The Evolution of ‘The Walking Dead’ TV Character Michonne

by Tai Gooden

Michonne (Danai Gurira) - The Walking Dead - Season 3, Episode 1 - Photo Credit: Gene Page/AMC
Michonne (Danai Gurira) – The Walking Dead – Season 3, Episode 1 – Photo Credit: Gene Page/AMC

The Walking Dead has become the cornerstone of AMC’s original programming since its debut in 2010, but the story began seven years prior in The Walking Dead comic series, penned by Robert Kirkman. The series approached the zombie genre from a novel angle, by having no explanation for the virus, no use of the actual word “zombie,” nor a swift, happy conclusion for the characters. It took a deeper look at how a lawless society would challenge survivors’ moral codes and the lengths they would go for long-term survival in an apocalyptic world. The ongoing comic follows former deputy Rick Grimes, who woke up from a coma to discover that the world had forever changed, and his journey to find a safe haven with his son Carl and their makeshift group of fellow survivors. The Walking Dead comic series has been consistently popular among fans of the zombie genre, which led to the successful television series.

The Walking Dead’s TV storyline often deviates from its comic counterpart to bring fresh perspectives to the series while keeping many of the crucial characters and adding a few new faces. Some of these characters, like Carol, are drastically different in the television show and have found an extended life past their comic arc. Others like crossbow carrying Daryl Dixon were created specifically for the show and have become beloved members of Rick’s family.

But, katana wielding badass Michonne enjoys popularity in both mediums and continues to be an integral member of various story arcs. Michonne’s longevity and prominence in The Walking Dead as a Black woman fills a needed representation void in the horror/zombie genre. The character has become well-known for being one of the most resourceful, logical, levelheaded, and influential members of the group. She made her first appearance in the season 2 finale “Beside the Dying Fire” as she saved Andrea, a member of Rick’s group who became separated from everyone after a fire at the group’s former safe haven. Michonne appeared as a mysterious figure covered by a hood with two jawless, armless “walkers” (read: zombies) trailing behind her on chains.

But, it wasn’t until the season three opener “Seed” that fans got to see actress Danai Gurira onscreen as the character for the first time. She was quickly established as a woman of few words who had survived against impossible odds. Her only company was her two walkers and she traveled among the walking dead for an undefined amount of time. Like every long-term character on the show, Michonne has gone through major psychological and emotional changes. But, her evolution from a guarded, lonely traveler carrying the weight of the world on her back to Rick Grimes’ partner in survival and one of the most respected people in their current home of Alexandria has been one of the most satisfying arcs.

Before the apocalypse, Michonne was a mother to her toddler son Andre and shared a comfortable lifestyle with her boyfriend. However, her boyfriend and his close friend destroyed her faith in people when she went on a run and came back to discover a walker attack on their community. Because they were too high to properly defend themselves or her son, Andre was killed by the invading walkers. Her rage caused her to let them turn and become the walkers she had on chains. She literally (and emotionally) carried the weight of their (as well as Andre’s) deaths on her back as she made them her mules to carry supplies and camouflage among walkers.

During this time, Michonne found and began to use a katana, a weapon which logically made sense for a lone traveler. Unlike Rick’s 357 Magnum revolver, a katana was a silent yet effective weapon which allowed her to plow through several walkers within seconds. The katana was a weapon used by the samurai, who viewed swords as an extension of a person’s soul. This is significant for Michonne because her katana mirrors her personality. She is often silent and surveying situations, yet when it is time for action she brings swift justice to her foe. Michonne’s katana was (and is still) always at her side and ready to protect her in a world where her weapon was the only thing she could trust and depend on for safety. Throughout her solo journey, she had become hardened and was “the walking dead” in a sense because she had lost most of her connection with humanity. The only true joy she seemed to get was when she used her katana. This relationship would be challenged later on after her weapon had been used to take other lives, but she cannot separate herself from the katana.

