Warning: mild spoilers of The Walking Dead follow.
The Walking Dead. I haven’t read the comics, though I should have by now. I’m a geek, I used to be a comic geek at that, and I love the show, so this is totally in my wheelhouse. Maybe I love the suspense of watching the show as it comes on: of waiting until the next episode, the next season: too much to ruin it with too much knowledge.
After seeing the appearance of a new character, Fr. Gabriel in last night’s episode, it had me thankful for the character. At least thankful for the way he was portrayed in this episode. I can’t vouch for who he will become or who he “really” is.
His introduction seemed so over-the-top stereotyped (the freaked-out pacifist, screaming in the woods) that I was already getting pissed. Hear we go again. This is pretty much what happens for every depiction of a priest on TV that isn’t on Rev. We aren’t taken seriously or used in any way that isn’t a prop for something really lame or of fleeting relevance.
In truth, I think, writers generally don’t know how to handle priests and pastors in creative works.
Often, we are the stand in for “religion” or for GOD/Jesus or righteousness. We are used as dampeners, blowhards, and comic relief. We are treated as serious, naive, and weak.
The themes priests and pastors are used for involve broken faith, Pharisaical and Puritanical rule-enforcing, or for the ethical defilement of the those in whom we are entrusted.
If a priestly character has any real plot point other than discovering a dead body in a church on the way to mass, then the plot revolves around sex abuse, cover-ups, lying, sex abuse, extortion, the mob, sex abuse, infidelity, bigotry, or sex abuse. These plots heavily depend on a priest who is himself compromised and doing bad things. Or else is the evil judge of depravity.
There are exceptions to this, but they all fall prey to at least one of these indulgences. The dark comedy and relatively current subject matter of the ill-fated The Book of Daniel and the much better and more witty Rev. demonstrate priestly characters that have actual souls and humanity, rather than the depraved or ridiculous caricature we see nearly everywhere else.
In last night’s episode, Fr. Gabriel ventures close to the norm, with his skittishness and devotion to non-violence. Except, they didn’t use him as a foil to prove why the expected paradigm is correct. He wasn’t used as proof why violence is good, or to prove a human proclivity to use violence when our backs are against the wall. He was literally in that position and didn’t use violence himself.
Even more refreshing is that his moral corruption (still unknown, but highly suggested) hasn’t led him down the road of Shane or now, Rick. He is being eaten alive from the cognitive dissonance of his sin. This is territory The Walking Dead has dealt with before, but continues to go unnoticed by its core viewers. Followers of the show make reference to “losing humanity” as people turn into vicious beasts. This certainly seems to be an elephantine weight on this new season, which keeps me eager for the next episode.
Yet we see in the characters of Dale, Hershel, and Tyreese, more than “humanity”. We see compassion and love. We see coolness when everyone around them is hot, often serving as the stabilizing conscience of the leaders, including the prone-to-distraction Rick. We see purpose and strength because they believe there is something more to this than surviving and killing. And the show has rewarded these characters, portraying them not as demonstrating weakness or that they were “too good” for the show, but that they actually helped the group survive. Each of these guys, on the average, outlived the hotheads on the show. The ones guests on Talking Dead are fond of saying are “built for this world”.
Gabriel enters the story as an overtly damaged moral compass, but one who hasn’t lost “humanity,” whatever we intend that shorthand to mean. He is realistically dealing with guilt. Guilt for his own cowardice and selfishness. However, his guilt does not mean he should have found a gun and set the world ablaze in righteous fury, for that would no sooner soothe his soul or release his guilt than it does when any of us resort to retaliation. Instead, he is simply guilty of sin.
Unlike the world from before and the world they inhabit, sin is not only the things we have done, but as we say in our public confession each week, “by what we have left undone.”
Gabriel, an Episcopalian, would also know the next lines of the confession:
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ
have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in your will,
and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your Name. Amen.
Gabriel is not only racked with guilt, he is suffering through his penance without a confessor. He has no priest, and more, no community to make confession with.
Now, if he has a community, he may be able to receive the absolution he needs.
That is true religion. Given the moralism which passes for Christianity on TV, we are better for having this character. At least this week.
[NOTE: For more on Fr. Gabriel, check out this write-up. For more, please revisit my thoughts on the morbid morality of The Walking Dead's world, teaching violence as expectation, and an early exploration of the show's ethics. Or a link to what zombies and church have in common.]