[Warning: While I am not recapping the most recent episode, there are some spoilers from “The Grove” and from earlier episodes in Season 4. I’ll leave the recaps for EW and The Daily Beast. The subject however, remains difficult and not suitable for all readers.]
Last night’s episode of The Walking Dead, “The Grove” is certainly its most shocking through four seasons of intense television.
“The Grove” relies on shocking and disturbing actions to perhaps more fully reveal the psychological struggle of living in this post-apocalyptic world. The entire episode, through the repetitive dialogue, pacing, classic literary references, and ultimately, its horrifying climax lead us to confront the very nature of our human existence and what line we draw in the sand for the benefit of our morality.
This episode reveals the greatest decision one makes is not to draw the line in the sand about one’s willingness to kill, but the line in the sand about one’s willingness to give up one’s humanity.
The avid watcher of The Walking Dead is falsely lured into believing that after the zombie apocalypse “everything changes” and that people must be “suited to the new reality”. The previous society’s rulebook is thrown out the window and anarchy reigns. That certain people just can’t hack it here. There is plenty of evidence to make that case. But that doesn’t appear to be the show’s true intent.
More subtle, however, is the show’s central thesis: everyone dies. The child “that doesn’t have a mean bone in her body”. Shane, who we used to argue was “built” for this world. Hershel, the wise, ethical center. The Governor, the crazed survivor. Merle with his crazy zombie-killing hand. All dead. That all are destined for death, whether it be now, in the near future, or the relative distant future, is certain. More than certain, because it is palpable. It is the show’s primary focus: they are the walking dead.
And because everyone dies, we learn that there is no trick to surviving. I don’t think we can ever dare call such a thing on the show “luck”, either. Talented people are just as likely to die prematurely and from accidents as untalented and difficult people survive way past their expectations. In battles with zombies and when caught by surprise. In big battles and in trips to raid stores and houses. People die, regardless of their survivor skills.
This was proven in the previous episode, which opened with the unlikeliest survivalist, Bob, moping through survival as if he were surrounded by a magic shield of protection. He doesn’t really try to survive, it just happens. He doesn’t play it smart, he merely wanders. And somehow finds another group to join.
From the beginning, the show has tried to convince the viewer not to succumb to our basest instincts, while feeding us mice as if we were the zombies. It has shown us the certainty of death from the first episode and yet we still cling to the outmoded view after 4 years that it takes grit, cunning, and a near psychopathic indifference to life and death so that we might be willing “to do what we have to do.”
This has become the mantra of Carol, an identity continuously hammered home in the follow-up talk show Talking Dead. But Carol is proven wrong in this episode; so wrong that she finds herself using the very wisdom of a child she is trying to break. That Carol, driven to “protect” for “the common good” is oblivious to perhaps the most profound truth in this episode: that “weakness” is not what marks someone for death: it is the fact of living.
This makes Carol, perhaps the show’s most tragic figure. She is willing, capable, smart, a survivor, compassionate. And yet she can’t see how much she is giving up and how much she is creating. She is the battered survivor. She just needs some more self-awareness.
More disturbing is that Carol’s attempts in the first half of season 4 to teach the children of the prison to kill seems now to be an accelerant that lead to this moment. Rather than being a perceptive and attentive foster mother, she intends to teach, or more accurately, break them. She forces them at too young an age and too immature a state of development to rewire their morality and do what they know is wrong. To adopt a way that she believes is right, rather than what they all might agree is right.
This may be the core concern of The Walking Dead: What makes for an ethical foundation when society is no more? And what the show consistently reveals is that it comes from community.
Despite the brutality and gruesome reality The Walking Dead portrays, and “The Grove” fosters, this final, more shocking truth breaks through the show, less perceptible from the darkness of this episode than its predecessors. In dealing with death and a macabre resurrection, and with all its certainty, the show has always fostered altruism, community, and an ethical foundation.
For the three central (male) characters, Rick, Glenn, and Daryl, their survival has perhaps been less about the grit and willingness, and more about their ethical guideposts: family, love, hope. These guideposts are the source of their skill and tenacity. While selfish, self-preservationists eventually all leave or change to become like the group.
It strikes me as slightly funny: that a show so clearly pretending to be pessimistic and playing off of its viewers’ deep cynicism has an optimistic core and, as a seeming hat tip to absurdism, a persistently hopeful view of ethics and the nature of life and death. Where the greater good is something we can actually strive for, rather than use as an excuse for self-destruction.