Michonne’s quiet intelligence and keen observation skills were soon revealed after she arrived in a community called Woodbury with Andrea. As Andrea became enthralled in the idyllic community led by The Governor, Michonne kept her guard up and began to investigate how Woodbury had been able to remain largely untouched in this bizarre world. As she uncovered captive walkers and noticed military vehicles with bullet holes, she wasn’t afraid to question The Governor about her findings. At this point, most of Michonne’s personality/thoughts were conveyed through her facial expressions. Danai Gurira’s ability to run a gamut of emotions across her face, confident stride, and her stone cold stare told viewers a lot about the character despite her being a woman of few words. Michonne knew he murdered military personnel for vehicles and thought it was dangerous to keep walkers inside of their gates. The more The Governor tried to appeal to her, the more heightened her suspicions became of Woodbury. Her discernment led to discovering The Governor’s dark secrets (like keeping his walker daughter in a closet) but she failed to articulate the dangers of staying in the community to Andrea. This caused a rift in their relationship, leading to Michonne walking out of Woodbury to be on her own again. Michonne had taken mercy on Andrea and took care of her throughout the winter, but her self-preservation prevailed over staying in a dangerous situation to appease her friend.

The Governor’s thwarted efforts to have Michonne murdered led to her witnessing two members of Rick’s group being captured by Merle, who was related to a man named Daryl in the group. Merle had been previously abandoned by Rick’s crew in Atlanta after stirring up trouble and was assumed to be dead or missing. Merle later captured Michonne for The Governor, but Michonne managed to connect with Merle on a deeper level than anyone outside of Daryl had in the show. While traveling together, he admitted he wasn’t a killer before he met The Governor and said Michonne was also an outsider to Rick’s group. In the end, he let Michonne go, and sacrificed himself to save Daryl’s new family. This change of heart showed Michonne’s uncanny ability to tap into the deeper emotions of almost anyone.

Merle’s capturing of two people led to Michonne discovering the prison location. She took the formula and supplies left behind by Glenn and Maggie (the two kidnapped group members) to the prison, which led to her initial encounter with Rick Grimes. At this time, Rick was emotionally broken by his wife Lori’s death and rightfully untrusting of outside people. Despite his callous attitude toward Michonne, she remained calm and collected as she told him about Woodbury. She took Rick and some of his crew there to retrieve them, but she maintained own agenda and broke off from the group with the intent to kill The Governor. However, she was stopped by Andrea, who was unaware that members of her former group were being held captive. The two women had a standoff with Michonne holding her katana and Andrea wielding a gun, leading to a few tension laden minutes. Michonne could have easily taken everyone out, but she backed down to avoid hurting her friend. The pain and frustration from Andrea’s betrayal was all over Michonne’s face as she left the room. Rick became more suspicious of Michonne because she disappeared, yet he allowed her to be around because he recognized her as an asset. However, Rick and his group didn’t realize Michonne was sizing them up to see if she thought they were a good fit for her as well. She wanted to belong somewhere but her heart was now more fragile from her break with Andrea.

Michonne began to build relationships with the others at the prison, but Rick was determined to make her eventually leave. Despite Rick’s animosity toward her, Michonne helped defend the prison against The Governor during his initial attack. At one point, Rick even thought about trading her life for his group’s lives in a deal with The Governor, but he changed his mind. She later told him she understood why he considered sacrificing her to save his family.

Andrea was the person who made Michonne care about humanity again, but it was her developing bond with Rick’s son Carl that truly brought her back to life and helped her establish a relationship with Rick. This is first explored in “Clear” when Michonne goes with Rick and Carl back to their hometown to look for supplies in preparation for a war against The Governor. Carl was heard expressing his reservations about Michonne in the beginning to his father. While Rick mused about his mental health, Michonne offers to go with Carl on his dummy mission to find a crib for his baby sister. Carl rejected her help and was cold toward her at first, but she continued to trail him and quietly support his actions. Again, her instincts told her there was something more to Carl’s mission. He revealed that he really wanted to get a picture of his mother for his infant sister Judith and Michonne went out of her way to kill walkers and retrieve the picture (along with a cat sculpture). This was a major turning point for Carl, who was largely neglected by his father and reeling from his mother’s death. While everyone else was preoccupied with survival, Michonne took the time to make his needs feel valid. By the end of the episode, Carl said Michonne was “one of us.” Michonne commiserated with Rick over losing a lover by telling him that she used to talk to her dead boyfriend all the time. Rick responded by letting her drive them back to the prison. She was the first person who didn’t look at Rick like he was insane and made him feel okay about temporarily losing himself in grief. It was their first moment of true connection and the beginning of her cementing a place as a trusted friend. Michonne never had to force or convince Rick (or anyone) to accept her as one of their own. She simply showed up and gave specific pieces of her personality to others according to their needs.

