few seasons of “The Walking Dead.” Some plot points, however, feel like the show should have spent a few more episodes building up the tension, rather than churning through massive amounts of plot at once. This show is definitely not a slow burn.

Over the years since Rick left “The Walking Dead,” the universe has proliferated to mixed results. Some new iterations proved there was still creative juice left to squeeze out of this intellectual property (“Daryl Dixon”), and others fell flat (“Dead City”). “The Ones Who Live” falls somewhere in the middle. The show is, in tone, darker and grittier than you might expect. There are plenty of gruesome scenes and tense holdouts against zombie hoards. But most fans will be tuning in to watch Rick and Michonne in the hopes of a reunion — and the show does not disappoint in slowing down to offer an appropriate and emotional exploration of their love story.

In fact, exploring the CRM’s military hierarchy begins to feel much less interesting after the initial spectacle fades. “The Walking Dead” was always at its best when focused on a small group of rag-tag survivors. When the universe zooms out too far in the hopes of establishing higher stakes — like in the introduction of the Saviors, or worse, the Commonwealth — it begins to feel generic and loses the thread of more defined character development.

Terry O’Quinn in “The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live.” (Gene Page/AMC)

At times, the world in this series does feel too small. And what we see of the CRM in these four episodes is very limited, with more telling than showing and many questions left unanswered. This setting would risk sinking a show with less veteran actors, but Lincoln and Gurira are so magnetic on-screen that no emotional beat is left unturned, making “The Ones Who Live” well-worth the watch.

After four episodes though, it’s difficult to see where the show is headed in terms of its goals within the wider “Walking Dead” universe: to a total destruction of the CRM? To an open-ended storyline hoping to spur yet another spin-off? The show sees the return of Scott M. Gimple as showrunner, along with Lincoln and Gurira as executive producers, and the door seems to be open for “The Ones Who Live” to return for future seasons, according to comments Gimple has made in interviews.

At the very least, “The Ones Who Live” is an accessible spin-off for casual “Walking Dead” fans who may have jumped ship after Rick left the show — flashbacks are even used to remind viewers of key events in the original series. At its best, it’s a powerhouse showcase for just how good Lincoln and Gurira are in these roles. But do not expect a radical reinvention of the franchise.

“The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live” premieres Sunday, Feb. 25, on AMC and AMC+.

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