Christina Bieber Lake
These few minutes not only draw us into these characters' lives, they also reveal why post-apocalyptic narratives are inherently interesting to a late-modern culture like ours. In a world where everything is handed to us with little work or risk, we become the walking dead. We are soulless people who go through lives and relationships on autopilot, with little gratitude, and few challenges to our mettle. But when life suddenly becomes a simple matter of survival, a person's true character emerges, for better or for worse. On the day of this conversation, Rick gets shot, falls into a coma, and recovers weeks later, only to find the world as he knew it completely overrun by zombies. He immediately becomes love-in-action. He searches for his wife and son, Carl (Chandler Riggs), actually manages to find them, and then emerges as the leader of a ragtag group of survivors. The comic's promotional material describes it well: "In a world ruled by the dead, we are finally forced to start living." By the end of the first season, Rick is able to express the love that he has lived, making him come alive, in some ways, for the first time.
But the show doesn't end there. Like Cormac McCarthy's The Road, The Walking Dead reveals how exceptional suffering forces all the tough Job-like questions to the surface. "Why so much death now?" "Why death in this horrible way?" "Where were you, God, when this happened?" All these questions lead inevitably to "Why am I even alive to begin with?" and "Why bother now?" The characters do not have much time for metaphysical speculation, so when such moments emerge, they are particularly poignant.
At the beginning of the second season, Rick and his group have survived a harrowing escape from Atlanta, which they had erroneously thought to be under control and in search for a cure. They barely escape from a herd of walkers, and they lose one of the children, who they now believe to be dead. Almost as an afterthought, Rick goes into a church to pray to a figure of Jesus on the cross, covered with blood (that such a crucifix would not likely appear in a Baptist church apparently did not occur to the writers). He looks up to it, asking God for a sign, a nudge, something to let him know that he is doing okay in leading this group. Shortly thereafter, he and his son, Carl, are walking in the woods and come across a deer. Carl is enchanted; his life prior to this point has been filled with fear, and here is a moment of pure beauty and grace. We see Rick watching his son from behind, wondering if this could be the sign he asked for. Carl walks slowly up to the deer, a smile on his face for the first time we can remember. The camera stays focused on the deer, and … and …. (spoiler alert!) … BLAM! Carl and the deer drop to the ground. There are no zombies in sight; Carl was shot by another survivor who was stalking the deer. The episode ends, leaving the audience unsure of Carl's fate.
Like the Book of Job, the show is not going to provide any answers to horrific contingencies like these. Some characters have faith and hope, others do not, and the choice becomes a grid through which they see everything that happens to them, good and bad. Carl does not die; he is saved (through surgery) by a Christian named Herschel (Scott Wilson), who encourages Rick to view the fact that his son survived the bullet as a grace. The audience, like Rick, is left with a difficult question: which story is more true? The despairing one, in which your son manages to escape all kinds of evil, only to get shot during an otherwise transcendent moment; or the hopeful one, in which you thereby happen to land on the property of a veterinarian who knows how to remove the bullet and repair the damage? Or is the story told by Carl's mother the truest one, when she wonders aloud why they are saving him at all, when the world is full of such evil?
If all this is starting to sound like a zombie version of every novel Cormac McCarthy has ever written, that is exactly my point. McCarthy insists that fiction must be about matters of life and death because those are the only things that matter. He also stares unflinchingly at raw human nature in the face of death. An episode from the second season, "Pretty Much Dead Already," highlights the show's interest in these issues (and here I give another spoiler alert). The group of survivors discovers that Herschel has been keeping walkers in his barn because when he looks at them, he sees them for the people they once were—including his wife and stepson—not the corpses they have become. Herschel, because he has been relatively safe on his farm, has been isolated from the worst of the world "out there" and so can afford to hope for a "cure." This is a perspective on the walkers that the show itself has not permitted to this point, and it is stunning to recognize how quickly we had accepted a video game dichotomy of good and evil, how quickly we had assumed that the only thing to do in this situation is lock and load. As the episode progresses, viewers are reminded again that the challenge of a world dominated by walkers is merely an exaggerated version of our own. In the face of the unfolding horrors of real life and inevitable death, who will we become? A Darwinian animal or a civilized human being?