***THE WALKING DEAD SPOILERS***
There, got that part out of the way. Anyway, The Walking Dead is, for the most part, not a happy show. Zombie apocalypses generally don’t lend themselves well to feel good stories, long walks in the park, and puppies. I mean, I’m sure there are still puppies out there, but it’s hard to cuddle with them when flesh-eating monsters are ambling towards you with teeth a-chomping.
We are more than halfway through the sixth season, and the characters have had their ups and downs. Some are permanently down, since it’s hard to recover from death. Still, even though it was hidden in plain sight, the past few episodes, particularly the most recent one entitled “Knots Untie” that aired this week, have given what might be the most basic and perfect glimpse into human society that has appeared on TV for some time. And, it was done beautifully through something that seems contrary to the title of the show: life.
A.) CIVILIZATION COLLAPSES
For those that watch the show, our hero, Rick Grimes, begins his adventure when he wakes up after things have already gone down the toilet. There are some moments where he has to learn the hard way about maneuvering in the new rotting flesh world, but uncertainty about the world at large keeps hope alive for a time. He finds other survivors, along with his wife and son (odds aside), and they try to find out just how bad things are. Sure, they are in survival mode, but they are still largely struggling to get a glimmer of hope that the world isn’t over. There is still a struggle to stay civilized.
That hope fades, though. Each turn becomes grimmer, even if they take steps forward for brief moments. The band of survivors finds a family farm and tries to coexist, only to be overrun by zombies.
They find an abandoned prison, only to be overrun by a sociopath along with his unwitting teammates.
They seek refuge in a mysterious settlement, only to be prepared as dinner for other people.
They head to DC because they think they have a scientist that has the answers, only to figure out it was a lie, and then arrive at a settlement anyway and get overrun by crazy people.
If you’ve watched the show, you know the drill.
Through the slow burn, Rick Grimes begins to not only lose hope for civilization, but he also begins to completely lose his humanity. As his beard grows and he becomes more disheveled, he soon almost becomes an animal and, in my opinion, it reaches its lowest point in the final episode of Season 4. Backed into a horrible situation by horrible people, Rick actually bites out the throat of his captor. It was the transformative moment in Rick Grimes’s downward spiral and, quite possibly, his lowest point when it came to cementing his loss of humanity. He looked like the walkers they were trying to avoid.
B.) BEYOND SURVIVAL
The interesting thing about Rick’s loss of humanity is that it follows an interesting linear progression. Sense of civilization is lost, then sense of family is lost, then sense of self is lost. It is a sort of funnel in regards to loss of purpose and identity, and at the other end is the most basic portions of existence in the form of pure survival. Eventually, when they are on the run, all that matters is making it to the next day. Nothing else is important, nor could it really be under the circumstances.
Of course the show would be pure misery if it stayed that way forever. A rebound does start to slowly build for Rick and his band of survivors once they reach Alexandria. The walled city that still lived in relative luxury was a shockingly stark contrast that was incredibly hard to deal with for the group (and Rick in particular). There was still an us vs. them mentality, and the weak Alexandrians were seen as soft and, possibly, a huge liability to survival. Rick was hell-bent on making them “understand” how the world now works.
Things slowly change as they spend more time there, and in a story arc that took half of the sixth season, Rick has his turning point. After the heartbreak of losing others he started to grow close to, as well as seemingly losing his son, Rick goes on a final suicide attack on the zombie horde that has at that point surrounded them. But he doesn’t die. The Alexandrians rally around him and, with luck and an RPG launched from a fuel tanker, the day is won. It is in those moments that Rick turns it around. And what realization does Rick have that makes him flip the switch?
Family. These people are family. And he needs to treat them that way instead of liabilities or just a few more people to watch his back. This is the “new world” that Rick now wants to show his children.
C.) REDISCOVERING FAMILY
Even though it may seem obvious, it really isn’t. What The Walking Dead showed in that moment is something so basic and fundamental to humanity that it takes a complete loss of it to fully grasp it. If there is any hope to build (or rebuild) society, you absolutely need to have its most fundamental building block: the family. Without a sense of family, Rick lost his humanity. And, on the other hand, Rick could begin to regain his humanity through the formation of family. Without family, what are we but lone survivors in the wild? Likewise, if you were to build society from the ground up, like the survivors on the show, where should you start but family?
This realization of the importance of family was building through multiple angles and at different times. Glenn was probably the earliest one to, on some level, understand the need for family. Hershel, the owner of the farm that got overrun by zombies, didn’t accept Glenn at first. It was through his taking in Glenn as almost a son and giving his daughter’s hand to Glenn in marriage that planted those early seeds. Glenn’s respect for Hershel and family is readily apparent in his desire to marry Maggie in the first place. To think, in a time when the world is ending, that marriage is even a thought in his head. Glenn’s respect for Hershel and family guided his respect for a societal tradition that didn’t seem like it would be necessary anymore.
Michonne, another survivor that lost much during the apocalypse, spends a lot of time with Rick and his children, Carl and Judith. Michonne slowly begins treating Carl as if he was her own son during their journey, and she too has her own epiphany, stemming from a conversation with Deanna, the “mayor” of Alexandria. At one point, Deanna asks Michonne what she truly wants for her whole life. Michonne ends up helping Spencer deal with his eventually zombified mother, Deanna, after Carl led her to them in the woods, and when confronting Carl about his recklessness, they have this exchange:
Michonne: “Was that some sort of game out there? Did you think that…”
Michonne: “Then why?”