After The Governor’s initial attack on the prison, she often asked Carl about specific things he wanted when she went on runs and she brought him items like comic books to keep him in touch with his childhood. But, Michonne hadn’t fully settled in as a member of Rick’s group. She often mused about leaving and heading to Macon. Her mind was changed in “Infected” when she was injured while defending herself from walkers and saved by Carl and Maggie. She told them their move to save her was stupid, but they both declared that they did it because the group is a family. This incident made Michonne feel accepted and she began to develop a deeper connection with Carl. Interestingly, Michonne did not extend this same care toward Judith and was shown several times rejecting chances to hold her. Early in season four, Beth gave Judith to Michonne after she spit up. Michonne looked into her eyes and wept for the first time on the show. It was rare outward display of emotion in front of others, but it gave her emotional complexity and made her more of an enigma. At this point, the audience and characters were not aware of her backstory so it was a confusing yet heartbreaking scene.

However, Michonne’s increasing rapport with the prison group did not deter her mission to find and kill The Governor. She often volunteered for supply runs and went off on her own (to the dismay of Carl) to continuously look for him – something that no one else seemed to notice except Daryl. He connected with Michonne over their lone wolf yet sometimes team player tendencies and encouraged her to stop looking for The Governor. Michonne agreed to stop looking rather easily – a strange move by the writers. Her character was still in the early stages of development, but it didn’t make sense for her to simply abandon her search for a man who tried to kill the group. She was the only person who was using her common sense and knew he would eventually return. Of course, things went awry when Michonne went against her impeccable gut instinct. The Governor soon kidnapped her and Herschel (the farmer/doctor of the prison group) outside the prison gates. He presented them in front of Rick and partially decapitated Herschel in front of Rick’s group with her katana. He almost killed Rick in the ensuing battle but Michonne intervened in the nick of time and plunged her katana into his chest. She left The Governor to turn and immediately focused on finding Carl, but the group was split up with her once again on her own.

Michonne quickly reverted back to her pre-Andrea mindset to survive. She found two walkers and chained them to her body as she wandered aimlessly among the dead. She had finally found the home and a sense of family that she lost in the early stages of the apocalypse but it was ripped from her hands by the same man who killed her friend. “After” gave fans a glimpse into Michonne’s psyche and her backstory. She was seen crying over Herschel’s decapitated head and having nightmares about her toddler son and lover. Michonne had nearly given up on life until she saw a walker who resembled her and realized she wanted to try to live. She continued to follow two sets of footprints and parsed through her feelings about her dead boyfriend and son. She admitted to missing them, but she had also come to terms with their untimely death. The episode served as a therapeutic release for Michonne and she was free to walk away from her survivor’s guilt. After she discovered Rick and Carl in a nearby house, she cried tears of joy.

“Claimed” was a continuation of Michonne’s relationship building with Carl. She gets immense pleasure out of showing him her goofy, loving side and watching him act like a normal child. The episode also showed how she was already a perfect partner for Rick long before they established a romantic relationship. Rick acknowledged how much Carl needed her and thanked her for bringing joy into Carl’s life. She appreciated his comments and gave him more time to rest while she went on a supply run with Carl. The theme of Michonne stepping up while Rick had a moment to catch his breath permeates throughout her arc on The Walking Dead. Michonne often takes his place as the voice of reason and a stable support system for Carl. Rick respects her opinion and trusts her judgement because he knows she has his best interests at heart – even when they bump heads over issues. In a sense, Michonne had taken Herschel’s place as Rick’s advisor and voice of reason. During their run, Michonne opened up to Carl about her toddler son named Andre who died after the outbreak – a piece of information she never told any other character on-screen to date, including Rick. The walls she had built around her heart were quickly falling as she took on a motherly role in Carl’s life.

