Against All Odds, The Walking Dead Has Found New Life
The Walking Dead is alive again.
Believe me, I’ve pronouncing it dead for years. Although I’m a long-time fan of the original comic books—I’ve been reading them since 2003—my feelings about the television series have always been ambivalent at best. I recapped the show here at WIRED for a while, and if you peruse the archives, you can actually trace the slow, rolling boil of my contempt, which culminated in headlines like “Zombies Don’t Kill People, Being Stupid Does” and “Rick Grimes Is the Worst Leader Ever.” I started to dislike the show so much that I actually stopped recapping in the middle of the 2013 season, and when Fear the Walking Dead premiered in August, I panned that too.
But over the last year, The Walking Dead has transformed itself from grinding, repetitive misery porn into a vital survival drama by setting its characters free from the two things that have hindered them the most: stupid people and contemporary morality.
A mere two seasons ago, Rick was the one trying to protect people from the dangers of the real world rather than forcing them to face it. But times change. Last night, when Rick found himself in the woods with a massive horde of zombies creeping his way and two survivors who could barely walk, his advice was far more pragmatic: “They aren’t all going to make it,” he told Glenn and Michonne quietly. “You try to save them, but if they can’t keep up, you keep going.” Forget leaving no man behind—pragmatism is the modus operandi for Rick Grimes 2.0, and it is sweet, sweet music to my ears.
The problem with The Walking Dead correlates closely with what makes it interesting: It’s a depiction not just of the moment when civilization falls, but of the long, post-apocalyptic road that the survivors have to walk away from it, the things they need to leave behind, and whether they can let go of their naiveté and wishful thinking about the old world before the new one finds a way to kill them.
Horror stories require that terrible things happen to people, and more often than not, this is achieved by making them do very stupid things. As the savvy heroine Sidney Prescott famously said in Scream, too often the thrills boil down to the incompetence of someone who keeps running up the stairs to escape the killer when she should be running out the front door. This sort of conflict quickly gets tiresome, because it ultimately isn’t between human and monster, or hero and villain, but between people and their narratively-mandated compulsion to make the worst choices possible.
Yes, it’s easy to Monday morning quarterback people who are being chased by monsters while you’re watching from the comfort of your sofa. But if you’re constantly presented with a parade of fools willfully marching to their own deaths, it’s also easy to become a bit of a monster yourself, your empathy curdled to contempt while you shout at the screen about how someone actually deserves to die for their ineptitude.
In most zombie movies, the fools tend to get weeded out in the first hour or so, leaving the more capable survivors to have more interesting and less infuriating confrontations towards the end. But where a film might last around two hours, The Walking Dead has now accumulated around 70 hours of air time—and much of it has been spent traveling over the exact same ground as the first half of a horror movie, trapping us in an endless game of Whack-a-Mole with a rotating cast of weakest links.
Fortunately for the future of humanity—and the audience of this show—that kind of weakness can’t last forever in a post-apocalyptic crucible designed to burn it away. Now, we’re finally getting to the good part: the part at the end of the film where everyone who’s still alive has something to offer besides the same obvious mistakes.
When the show began over five years ago, we were tethered to Rick Grimes, an Atlanta sheriff who became the de facto leader of the survivors. Although the former lawman’s black-and-white morality has slowly faded to gray, his ethical evolution has been slow, inconsistent, and often frustrating.
Rick has certainly done his share of killing—even stabbing his former best friend to death in an early episode—but his increasingly flexible morality often proved less pliant when judging the choices of people who aren’t Rick Grimes. In season four, after housewife-turned-badass Carol killed two survivors carrying a lethal plague in order to save the rest of the group from infection, she told Rick that their deaths were a necessary evil: “It’s about facing reality.”
But Rick refused, exiling her to the wilderness because he wasn’t ready to live in a world where those types of sacrifices are sanctioned or required. Not long after Carol’s departure, the group ended up splintering anyway; they spent the next season wandering around rural Georgia in small, isolated groups, looking traumatized, and navel-gazing about whether life was really worth living at after all. Narratively, we’ve been walking with Rick in circles rather than straight lines, mostly because he wasn’t ready to move forward. This was about the time that I checked out; the zombie apocalypse might be hell, but it shouldn’t be purgatory.
Over the next year or so, however, something finally changed. As far as tools of behavioral reinforcement go, death is near the bottom of the list—it’s not like you’re going to learn something once you’ve died. Instead, Rick and company have had to find their lessons in the deaths of the people they care about. After two more seasons of watching loved ones torn to pieces for the slightest miscalculations, Rick has finally grown battle-hardened, ruthless, efficient—more like Carol.
The shift becomes glaringly obvious when they arrive at Alexandria, a community whose walls had almost completely insulated them from the post-apocalypse, preserving both a tiny pocket of suburban culture and the dangerous naiveté of its inhabitants. The people there are not so different from the people Rick and company used to be only a few seasons earlier, but after the survivors finally enter the city in a bottle, they view its naiveté with a mixture of contempt and concern.
“These people are children,” Carol says quietly, as watch the townspeople fumble about, more concerned with pasta makers than learning how to handle a gun.
When Deanna Monroe, the leader of the community, asks Rick how many people he’s has killed, he shrugs. “I don’t even know how many by now. But I know why they’re all dead: They’re dead so my family, all those people out there, can be alive.” The choice seems easy now, or at least obvious.
After Deanna informs Rick that they don’t kill people—even dangerous people—because it’s uncivilized, he tells her slowly and carefully that it’s time to get with the program. “We have to live in the real world,” he says coldly. “Your way of doing thing is done. It’s going to get people killed.” He’s Carol now, talking to the past version of himself, waiting for her to wise up before her ivory tower ideals end in a long row of tombstones.
When Rick looks at the people of Alexandria, he feels the same way I used to feel when I looked at him. But we’re on the same side now, Rick and I, both of us yelling at the screen of the horror movie about how certain people need to die—not because they’re bad people, but because they’re liabilities. Weakness isn’t just a fatal flaw at this point: it’s an anachronism. People who don’t know how to survive at this point are like people who have no immune system, and the world itself is the disease.
We’ve seen a lot of Alexandrians die already, and chances are we’ll see more in the weeks to come until their population gets whittled down to the small core of people actually prepared to live in the post-apocalypse. It’s a process that can be dangerous, not just for those who aren’t strong enough, but also for anyone else who can’t quite embrace the Darwinian ruthlessness it demands. Indeed, the latest (apparent) death of a major character can be traced directly back to a decision to spare an incompetent Alexandrian, reaffirming yet again how fatal it can be to coddle weakness. Soft hearts get eaten.
“I wanted to kill him, so it would be easier,” said Rick after a particularly foolish Alexandrian did a particularly foolish thing in a recent episode. “So I wouldn’t have to worry about how he could screw up, about what stupid thing he’d do next. Because that’s who he is: someone who shouldn’t be alive now. But I realized I didn’t have to do it… Somebody like that, they’re gonna die no matter what.”
Although it might sound depressing, it’s a statement that should fill Walking Dead fans with relief and excitement. Rick—the ambivalent hero we’ve been yoked to for so long—has finally gotten on board, and now that we don’t have to make constant stops to watch Rick agonize about his mercurial morality, the train is barreling forward. It’s taken more than five years, but it seems like we’ve finally entered a second act where Rick and company can turn their attention to a far more interesting question: When the biggest threat to their lives is no longer their own lethal idealism, what new challenges and dangers will they get to face?