The fascinating morality of “The Walking Dead”

AMC's new series is a hyper-violent spectacle -- but it's also a terrific case study in human behavior

Topics: The Walking Dead, Television,

The fascinating morality of "The Walking Dead"A still from "The Walking Dead"

“The soul of man is a dark forest,” wrote D.H. Lawrence in “Studies in Classic American Literature.” In civilized life, that forest stays mostly hidden, thank goodness; that’s why they call it “polite” society, quote marks optional. Stories let us explore the wooded interior — especially horror, science fiction and fantasy, pop culture’s version of ancient folk tales. AMC’s horror series “The Walking Dead,” based on Robert Kirkman’s comic book series, is one of the better folk tales out there. As horror and as drama, it’s workmanlike, sometimes more than that. It’s slow and drab, its performances range from B-movie sturdy to wooden, and the non-American actors’ accents slip with distressing regularity. But as a case study in situational ethics, it’s terrific.

“Your brother does not work and play well with others,” said former cop Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) in last night’s episode, telling a camp inhabitant named Daryl (Norman Reedus) why Rick and his cohorts left the man’s older brother, a racist goon named Merle (Michael Rooker), stranded on a rooftop in zombie-infested downtown Atlanta.

The camp inhabitants’ arguments about Merle’s fate — whether it was defensible to leave him, and whether it made practical sense to try to rescue him when Rick’s group returned to Atlanta to retrieve lost guns and tools — crystallized themes that had been bubbling up in the previous two episodes. One person’s racist goon is another person’s beloved brother. Just because a man lacks the ability work and play well with others isn’t necessarily justification for chaining him to a pipe in Zombieville. And I have to admit that as much as I loathed Merle last week for his bullyboy smarm and white supremacist blather (he was a hate-spewing cartoon character, like something out of an early Stephen King novel) I found myself agreeing with Daryl that leaving him was an inhuman thing to do. Rick’s reaction to Daryl’s grief and rage indicated that he thought he’d done wrong and was properly ashamed; I suspect he spearheaded a return to downtown mainly to redeem himself, with the stated desire to retrieve the guns and tools serving as pretext.

Rick wasn’t the only one with second thoughts. “Dixon’s alive and he’s still up there handcuffed on that roof,” said T-Dog (IronE Singleton), a black man who was terrorized by Merle until he couldn’t turn the other cheek any longer. “That’s on us.” T-Dog ‘s tone suggested he was all right with the decision to abandon Merle, but he had doubts from start. It was T-Dog that chained the rooftop door shut to prevent the dead from getting at Merle; he mentioned this fact more than once, as if reassuring himself that he wasn’t as bad as everyone else in the expedition.

We’re just three episodes into “The Walking Dead,” and already the show seems to have a knack for showing the complexity of the human animal, how the definition of what’s moral and right changes depending on the situation, and how decisions are affected by the emotions people feel when they’re under pressure (and the holes in their knowledge). Time after time, we see characters risking their safety to help other endangered humans, not because there’s any immediate, tangible benefit to them (the risk of getting caught and eaten would be argument #1 for laying low and letting the walkers feed) but because their moral compass is still functioning and they have to heed it, otherwise they can’t live with themselves. Morgan Jones (Lennie James) and his son Duane (Adrian Khali Turner) didn’t have to save Rick in episode one, and Glenn (Steven Yeun) didn’t have to save Rick in downtown Atlanta in episode two. But because they’re decent people they did the decent thing, and now Rick – whose increasingly ragged state trooper uniform is starting to remind me of the knightly armor that Max Von Sydow wore throughout “The Seventh Seal” – is determined to pay their decency forward. (Justifying a return trip to Atlanta, Rick even brings up his pilot-episode promise to contact Morgan and Duane via walkie-talkie, even though the Joneses seem like reasonable people who wouldn’t curse Rick’s name if he didn’t make good on his pledge.)

But despite the many spontaneous displays of kindness, there are no Boy or Girl Scouts on this series, except maybe Rick (and as I see more of him, he seems less a saintly do-gooder than a psychologically damaged, compulsive crusader like Jack Shepard on “Lost,” or Seth Bullock on “Deadwood” minus the temper). Rational self-interest is the order of the day. That’s both understandable and necessary. But the “rational” part is tricky. As members of a makeshift, free-floating community, the “Walking Dead” characters have practical as well as moral reasons for being kind to their fellow non-dead. But as individuals, they have a corresponding obligation to balance “Do unto others” with “What’s in it for me?” When Rick asks another of the camp’s inhabitants, Dale (Jeffrey DeMunn), for a bolt-cutter to free Merle, Dale counters by complaining that there’s a reason why he hates to loan out tools, then asks Rick for one of the guns he’s going to retrieve. (“Done,” Rick replies.) Meanwhile, Rick’s wife, Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies), is outraged that Rick is going back less than a day after his miraculous reappearance – and really, can you blame her? Rick’s laid-back righteousness can seem like self-righteousness, and Lori’s barely-contained looks of frustration and terror suggest that she’s seen him act this way before, and is letting him have his way not because she thinks he’s right, but because she knows this is a battle she can’t win. (When he first floats the notion of going back, she asks him if he’s asking her or telling her. He says he’s asking her, but he’s telling her.)

This is a classic expression of what could be called Zombie Values – the push-pull between community and individuality, nobility and self interest, that animates all zombie tales, even when the screen is filled with charnel-house imagery like the deer munching/zombie beatdown/decapitation in Sunday’s episode. Because Kirkman’s source material is so down-to-earth – and because the series’ supervising producer, Frank Darabont (“The Shawshank Redemption,” “The Mist”), has always been drawn to stories of people struggling to be good in awful circumstances – that the articulation of conflicting values becomes the main attraction. “The Walking Dead” is “The Lord of the Flies” with ghouls. As I wrote in a previous column about the series, the title does not refer to zombies, but to the mortal characters, who, like all of us, have to decide a thousand times a day what the “right” thing is and how, exactly, to do it, even though we’re all going to perish eventually of natural or unnatural causes and end up fertilizing daffodils.