As the trio journeyed on, Michonne and Carl were seen sharing “normal,” sweet moments like competing to see who can walk on railroad tracks the longest and sharing candy bars. At this point, Rick’s looks toward Michonne have softened, and it’s strongly implied that he admires and possibly has romantic feelings for her. Michonne cares for Rick, but it is seen as more of an extension of her love for Carl. She later comforted Carl in “A” after they encountered an awful group of men who nearly raped both of them. Rick ripped a man’s throat out with his teeth and violently stabbed another man 10x times. She shot and killed two men to protect them, but was later seen sitting in a car and holding a scared Carl’s head in her lap. This ordeal caused Carl to fear his father to the point that he wants to go with Michonne instead of Rick – which hurts Rick’s feelings. Michonne revealed the story behind her son’s death and assures Carl that his father is not a terrible person. She told Carl she was in a dark place for a long time, but it was him, Rick, and Andrea who brought her back to life. Michonne also shares a moment with Rick after the attack and lets him know she is okay because he is okay.

Michonne’s influence managed to touch nearly every major character in Rick’s group since she became a part of their family. She has often encouraged people to act according to what is logical instead of diving into emotional impulses. In their dangerous world, acting solely on emotion often clouds a person’s judgement and makes them unaware of their surroundings, putting them in a vulnerable state. And, it only takes one small lapse in judgement to lead to a walker bite or dying at the hands of another person. One example of this is her exchange with Tyreese, a Black man who was once a Woodbury resident, during a prison run for medicine. Tyreese was still seething over his sick girlfriend’s gruesome murder. Michonne sympathized with his emotional state but said his blind anger would lead to his demise. He then compared his feelings to Michonne’s over The Governor and she replied that she wanted to kill him, but only because it needed to be done. Michonne flirts with being the moral compass of the show, but she is also a realist who knows people will have to die.

Soon afterward, a mysterious man named Aaron appeared with news about an idealistic community named Alexandria. Rick was suspicious to the point of assaulting him, but Michonne was the one who convinced him to give the new community a chance. As the group adjusted to life in the community, Michonne shared a moment with a fellow group member as they connected over how hard it was to leave their previous mindset behind. She told him that although she is not wearing her katana, she felt it with her at all times. Moments like this showed a pensive, vulnerable side of Michonne, which acted as a perfect counterbalance to her often having to be the “strong” Black woman in the group.

At this time, the only other Black woman in the group was Sasha, Tyreese’s sister who was suffering from PTSD. The ladies often bumped heads over Sasha’s reckless behavior, but they respected each other’s survival skills. After settling in Alexandria, Sasha went missing and Michonne went looking for her only to discover that Sasha would hunt walkers outside of the walls to “keep her edge.” Michonne flashed back over her trials and realized it may not be a bad thing to not allow herself to get too comfortable. It was a nice moment of camaraderie and understanding among the only two Black women on the show. The show often deviates from its source material and Sasha was an original character to the tv series, so the writers could have expanded on the Sasha/Michonne relationship. It would have made sense for them to gravitate toward each other as Black women with shared trauma of losing loved ones in a cruel world.

Season five focused heavily on the complicated emotional journeys of those around her but Michonne had also gone through a significant amount of trauma. Her pain was not as evident from an outside perspective, but she had the same struggles with adjusting to life inside Alexandria’s walls. And, as the voice of reason, she had to parse through all of her emotions yet remain sane for the sake of Carl and the community. She was appointed as the co-constable of Alexandria along with Rick, and she took her duties seriously – even when the “bad guy” was Rick. He got into an altercation with another man was yelling at the Alexandrians about becoming more like him and scaring people in the community. Michonne knew his rant made him look nuts in front of the new group, so she took matters into her own hands and stopped Rick the only way she knew how – by knocking him out. She knew Rick was unable to be reasoned with when he was in a rage and could only be stopped with physical action. And, she was the only person who could force him to get it together. It was her best effort to save him from himself and to still try to maintain positive relations with Alexandria. Michonne wanted Rick to give the Alexandrians time to adjust to the idea of possibly having to defend themselves. She continuously told Rick that in order for everyone to thrive, he would have to see the entire community as one. Her passionate dedication to making Alexandria their permanent home showed her growth from a loner to a person who build a life with others.

