Killing It: A Defense of The Walking Dead

Why have critics turned on one of television’s most ambitious series?

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Contains television spoilers up to season three, episode 14.

Deep into winter, in mid-February, a bereft culture critic relinquished his television recap badge and boarded up his windows. “We’ve been told repeatedly there is no cure,” he wrote, “no hope of evolution, and certainly none of salvation.” Andy Greenwald, a screenwriter, author and critic for Grantland, spoke not of soap opera Mad Men, with its doomed domestic couplings and toxic corporate culture, or Breaking Bad, whose characters, long past the point of return, can hope at best for death or pueblo exile. Greenwald was referring to The Walking Dead (TWD), the post-zombie apocalypse (ZA) survival tale adapted relatively faithfully from Robert Kirkman’s graphic novel.

Despite soaring ratings, critics have debased the show from its inception, snickering at it as a Waterworld-ian dystopia built of shiny Hyundais and Ragu-filled zombie skulls, and absent “plot development” and “three-dimensional characters” (per Grantland). The bravest television recappers acknowledged shallow titillation, suggesting that it had reached cultural equivalence with that other sophisticated contemporary thesis on the collective psyche, 24 (yes, Chris Kirk, that was a low blow!). The show’s ensemble cast and existentialist lean (and appearances at Comic-Con?) have drawn it similarly unfavorable comparisons with Lost.

TWD is not a zombie procedural. It follows a small group of survivors in a decimated world — they are the “walking dead.” Yes, Carol’s hair rarely grows, and zombie heads are sometimes crushed in hatchbacks, but to catalogue the artful zombie kills1 between substantive developments, as have many critics, is to miss the adaptation that is taking place. Several characters — Andrea, Michonne, the Governor — have learned to use the walkers as a weapon against the real enemy: eye-patched psychopaths and our own worst nature. Going into the climax of season three, the writers will presumably determine whether loyalty and love to other characters also constitute a weakness the Governor can exploit, or an advantage.

1 The unspoken zombie-kill flair contest between Darryl and Martinez in “The Arrow on the Doorpost” seems an answer to those critics, at least in part. (Recall this scene from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.)

This isn’t a gore-fest, or a futuristic exercise in grafting feathers onto old football pads. (Gratuitous sex, drunkenness, torture and rape are arguably less prevalent in TWD than in Mad Men, Breaking Bad or Homeland, while The Wire suffered a comparable number of character deaths, without the same criticism.) In fact, the show takes a minimalist approach to weaponry, to its sets, to intimacy, and devotes good chunks of time to allowing the group to weigh its actions. It gives its characters space more often than it forces confrontation — this is a depopulated world2 in which the “Second Coming” entailed a frightening lack of salvation. Dead loved ones are not in a better place; they are, hopefully, doubly dead, spared an afterlife of incessant hunger and obliviousness. The spiritualism of life before the fall is in tatters, and the group has to invent new game rules (“Bury the ones we love and burn the rest.”).

“We’re all infected,” Rick Grimes tells his group, as they stand on a back road outside Atlanta in season two. “Whatever it is, we all carry it.” At a base level, anyone who dies is doomed to rise again as a walker. More crucially, the fate of each person in the group is tied to everyone else; each is a potential threat and competitor (the “killer within”), but to go it alone almost certainly means death. (Ex-)showrunner Glen Mazzara has suggested that the time it takes for a character to reanimate after death depends on how full of life they were when they died. While Amy died in her sister’s arms and took the night to turn, Shane died alone at the hands of Rick, and was down on the mat for a scant half-minute before rising — in some sense showing us his “turn” through season two as Lori and Rick relegated him to the outside. (Would the Governor’s necrotic soul turn instantaneously, now that his zombie daughter, right eye, zombie fish tanks and sangria parties are ruined?) Mazzara and Kirkman make the point time and time again: it matters how you live.

2 While criticism of the show is frequently focused on all the zombie killing, a countercurrent often protests the lack of action. There is a classic fan letter in the back of comic issue 053, which reads: “Dear Kirkman, I want my money back! By my count more than half the panels of this issue didn’t have dialog.” Kirkman’s response: “y’know, people have to think and be upset and think and be asleep and have quiet moments from time to time.

Early in season three, “The Killer Within” saw the Grimes gang pushed back into the prison’s recesses by inmate/outsider Andrew. Lori goes into an unnatural labor in a dark inner cell, with Maggie and Carl playing assist, making the final decision to sacrifice herself for Rick’s (or Shane’s) baby. The freshness of Lori’s back-alley C-section made it far worse to watch than the standard gory shots of stabs, slices and blasts through cadavers — “Something’s wrong.” She said shortly before her death, and a natural death in an apocalyptic landscape does seem wrong. Afterward, Carl shoots his mother to prevent her turning, and stumbles cold-eyed out to the courtyard with Maggie, who is clutching the baby. There, Rick recognizes in their faces what has happened, dropping his axe to the ground and crying out in pain. Of the moment, Hollywood.com’s Shaunna Murphy offered a backhanded compliment: “I never thought I’d throw in Walking Dead for any acting nominations, but I’d put this in Andrew Lincoln’s Emmy reel. Jesus.”

