Every epic story is ultimately a battle, not only between people, but between their ideas. In Star Wars, the struggle is not ultimately between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, but between the Dark Side of the Force and the Light Side, namely different ideas about power and how to use it. In the television show Lost, you had the “Man of Science”, Jack Shephard pitted against the “Man of Faith”, John Locke in a classic battle between faith and science. Higher up, you had a philosophical battle playing out between a Smoke Monster (“people are corrupt”) and Jacob (“people are good”), a quest to discover the moral nature of man.
With last night’s midseason finale episode, Season Two has finally begun to prove how The Walking Dead is more than a show about zombie survival or even about human conflict–it’s ultimately a battle of ideas. These ideas are centered around the question, “What is the moral code in an apocalyptic world?” (MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD… just do me and yourself a favor if you haven’t watched the Walking Dead and don’t read this blog!)
On one side, you have Rick who still adheres to old world codes of decency and respect. His main goal is to ensure the survival of every member of the camp, that “no man gets left behind.” This has fueled his response to the major crisis of Season Two, which is that young Sophia has gone missing in the woods of Georgia. Feeling responsible–and probably enormously guilty since Sophia disappeared under his watch–Rick leads a search party to find her. In this process, Karl gets shot after tagging along with his dad on a search party outing.
They receive aid from Farmer Hershel, who provides medical attention to young Karl, and lets the band of survivors stay on his land while Karl recuperates. Rick has begun to see Hershel’s farm as a true safe haven, a place insulated from walkers (they apparently have a magical swamp river that ensnares walkers because of the sticky silt, much like a rat trap or a fly trap). He begins to envision a permanent life at the farm and is willing to do play it safe and follow Hershel’s rules just to stay at the farm.
On the other side you have Shane, who has quickly adapted to the dog-eat-dog (or zombie-eat-dog?) mentality, namely when he coldly shot his sidekick Otis, sacrificing him to save himself (and arguable young Karl too) to get much-needed medical supplies back to the camp. He lies about the incident, shaving his head to cover up the evidence that Otis fought back and ripped out a patch of his hair. Although first helpful to Rick’s search party, Shane quickly begins view the search for Sophia as pointless, and is resigned to the fact that Sophia is probably either dead or a walker. He questions Rick’s authority at every turn, blaming Rick for Karl getting shot, insisting the group should cut their losses, give up the search for Sophia, and instead focus on surviving with the people they do have.
Shane has become an increasingly infuriating person to me. Even the way actor Jon Bernthal plays him rocking back forth and constantly shifting his weight or darting his intense eyes around, Shane seems to becoming a wild animal, dangerous, unpredictable and unshackled by rules of morality. In last night’s episode, we see Shane become violently unhinged as he leads a full on massacre to a barn full of walkers which had been protected by Hershel on his land of peace and tranquility. This scene was shot so beautifully, I actually felt empathy for these zombies that were coming out of the barn only to be slaughtered. I think this is the first time in the history of zombie lore, where rather than feeling triumphant or delighted or relieved when a zombie is killed, I actually felt sad, partially for Hershel who had kept his wife and son locked in the barn, naively hoping for a cure someday to heal them, and mostly remembering the humanity in the zombies in their previous lives. I was mad at Shane for violating Hershel’s rules and disrespecting him, leading an attack that seemed completely unnecessary since the barn was incredibly secure.
Then out of the shadows of the barn steps the last walker, young Sophia with her tennis shoes and faded rainbow tshirt and a gaping wound on her neck, clearly a zombie now. You see the entire camp–Andrea, T-Dog, Glen, Daryl, Lori, Karl and even Shane completely rocked, distraught and incredulous. The firing squad, completely in shock, freezes and no one shoots. I remember saying out loud to John as we were watching, “Oh my gosh, who’s gonna be the one to shoot her?” And Rick, who had been wrangling a walker, so insistent to stay at the farm and follow Herschel’s rules at the expense of the group, he walks up to Sophia and slowly, heartbreakingly pulls the trigger.
Battle of Ideas
I thought this episode was brilliant, because as infuriating as Shane has become to me, this incident proved this frustrating reality: that Shane was right the whole time. Rick has been submitting to Hershel’s rules, first Hershel’s “no guns” policy in exchange for refuge on their land. After Glen discovers walkers in the barn, Rick even seems prepared to follow Hershel’s second rule of “no shooting walkers,” the old “zombies are people too!” argument. We even see Rick keeping a walker alive, wrangling it and helping Hershel prod them into the barn. We begin to even believe what Rick believes, that this farm is safe and secure and a place to make a life for him and his (or Shane’s?) baby, never mind that a there is barn full of walkers “a stone’s throw away from where we sleep,” as Shane put it.
John made a good point, taken from Glen’s dialogue. Glen tells Maggie, “I forgot they were dangerous,” referring to the walkers. Being so insulated from the harm outside, and so intent on staying at the farm, Rick began to forget how dangerous the walkers were, as he was willing to surrender the guns and even consider not destroying the walkers in the barn. His series of actions led to Sophia going missing and then Karl getting shot. As frustrating it is to see, morally bankrupt Shane truly is capable of making decisions that will ensure the survival of the group.
But what about the moral survival? I want to know it’s still possible in this show for people to be decent and good and hopeful–like my new favorites Glen, Daryl and Karl–and still survive. Shane might be best equipped and adapted to survive in this world, but there’s not much else redeemable about him. And if he is indeed the father of Lori’s baby, what kind of father figure would he be?
I thought it was incredibly significant and important and a character-defining moment when Rick was the one to shoot Sophia. First, for me it evoked the opening scene of Season One. The first time we see Rick in his state trooper uniform as he calmly walks down the road, pulls out a gun and shoots a little girl walker, still in her pajamas. Season Two provided a hauntingly somber symmetry, as he shoots little Sophia. I’m intrigued to see where they will take Rick’s character now.
Up until this episode, I haven’t been the biggest fan of Season Two.
Season One of The Walking Dead was a tension-ridden, action-packed survival horror roller coaster ride, much in the vein of 28 Days Later. However, Season Two’s relative lack of action/tension has been part of my frustration with this season (It seems like zombies rarely made an appearance in the majority of Season Two episodes). Lately, the show has been feeling more like a Grey’s Anatomy for zombie survivors. Romantic entanglements, “who’s the father?”, and power struggles between the two alpha males often felt more like soap opera material rather than a zombie horror story. I was resigned to the fact that budget cuts by AMC really were cutting down on the action and production value to save money and that the story would suffer.
However, with this midseason finale, The Walking Dead has proven that this show is much more than a zombie story, and even much more about good character development. This television show truly is now set up to be completely epic, where the deepest philosophical and moral questions get played out onscreen.
Thus, my faith in the show has finally been restored and I can’t wait until February.