The fundamental metaphor of any zombie narrative is the inevitability of death. The best works in this genre consciously overlay other symbolic (or not-so-symbolic) explorations of social concerns like rampant consumerism, fear of contagion, racism, sexism, and the establishment of authority. Likewise, the best works play with these concepts without succumbing to romanticism; instead becoming existential texts that resonate, sometimes unconsciously, with audiences.
Camus' assertion that in an Absurd, godless universe, the only real philosophical question is whether or not to commit suicide walks hand-in-hand with Sartre's famous bon mot, "Hell is other people" in all zombie narratives, whether the creators are aware of it or not. And while a large portion of the audience for these tales are gorehounds reveling in the latest spectacle of cutting-edge gross-out effects, underneath it all is that universal confrontation with the fact that we're all going to die, and we are fascinated with watching characters deal with this realization.
That is, I believe, the main reason that The Walking Dead has become such a television phenomenon with ratings higher than pretty much anything else on TV except prime-time pro football. This fascination is buttressed by strong performances by the main cast and a plot that emphasizes the psychological drama of confronting a world where concepts of morality, ethics, and even heroism, are suddenly cut loose from traditional institutional foundations and have to be reconstructed on the fly, in the literal face of uncaring, amoral nature.
Over the past few weeks, The Walking Dead has established two competing narratives: our heroes in the prison, and their alter-egos in Woodbury. Both are focused, at least superficially, on the establishment and maintenance of community without the luxury of established authority structures. Both are centered on charismatic, heroic leaders pulling everyone together. Both are intent on watching those leaders crumble or rise when confronted with their failures and successes.
Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and the Governor (David Morrissey) are mirror images of the explicit changes this new world have forced on all of the characters. The Governor, however, is farther along in the acceptance of what has to be done to preserve the group. Unfortunately, that means he's also farther along in the psychological collapse that can accompany that loss of a traditional moral compass. Characters like Daryl (Norman Reedus) or Merle (Michael Rooker) are maybe more suited to life in this world, already born and raised outside of traditional society, but they lack traditional leadership qualities.
And that's the fundamental problem Rick and the Governor (and most characters in similar narratives) face. They are being forced into positions where every moral and ethical concept by which they lived before the collapse are undermined by the reality of constant impending death. Wartime morality forced into the everyday, fractures traditional community relationships and individual psychologies, and what we're starting to see here is Rick playing out those fractures overtly, while the Governor deals with them covertly.
This week, both leaders are faced with conflicts that will ultimately cause their respective communities to either pull together or start to fall apart.
The Governor finds himself fighting on three fronts. The first of which is trying to convince Andrea (Laurie Holden) to stay in Woodbury. There's seduction going on here from both directions as Andrea can't seem to keep from being attracted to assertive powerful men. The Governor, however, seems to just want to keep her around for the good of the community, and isn't averse to getting a little on the side.
Next is trying to ease the suspicions of Michonne (Danai Gurira), and that's a more difficult task. Both performances are solid, as Gurira and Morrissey sell exactly what the script calls for. The weakness here is in the script. Once again Michonne is tasked with glaring and creeping, while the Governor puts on his oiliest voice and produces transparent lies.
And finally, the Governor also tries to keep Merle on a leash rather than allowing him to go search for Daryl. This allows Michael Rooker to once again demonstrate that he's the strongest actor on the show, playing levels that force the viewer to sympathize with a sleazy, racist scumbag for whom family is everything. When his request to go look for his brother is denied, we can see that there's going to be some pushing and pulling before the matter is finally settled.
These are all different kinds of confrontational conflicts than we're used to on this show, but are going to provide stress fractures in the Governor's psyche that will have devastating results. And I'm not saying that because I've read the comics. The series has veered wildly away from what was done in the source materials, so while we can vaguely guess what to expect, the devil is in the details. We know something bad is going to happen eventually. The fun is in seeing how we get there.
One of the best examples of this so far is what happens at the prison this week.
What seemed like a cold-hearted move on Rick's part when dealing with rogue prisoner Andrew (Markice Moore) a couple of weeks ago, comes back to bite everyone in the ass (no pun intended). Leaving Andrew's fate to the courtyard full of walkers was a way for Rick to avoid pulling that trigger, thinking there was no way he could survive. It was pre-apocalypse thinking, and he was wrong.