Michonne’s relationship with Carl continued to thrive. In “No Way Out,” Carl was shot in the eye and Michonne quickly plunged her katana into the shooter’s chest, protecting him like she did Rick back at the prison. She sheltered Rick as he carried Carl to the infirmary, clearing a path among walkers for him to run. Rick flew into a murderous rage and Michonne was the first one to go out and help Rick eliminate a massive walker herd throughout the night. She told others in the infirmary that she had to go because Rick needed her help and she soon ran out the door after kissing Carl on the forehead. As she dashed out of the room, everyone ran out behind her to lend support. Michonne didn’t tell others to force them to stand up and fight with Rick to save the community. But, her influence and bravery caused others to take action. When Michonne moves, others fall in line.

The romantic tension between Rick and Michonne hit a boiling point with the pair consummating their relationship. He became outwardly affectionate toward Michonne, often putting his hand on her leg or exchanging smiles with her. These small gestures and his looks toward her in dire situations for guidance made Michonne the leading lady of Alexandria.

Rick’s previous relationships in the show with Lori and Jessie (an Alexandrian woman) depicted two women who were starkly different from Michonne. When Rick was down and struggling with leadership, his decisions were often berated by his wife Lori. She was also the catalyst toward the breakdown in his relationship with his best friend, with whom she had an affair. Rick spent much of his time trying to win Lori’s support and approval – a cycle he repeated when he was trying to win Jessie over in Alexandria. Lori and Jessie always needed to be rescued but Michonne was a woman who had the emotional intelligence to step in on Rick’s behalf and hold things down on the parenting and leadership front. She has believed in him, supported him, stood up to him, and had the ability to physically save his ass. Her mental and spiritual fortitude rivals her physical prowess and Rick finally had the lover and partner-in-survival that he deserved. And, she could count on him to defend their family at all costs – something her son’s father failed to do. She also had a second chance to be a mother to Rick’s children and build powerful relationships with others in Rick’s circle. Michonne had what it took to be the “strong woman” on her own but she realized she needed (and wanted) to be a part of something bigger and to do more than run away and survive. She wanted to help rebuild civilization and make Alexandria a livable, secure, and safe place.

After Glenn’s untimely death in the season seven opener “The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be,” Michonne stuck by a devastated Rick even though most of the community was disappointed in his lack to will to fight back against the psychopathic Negan. Maggie and others in his inner circle, including Carl and Rosita, try to convince him to fight, but only Michonne could persuade him to fight for his children and their descendants.

“Say Yes” was Richonne fanatics’ prayers as the couple shared a standalone episode while they went on a supply run. The episode showed them falling through a roof, eating a canned food dinner by candle light, laughing, sharing intimate moments, and searching for weapons at an abandoned school. For the first time since Negan’s appearance, Rick felt peace and wished he could make time stand still with Michonne. One of the most touching moments of the episode was when Rick appeared to be eaten by walkers. For the first time, Michonne’s emotions got the best of her and she became defenseless, dropping her katana in shock. It was like Michonne had lost a piece of her soul and was frozen in place while her world ended. But, he reemerged and tossed the katana to Michonne so they could defeat the remaining walkers. She immediately ran and jumped in his arms with joy. Rick embraced her but later became her voice of reason, letting her know that the impending war against Negan meant people will die. He asked her to be the leader if he died and she quietly agreed, but was still shaken at the thought of losing him. As the person who generally maintains her composure, it was thrilling to see her visceral reaction to Rick’s “death.” She could have been bitten during those crucial moments, but she didn’t care about preserving her own life. It was clear she loved Rick as strongly as she loved Carl. Michonne seems like an unkillable character, but the death of Rick/Carl could be the one thing that causes her demise.