Presumably, Murphy missed the cast’s performance when Sophia walked out of the barn; when Daryl found Merle’s hand on an Atlanta rooftop; when Shane near-raped Lori in the CDC. Subsequent moments have rivaled these in emotional intensity: when Daryl finds Carol half-dead in the prison; when Carol sees Judith and then realizes Lori is gone, going from elation to despair for Rick in the same look; when Maggie, after a sexual assault, sits stoically as her father gently tells her he “rests easy knowing you can handle yourself”; or when Merle is left alone in the woods after the Dixon duo splinters.
Grief turns out to be the chief motivator in the series: we see that Morgan’s failure to kill his wife resulted in his son turning, leaving him trapped in his own psychogeographic maze of lunacy. Andrea — for many, the most hated character on the television show — is calcified after the loss of her sister, too walled in to read people’s motivations, and siding time and again with characters on the wrong side of the fight. While she chose a passive suicide in season two, the Governor’s pursuit in season three shows her will to live after all, if perhaps too late (there are worse things than death).

The Governor, scarred by the death of his wife pre-ZA, and clinging to his zombie daughter’s golden locks, is the most stricken, with the most horrific grief response: Woodbury, like his eye-patch, is a thin façade over a blackened out hollow3. Carl is hardened by a life of loss, while Carol is liberated by it; Merle is enabled by anarchy, while Daryl learns empathy. Michonne is drawn as a deeply independent warrior with an extreme coping mechanism (mentioned only in passing in the show, and no, not the katana).

3 While the graveyard is in the prison’s frontyard, Woodbury’s citizens are insulated from reality in every way—they are not, as the Governor notes, “battle-tested.”

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But Rick is Kirkman’s focal point. His knifing of Shane provides the clearest rationalization of one life over another, but the “natural” death of Lori presents a challenge to rationality itself. Shortly after her disappearance, Rick begins to hallucinate. “You’re searching for them,” Hershel (Scott Wilson) counsels as Rick wallows outside the prison fences by the bridge to Crazytown with the ghost of his dead wife. It threatens the legitimacy of his leadership (and drives away potential allies); just as a failure to let go did Hershel’s, with his barn full of walkers.

As season three reaches its zenith, grief is what animates the long-awaited dialogue between Rick and the Governor, Philip. Sitting at a table with two lonely glasses of whiskey, the Governor preys on Rick’s biggest vulnerability: Lori. Speaking about the moment he learned of his wife’s own death4, Philip explains, “I held that phone knowing I would never see her again. Just an accident, no one’s fault. She left a voicemail asking me to call, but I didn’t have a chance yet… She wanted me to pick up dinner. What did she want?” Rick’s face (and slug of whiskey) tells the Governor that he is hitting home throughout this scene: The guilt and bereavement that Rick carries with him (if not the souvenir phone he totes in the comic) ring cleanly. The Governor preys on Rick’s sensitivity, invoking the possibility that Judith is Shane’s daughter: “Restitution… for failing to see the devil beside you.”

4 Is that what the dashes signify in his workbook?

“Oh, I see him alright.” Replies Rick, recalling his foresight on Shane — a game played close through the woods under a waning moon. We hope that he can see through the Governor’s insincere attempts to bargain (commenters noted that he turned his whisky glass upside down in a sign that he wasn’t taking any more bullshit from Phillip), pushed once again to weigh the life of one against many, and hand over Michonne — the newest inducted member of the group. Rick begins the negotiation by invoking the Governor’s deeds, enunciating “Maggie” as a standalone crime with a tenderness that shows she is family to him, but ends the episode in an ambiguous state of mind on Michonne.

The way Kirkman and Mazzara are setting it up, everyone has to choose where to side in the inevitable showdown. The known unknown is the point at which herds come crashing through the walls to catalyze the rebalancing. A character in the graphic novel explains herd behavior:

Zombies in a herd are a force of nature. They don’t operate on logic or reason. If one of them even so much as brushes a hand against your door — and another one sees that, mistakes that as an attempt to get in — it’s over. That one starts trying to get in — the one who did the accidental tap thinks something’s inside all of a sudden—he starts beating on the door with him. They would kill you all.

I could be wrong about this, but as Kirkman explains the mechanism here, there is a solid application to humanity/rationality: Rick could have killed the Governor in that barn, “ended it,” but such a move would constitute a fatal slip toward nihilism (and likely an ambush). If he follows the Governor’s cue, he enters a game he cannot win (like the gun under the table, it is rigged). As soon as Rick gives up Michonne, who has “earned her place” in the group, as Hershel notes, he has given up hope — the Governor may have lost Penny, but Rick has Carl and Judith, which gives him a paternal power that Phillip no longer has (cue the psychosexual crimes?). Allen is similarly emasculated by Tyreese, as invoked by a past incident and love triangle that mirrors that of Shane, Lori and Rick (men rescue, women are saved). Milton can testify, they are building the world of tomorrow through their actions today, and as the musical overtures keep telling us, the prison group intends on building a home.

Group loyalty leaves Rick and Michonne vulnerable; still, the seed the Governor planted may end up working against him: “What did she want?” Recall Lori’s final words to Carl — “You’re gonna beat this world, I know you will. You gotta do what’s right, baby.” — and ask yourself: What would Lori want here?

I await the spectacular end to season three, and am available to recap the hell out of TWD, if anyone else has a problem with it.

Janet Manley lives in New York and can outwalk the best of them. She tends to croissant and Twitter habits. For solicited commentary on the state of open-toed boots, contact her via her website.