or The Gospel According to The Walking Dead
[NOTE: Some series and season 5 spoilers follow.]
It seems as if The Walking Dead brings out the most cynical side of us. It shouldn’t surprise me that a show about the post-apocalyptic world of zombie infestation would tread regularly into the hopelessness of nihilism. This was particularly true from the early discovery that our fates and place in this world are inevitable.
Given this hopelessness, our attention turns to survival and enduring the nastiest aspects of this world. In this world, other people band together for utility more than affection. As we see in this season’s new characters, survivors in Atlanta’s Grady Hospital, the notion of human life being reduced to its utility has finally been introduced as a primary option available to survivors.
For the show, survival is perhaps the most enduring theme. But it isn’t what binds the characters together.
The theme of the show’s fifth season came to striking clarity in last night’s episode, “Crossed”. The common denominator of the season’s antagonists, the Termites and the Grady gang is that they aren’t just bad, they thrive on their deceitful, by-any-means-necessary view of surviving. The poster-child delivered a soliloquy at the beginning of the season in defense of reckless depravity and human utility, using a baby as a hostage and intending his captor (Tyreese) to be reduced to his most base and vindictive emotions.
Against this nihilism, the show’s protagonists are placed in deep contrast. This isn’t just the obviously reluctant Tyreese and to a lesser extent Glenn, but now too Daryl. Our own support of Rick is starting to strain, as his response to danger has moved from being resourceful and moral to ruthless and vengeful. His reunion with Carol, disowned last season for transgressing the community rules in a vigilante act of euthanasia (how the fans have so easily forgiven her) has come, not through repentance and reconciliation on Carol’s part, but on the moral corruption of Rick’s understanding of community norms. For abandoning her, Rick makes his own repentance, which she easily absolves.
Certainly Rick has changed, and to be expected, as all of the characters necessarily change through the passage of time and experience. His descent from officer of the law and reluctant leader, to tyrant, to hermit, and now, to vengeance-seeking hot head cannot be chalked up to “what happens in a chaotic environment, for it is not mirrored by the rest of the team. Perhaps a strong argument can be made for what happens to a leader in such an environment: that eventually s/he will crack and become what s/he feared. I’d be willing to make that case.
The better direction is how his path does not match the path of the team, nor what actually works for the characters in the show. As I’ve argued before, the show has rarely rewarded cruelty, vengeance, arrogance, and community destructive characteristics. In fact, the characters “most equipped to survive the zombie apocalypse” as we like to argue have become walker bait at the same or better rate than those who are supposedly weak. The emergence of Beth as resourceful, and not so subtly rendered as strong point out the primary characteristic that will prolong a person’s life on the show: devotion to community health. Her captor’s consistent obsession with “strong” and “weak” forcefully hits home that the viewer herself far too easily judges who is strong and who isn’t. And ultimately, who the real survivors will be.
In The Walking Dead, the selfish ones die. And this season’s antagonists epitomise two similar groups of selfish loners.
Which brings us again to the two characters most in danger of succumbing, not to the walkers, but to the show’s opposition to ego: the much maligned Fr. Gabriel and Eugene, with his mighty mullet. As new members of the team, both bring underappreciated utility to an expectation that all members must learn to fight (and kill) as Carl attempts to share the “teaching” Carol had secretly given him and the other children in the prison.
What puts these two in danger on the show, however, is not ultimately their reluctance to fight, but in their inability to fully participate in the community, and the community’s willingness to accept them as they are for who they are. Not every survivor has been a fighter, but until they bring unifying gifts to the team, they are walking targets of the show’s penchant for killing off interesting characters.
This season’s overt signs of religiosity have been far too easily dismissed by many of the show’s critics, for the entire character of the show reveals great similarity to traditional Christian understandings of enduring a world misaligned from GOD’s dream for humanity, the deeper danger of cynicism than violence, and that the only antidote for certain death is hope.
In the fifth season, the walkers are hardly a problem, often dispatched with such ease, that the protagonists are often nonchalant in their hand-to-hand combat, or walking easily in their midst without great worry for their lives. We have long known the greater danger in this world comes not from the undead, but from the living. But now, as we see such variety of antagonistic humanity, we can only conclude that the danger isn’t the people themselves (that only bad people survive–except our heroes, of course!) but their sickness, depravity, and cynicism.
The show’s persistent fear, then isn’t that our people will devolve into animals, losing their “humanity,” but in choosing to become self-destructive through selfish intent: cynically hoping to survive while simultaneously believing there is no reason to survive.
This dramatic difference in the danger between the walkers and the humans is so pronounced now that we have no choice but see that the danger of other survivors comes from unknown motivations.
This confusion made the Termites were the most dangerous of all villains so far, because they understood that people wouldn’t trust one another. They preyed on those that would trust them, of course, but they intentionally built a community ethic around mutual distrust. Much like the biker gang in season 4, a reluctant band of ingrates with no redeeming character among them, the Termites fostered distrust as human ethic and norm. I can’t help but think of Jesus’s warnings of the false prophets and those who would deceive in the name of GOD, encouraging evil for the sake of good.
In contrast, the building of community through trust, dignity, and mutual respect are cornerstones of the gospel from the beginning: informing The Law, the prophets, and the prophetic ministry of Jesus. The story we receive in Matthew gives us some similar terrain of surviving and enduring through great strife and against human evils.
For the discerning viewer, The Walking Dead offers a much different take on survival than horror movies and procedural crime dramas do. It offers the viewer a constant opportunity to discover hope in a world that seems irrevocably broken, compassion in a world full of evil, selfishness, and lurid, cynical violence. And it rewards the constant pursuit of life, creativity, and true purpose in a world so purposelessly distorted.
Personally, I love The Walking Dead in spite of the violence. Because each week there’s a chance. Each week there’s potential. Each week there’s discovery. If we followed the lead of the cynics, we wouldn’t have Michionne and the world wouldn’t love Daryl. They’d all end up like Shane. Dead. Then dead again. Every week proves that Carol (and now apparently Carl) aren’t entirely right about what we need to do to survive. And neither is Tyreese. And we should know by now, the same goes for Rick.
That gives me hope.
That, and that some day the team will realize that they really need to listen to Glenn a whole lot more. That dude’s the smartest one.