In last season’s finale, Michonne and Rick are separated when she took post with a Scavenger woman and was nearly beaten to death during the Alexandria battle against Negan – an unrealistic scenario given her badassness. At one point, a body fell over the balcony and Rick, who was on his knees with Carl, looked horrified at the thought of Michonne dying. To his relief, she was badly beaten but still alive. The last of scene with Michonne leading up to season 8 showed her recovering from her wounds with Rick by her side. Despite all they have been through, the writers have chosen to never have the characters say “I love you” to each other. It’s in their eyes and actions, but they are both in a place mentally/emotionally where it would make sense for them to verbally declare their love.

As Michonne heals while the “All Out War” arc begins, it is thrilling to see her as one of the group’s most powerful characters, especially as a Black woman. Physically, Michonne deviates from the typical standard of what television considers to be “beautiful” or “sexy.” Her presence as a dark-skinned, natural haired character who has a striking balance strength, vulnerability, and sexiness is much needed on TV. As expected, her character initially had vitriol thrown her way for being “angry” or “too hardened” but those sides of her persona are just as vital to her characterization as her moments of joy and pain. In a world where Black women are often denied the right to experience a wide range of emotions like other humans, including anger, Michonne has been allowed to go through a natural and convincing array of emotions as she deals with this horrific reality. In many ways, she is telling the story of women like me who are trying to survive in a world where death feels like a constant threat at every turn. Replace the walkers with systemic racism and sexism and the world is forever a perilous place for a Black woman.

Her relationship with Rick is often viewed as a ploy to be PC, but this makes no sense for a couple of reasons. First, the progression toward their relationship was natural and not rushed. Michonne connected with Carl on a deeper level first and her love for him slowly extended out to Rick. And, Rick fell in love with Michonne after watching her bond with Carl, but likely didn’t pursue those feelings because he wasn’t sure if the feeling was mutual. It wasn’t until Michonne led the way for him to take Carl to the infirmary and tirelessly fought beside him to bring down the massive herd of walkers that he realized she loved him. The show could have made the choice to throw them together two seasons ago, but it took the time to have them go through this journey and develop an organic bond. Second, The Walking Dead continues to be a massively popular show with millions of viewers each episode. A PC move was not necessary for their continued survival when Richonne became official in season 6. Even though season 7 had a slight ratings drop, The Walking Dead is still a TV series juggernaut which clears at least 10 million viewers per episode. The writers simply did what made sense and made them a couple.

The show has not had the best track record with other Black characters. The writers seem to have an aversion to having more than one Black male major character on the show for an extended period of time, with T-Dogg (season 1-3) being replaced by Tyreese (seasons 3-5), Tyreese dying shortly after Noah’s introduction, Noah dying senselessly in season 5, and Heath’s unexplained disappearance in season 7. And, other Black women have fared no better with season one’s Jacqui barely making an imprint on the show and Sasha’s untimely (and again unnecessary) death in the season 7 finale. For now, Father Gabriel seems to be somewhat safe but with Morgan on the scene more it is almost certain that one of them will die in season 8.

Season Eight’s midseason finale shocked the world when Carl Grimes revealed his walker bite at the end of the episode. Michonne was horrified as she dropped her to knees in shock. Carl’s impending death in the second half of this season will present Michonne with her greatest challenge thus far. How will she cope with losing her son/best friend while fighting this war? And, will Carl’s death cause a rift between her and Rick? Carl was Rick’s last connection to the world before the apocalypse and he has fought diligently to keep him alive. Rick’s history of temporary insanity following Carl’s death could affect his ability to lead, which may cause Michonne to temporarily take a leadership role. She may also be resentful if Rick chooses to let his mercy prevail over his wrath by sparing Negan’s life.

But, her anger stems from more than Carl’s death. Alexandria was bombed by Negan’s men in the midseason finale, causing Michonne to go on a murderous rampage.  She fought hard to convince Rick to come to Alexandria and for the group to find their place in this community. Alexandria was the place where she kissed Rick for the first time and raised baby Judith. The Saviors had destroyed her home in a matter of seconds. The first half of the season sidelined the character with a lingering injury from the initial fight at Alexandria, but now her pain and rage will put her on the front lines. The Walking Dead deaths are a wild card, so there is no 100% guarantee for Michonne to make it through All Out War. But, hopefully she will be the mainstay Black character whose story arc will continue until the end. Because if Michonne dies, we riot.

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