Carl: “Because it should be someone who loved her, someone who’s family, and I’d do it for you. I would.”
Michonne: “Come here. Me too.”
In that moment, Michonne realizes that what she wants for her whole life is family. Likewise, Carl finds his anchor point in family after the ordeal.
These are some of the biggest examples from the show, but the thread is the same. After losing civilization, after losing hope, and after simply surviving, they can only come back and start to regain hope for humanity by rediscovering family.
D.) FROM FAMILY TO CIVILIZATION
It doesn’t end there, though. This realization brings them together and gives them a common purpose other than survival. They have the beginning of civilization in their hands. But, is it enough to rebuild?
Deanna had grand plans for Alexandria. Expansion, farming, even a church. There were search parties to find survivors and bring them into the fold. Deanna wanted to rebuild society from the ground up. Still, we need to ask ourselves this: why? Why should any of them care to rebuild? By the time they expand and get things off the ground, will some of them even be alive to enjoy the fruits of their labors? What hope do they have for their efforts if they will all eventually die?
This, again, is the next obvious, yet forgotten, part of the equation. It is hinted at with Morgan’s return and philosophy, but the other characters themselves don’t quite get it yet. Particularly Abraham. With Maggie being pregnant and Abraham dealing with his own struggles revolving around women and his future, he asks Glenn in his typical Abraham way: “When you were pouring the bisquick, were you trying to make pancakes?”
Glenn doesn’t know what he’s asking at first, but most of us with our minds in the gutter knew pretty quick what he was getting at. Glenn’s answer is stunning to Abraham when he acknowledges that they fully understood what they were doing, and they wanted to. Abraham is incredulous and follows up with another colorful piece of Abraham linguistics in the following exchange:
Abraham: “Well, given the precarious state of affairs on any given Sunday, I am damn near floored that you or anyone else would have the cojones to make a call like that.”
Glenn: “I mean, well… we’re trying to build something, me and her. All of us.”
Abraham: “For the record, I see rain coming, I’m wearing galoshes.”
Abraham’s reaction can’t be faulted. How could anyone possibly want to have and raise a child in this new world? Interestingly, how often do we ask ourselves that question even though we are in nowhere near the same dire straits as the characters on the show? Abraham’s not ready for it, and he can’t fathom how anyone would make that decision consciously.
It isn’t the first time that there was a pregnancy on the show. Rick’s wife Lori became pregnant much earlier in the show with Judith, along with the drama of not knowing who the father was. There was the same thought process that was driving Abraham’s questions. Is this really a world to bring a new life into? Can she deal with the uncertainty of who fathered the child? Should she even have the child? Perhaps Lori came to the same realization as Glenn and Maggie, but Glenn vocalized it in the above exchange. They are building something. Not just for themselves, but for everyone.
Subtly, and maybe not entirely unknowingly, The Walking Dead has shone the light on what is needed to make civilization. It isn’t just family on its own. They had that now. No, family is the building block, and what springs from that human relationship is life. Deanna wanted to build walls and farms, but what good are they without life to fill the walls, to till the soil, and to eat the food? You see, Deanna was building family and community. Glenn and Maggie consciously decided to take family and build civilization.
Glenn and Maggie, on their way to meeting another functioning colony, happened to rescue a doctor who was an obstetrician before the mayhem. As a part of a trade deal with their new semi-neighbors, Maggie ended up getting a sonogram and a checkup for her pregnancy. On the ride home they shared the picture. Words weren’t said, but the looks on both Darryl’s and Abraham’s faces said it all. They were no longer simply fighting for their own future. They were fighting for THE future.
E.) THE FOREST AND THE TREES
In today’s world, it’s hard to see the simple with the multitude of distractions in front of us. Also, many of us live lives of relative ease, especially when compared to the doomsday that we see weekly on The Walking Dead, so the simple often escapes us. We frequently hear the phrase about not being able to see the forest for the trees to caution us about getting lost in the details. Why worry about the tree when there is a whole forest out there? But the tree is at the heart of the forest, and the seed is the beginning of the tree. Such is the, for a lack of a better phrase, simplicity of the complexity of the human relationship, where such a simple detail gets lost in the shuffle. We bond with each other, from that bond springs life, and the bonds of the future weave themselves into a beautiful web that forms our society.
Now, even with how basic of a concept it is regarding family, society, and life, it leads to arguments today. Some, unfortunately, can’t have children. Others choose not to have them. None of this is to say that having children is necessary for a life to have meaning. However, we are starting to collectively forget what gives birth to civilization. When we fail to realize the dignity of every life, or of life itself, we see the degradation of society through the rejection of its very core. Children are the future, and those without children, as they grow into their twilight years, will need to rely upon the children of others in order to keep society alive and moving into that future. We need to return to a societal understanding that life is precious and in need of our protection for the good of all humanity, whether we have children, can’t have children, or don’t want children. Having children isn’t necessary to respect the dignity of all human life.
Looking back on The Walking Dead as it has progressed, it is truly amazing how they have brought the most basic parts of the human condition into the spotlight. In order to show us civilization, they tore it down to its very core. And now, through one sonogram picture in a sea of despair, we are being shown how to bring civilization back. It’s fascinating how a show about the dead can teach us so much about life.