Guest Writer: Michael J. Miller
It seems redundant to say that a show about surviving after the zombie apocalypse, a show known for its graphic violence and bloodshed, is a little dark. In fact, it seems like a completely needless observation. It may even seem like – GASP! – filler. However, as Kalie and I binge-watched The Walking Dead back in November (something I wouldn’t recommend unless you like intense, free-floating anxiety), I felt Season Four took the darkness of the show to a whole new level. It forced me to ponder, is this the cost of survival in this world? Could I become what I’d have to survive if I lived in this sort of a setting?
As we began our odyssey through The Walking Dead Kalie started this series – Walking through The Walking Dead – to chronicle our effort to catch-up with the rest of the world. However, there were other things to be considered in the horror world and Kalie wrote four entries in the series before her writing time and attention was pulled elsewhere. BUT, the new season returns this Sunday and I have this weird, thematic OCD thing going on. I feel like the series needs to be brought up to date! I know, I know…I’m absolutely crazy. Who really cares? Well, I do and that craziness has resulted in these next two posts, catching the blog up to where we are with The Walking Dead.
Two moments in Season Four stood out to me as creative and emotional high points of the series – Episode 14, “The Grove” and Episode 16, “A.” These episodes left an emotional mark I can’t shake as Rick and Carol grappled with choices and crossed lines we’d never seen them cross before. All of this begs questions of survival. Often this show makes you wonder if you could survive in this world. But perhaps the more intriguing/disturbing question is – Could I do what I would have to in order to survive? The world has regressed. Survival brings sacrifices. And given the narrative of Season Four, we must sacrifice the most important parts (the loving, compassionate, merciful, trusting parts) of who we are. Over the course of this series we see these characters slide back and forth between the darkness and the light. Each foray into the darkness seems to be a further fall than the preceding one, leaving a more lasting mark. The marks of Season Four cannot ever be shaken or forgotten.
Early in “The Grove,” Carol has a conversation with Mika. Concerned with her survival Carol warns:
Carol – You can’t change how big you are, but you can toughen up.
Mika – I don’t have to be tough. I can run. I’m good at that.
Carol – NO. My daughter ran and it wasn’t enough. That’s why I taught the kids at the prison to do more than that.
Mika – I can kill walkers. I mean, I’ve tried. I’m not like my sister. I’m not messed up. I know what they are. But I can’t kill people. I could never do that. When the bad people were at the prison, they were right in front of us. I held up my gun but…I couldn’t pull the trigger. Killing people is wrong. Someone killed Karen and David. They just killed them! And they were nice!
Carol – What about people that try to kill you?
Mika – I don’t even wish I could.
Carol – People came in and killed our friends.
Mika – And I feel sorry for them.
Carol – Why?
Mika – Because they probably weren’t like that before.
Yes, Mika’s a child and we can claim she’s just being naïve. But I think there’s more to it than that. She realizes an important truth. Even in this world, there is “right” and “wrong.” And perhaps, more difficult to swallow in the world of The Walking Dead (as much as in our own world now), that there is never a justified reason for killing another human being. The world may change, but we are still who we are. That is what it means to be human and Mika refuses to give that up.
Carol however has become hardened. Who could blame her? This apocalyptic world freed her from her abusive husband and also took her daughter Sophia. Personally, I’d say Carol has become the most layered, dynamic, complex character on the show. In part, that’s because of her transformation. She’s learned the cost of survival. She will do whatever it takes. That is never more powerfully or painfully clear than in this episode’s climax. (This should go without saying but MAJOR spoilers to follow.)
Carol, Tyrese, Lizzie, Mika, and Judith have settled in an abandoned country home. They have found a glimpse of a normal life in a world gone to hell. Returning to the house, Carol and Tyrese find a bloody Lizzie, holding a knife, standing over Judith. The dead body of her sister Mika laying beside her. In a desperate attempt to show Carol and Tyrese what she “knows” – that the walkers aren’t dangerous, just different – she killed her sister and was waiting for her to rise.
Tyrese and Carol discuss how Lizzie was feeding the walkers like pets at the prison and how she had cut apart and hung up a rat “just for fun” too. “She can’t be around people,” Carol says with tears in her eyes as they try to figure out what to do. Splitting up is dangerous. So, with tears freely falling down her face, Carol takes Lizzie out into the field in front of the house, has a short conversation with her, and shoots her in the head while she picks wildflowers.
My words can’t begin to do this moment justice. It was one of the most powerful moments I’ve ever seen on television. It’s something I’ll never forget. Personally, I think this is the darkest and most emotionally complex episode in the history of the show so far. Nothing comes close to the pain or the depiction of the cold, brutal reality of the world in which they live. Carol, a mother who’s already lost a daughter, was forced to shot another child in the head because she couldn’t allow her to live.
Carol couldn’t let Lizzie stay with them – not if she wanted Tyrese, Judith, and herself to be safe. She also couldn’t just let Lizzie wander alone – that would be cruel. So she killed her. This is the cost of surviving in this world. This is who you have to become.
The season finale, “A,” disturbingly illustrates this yet again. Rick, Michonne, and Carl are ambushed by Joe and his gang who’ve been hunting Rick since he killed one of their men earlier in the season. Daryl tries to intercede for them but to no avail. With the threat of Daryl being beaten to death and Michonne and Carl raped before his eyes, Rick lets go. It is a fascinating scene because he doesn’t seem to snap. He doesn’t seem to crack. Rather, he appears to release the darkness that has been building in him since this hellish new existence began. He attacks with no remorse or hesitation. He holds nothing back. He begins by breaking Joe’s nose with a head-butt and ends by ripping Joe’s throat out with his bare teeth. Then, Rick turns his attention to Carl’s attacker. He kills him slowly, seemingly savoring both the act of killing and the pain he’s producing.
This is a threshold moment. We’ve seen Rick fight the darkness since this world began. We’ve seen his reluctance to change, to kill human beings, to exclude others for the safety of their group. But he’s done what they have to to survive. Here, he lets go. Again, this appears to be the cost of survival in this new world. The following morning Rick, still covered in Joe’s blood, isn’t remorseful. Rather he’s contemplative, sitting outside the car that served as a nighttime shelter for Carl and Michonne. Daryl returns and an important conversation plays out.
Daryl – Hey, what you did last night? Anybody woulda done that.
Rick – No, not that.
Daryl – Somethin’ happened. That ain’t you.
Rick – Daryl, you saw what I did to Tyrese. It ain’t all of it but, that’s me. That’s why I’m here now. That’s why Carl is. I wanna keep him safe. That’s all that matters.
Rick is owning the cost of survival. He is acknowledging who he had become. It isn’t all of him. But it is part of him. To live in this world, to survive and keep those close to you safe, you have to descend into the darkness. You need to compromise or completely give up the most precious parts of what makes us human. Rick and Carol crossed lines, they changed, but they were able to protect themselves and those around them.
When I think about this I can see where Mika’s coming from. I do feel bad for these people, because they weren’t like this before. We get enough of a glimpse into who Rick and Carol where before everything to know that’s true. When I watched Season Four, as I saw these heart-wrenching episodes play out, I thought often of that second question – Could I become who I need to become in order to survive? I know the answer and I’d probably die early on in a world like this. No matter what the world became, I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t become what I’d need to in order to survive. For me, Mika was right all along. I don’t even wish I could.