This week Andrew returned, opening the gates to a horde of walkers and causing the deaths of two main characters, one problematic and the other redemptive.
T-Dog (IronE Singleton) sacrifices his life to save Carol (Melissa McBride), which in-and-of itself wouldn't be a problem. It was a heroic end for a character that had developed over the past two seasons into a fan favorite. Unfortunately, part of that development was due to the fact that fans wanted better treatment and more exposure for the character. Killing him off only to immediately replace him with the only other black male character, Oscar (Vincent M. Ward strong>), who establishes his value to the group by murdering the other black male character, Andrew, raises all sorts of red flags.
The only promising element of this transition is that Oscar already has more character development, more dialogue, and a less cliché name than T-Dog. If that's enough to overcome the sense that the writers just don't know what to do with black characters, we'll have to wait and see. Regardless, it taints T-Dog's exit in a way that could be a fundamental problem for many viewers, especially as a character that was hampered by one set of racist clichés is being replaced by a character with whole other set of racist clichés.
The other death was the real surprise of the episode: Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) had to have an emergency C-section during the zombie attack and after dying in the process, takes an off-screen bullet to the head from Carl (Chandler Riggs)! I've already read responses by viewers thankful that Lori was finally killed off, some that complained that she died as selfishly as she'd lived (because a living adult provides more superficial value to the group than a living baby does), and a few positing that if she died off-screen she's probably not really dead.
It's hard to argue that a baby doesn't bring anything of value to the group, and will endanger everyone while being incredibly difficult to care for. But that's not really a valid argument to begin with. Sure, if Lori were a robot or the show was about rational people making well-reasoned decisions then one might hold that against the show, but Lori's decision to sacrifice herself for her baby is a last-ditch heroic act and an attempt to clean her slate with Rick and Carl. In this Absurd, godless universe, she chooses suicide for the sake of her child.
It was just bad luck (and good writing!) that Carl was the one who had to finish her off. That's a rough position to put a child in, and if the hard winter wasn't enough to push Carl over into cold-blooded killer mode, this may be the final straw. The real question becomes whether or not Carl had already been molded enough by the moral structures of the pre-apocalypse world for this to just push him into madness, or if he's malleable enough for this to just solidify his new moral reality.
Rick, on the other hand, is fucked.
He was on the edge of insanity already, and the guilt (he won't be able to avoid the guilt) for being both responsible for letting Andrew live, which sets Lori's death in motion, and for putting Carl in the situation where he not only watches his mom die in bloody childbirth but then has to shoot her in the head to ensure she doesn't turn, is palpably soul-crushing.
What all of this means is that only four episodes into the Third Season, The Walking Dead has confronted more existential anxieties than both prior seasons (and maybe more than any other television show in history) and has elevated the overall dread that comes when one's moral center is compromised. The fact that the creators are not softening any blows with comedy (a la Shaun of the Dead, which touched on similar plot developments), and are still bringing in more viewers than any other show on television (except for Sunday and Monday Night Football), is something that should be celebrated. And studied.
I don't believe it is only about the spectacle of gore or people jumping on the bandwagon. I think that this is one of those rare moments where a genre work transcends the built-in audience and presents issues and events that resonate with viewers on a very basic level. There's not a strange mystery that keeps people returning to find more clues. There's not a weekly crime being solved or cheating wives and husbands, or any of the things that are usually featured in shows with such broad appeal. This isn't escapism and it isn't romanticized.
Instead, week in and out, viewers are confronted with a challenging work of pure existentialism that forces us to confront our own beliefs about right and wrong, about life and death, and maybe even gets some of us to think about why we behave the ways we do. This is something special and I'm curious to see how long they can keep it going before the hell of other people becomes just too much for an audience to continue to take.
Paul Brian McCoy is the writer of Mondo Marvel and a regular contributor to Shot for Shot, Streaming Pile O' Wha?, and Classic Film/New Blu, all here at Comics Bulletin. His first novel, The Unraveling: Damaged Inc. Book One is on sale now for Kindle US, Kindle UK, and Nook. You can also purchase his collection of short stories, Coffee, Sex, & Creation at Amazon US and UK. He is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, and sci-fi television. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at @PBMcCoy and blogging occasionally at Infernal Desire Machines.