More so than any zombie tale since “28 Days Later” and “28 Weeks Later” (technically “zombie-by-proxy” films, since the monsters were zombie-like but not undead) this series is a blood-and-guts morality play. But it complicates audience response by continually supplying new information that fleshes out scenarios you thought were cut-and-dried. Most horror encourages the viewer to ridicule or condemn the characters’ for making decisions out of ignorance or sentiment; the privilege of yelling, “Idiot! Don’t let that vampire into your bedroom!” or “She got bit by a zombie! She’s not your mother anymore! Shoot her in the head!” is one of the minor pleasures of horror-movie watching. (I’ve had a number of arguments over the years about whether Ripley should have gone back for her cat at the end of the original “Alien.” The answer seems to come down to how much you like cats.) But as much as we hate admit it, what we believe depends on who we are and where we’re standing. If we were in situations like the ones presented in horror films, we wouldn’t have the luxury of standing outside of the story and feeling smugly superior to it. We’d be struggling to get through a sentence without soiling ourselves in fright.

When Merle first appears, he’s the least nuanced, most repugnant character we’ve on the series up to then, the kind of redneck thug whose main dramatic function is to get his face bitten off by Blacula. But over two episodes, the “The Walking Dead” gives us two visions of Merle: the goon strutting around on the department store roof acting like a survivalist Archie Bunker, and the superhero and mentor remembered by his younger brother, Daryl — a man whose skill with a crossbow suggests that a mastery of violence is something that runs in their family, and that could be very useful in a landscape swarming with ghouls. In Hobbes’ “State of Nature” — which is what zombie world basically is; thus the reflexive reversion to tribal groups with gender-stereotyped divisions of labor — you need all sorts of people to survive en masse. While it’s advisable to have a certain number of tacticians, doctors, cooks, hunters, gatherers, and detailed-oriented accountant types in the mix, it might not a bad idea to have a few human pitbulls like Daryl and Merle, provided you can contain their unpleasantness and channel their destructive energy.

The show’s treatment of Merle is just the most obvious example of the pride it takes in confounding our first impressions. The first time the show cuts away from Rick’s post-apocalyptic re-awakening to show that Lori has become the lover of Rick’s best friend, Shane (Jon Bernthal), we’re conditioned by a lifetime of B-movie shorthand to think of Shane as an opportunist and Lori as a betrayer. But by episode two, it’s clear that their sexual relationship grew out of knowing each other as friends for many years, and that they would not have become lovers if they’d known Rick was still alive. By episode three, Rick returns, and Lori and Shane end their relationship instantly. (I like how the episode’s director, Gwyneth Horder-Payton, shows the breakup happening wordlessly — in the glances that Shane exchanges with Lori when she and her son are tearfully embracing Rick.) When Rick leaves camp a mere day after returning (the more I think about this, the more I resent Rick), Lori cauterizes the separation by warning Shane to stop being chummy with her son.

Shane accepts Lori’s edict without much fuss. But he’s hurt — and I suspect his suppressed anger over the breakup accounts for the excessive beating he administers to the wife-abusing fellow camper. If Shane were less mature or socialized, he wouldn’t have separated from Lori right away. He would have become a hateful and possessive caveman, like the wife-beater. The scene where he takes Carl (Chandler Riggs) frog fishing – a passive-aggressive way of holding onto the inherited nuclear family he was briefly part of – suggests that he doesn’t control his feelings as completely as he might wish. When Shane pounds the wife-beater to a bloody pulp, his mix of icy moral certitude and hot-blooded rage reminds me of Bullock on “Deadwood,” who often attacked men that symbolized what Bullock was afraid of becoming.

At the end of this episode I didn’t know quite what to make of any of the major characters. The creators of “The Walking Dead” should take that as a compliment.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 14
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Pilot"

    One of our first exposures to uncomfortable “Girls” sex comes early, in the pilot episode, when Hannah and Adam “get feisty” (a phrase Hannah hates) on the couch. The pair is about to go at it doggy-style when Adam nearly inserts his penis in “the wrong hole,” and after Hannah corrects him, she awkwardly explains her lack of desire to have anal sex in too many words. “Hey, let’s play the quiet game,” Adam says, thrusting. And so the romance begins.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Elijah, "It's About Time"

    In an act of “betrayal” that messes up each of their relationships with Hannah, Marnie and Elijah open Season 2 with some more couch sex, which is almost unbearable to watch. Elijah, who is trying to explore the “hetero side” of his bisexuality, can’t maintain his erection, and the entire affair ends in very uncomfortable silence.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Charlie, "Vagina Panic"

    Poor Charlie. While he and Marnie have their fair share of uncomfortable sex over the course of their relationship, one of the saddest moments (aside from Marnie breaking up with him during intercourse) is when Marnie encourages him to penetrate her from behind so she doesn’t have to look at him. “This feels so good,” Charlie says. “We have to go slow.” Poor sucker.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and camp friend Matt, "Hannah's Diary"

    We’d be remiss not to mention Shoshanna’s effort to lose her virginity to an old camp friend, who tells her how “weird” it is that he “loves to eat pussy” moments before she admits she’s never “done it” before. At least it paves the way for the uncomfortable sex we later get to watch her have with Ray?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Hard Being Easy"

    On the heels of trying (unsuccessfully) to determine the status of her early relationship with Adam, Hannah walks by her future boyfriend’s bedroom to find him masturbating alone, in one of the strangest scenes of the first season. As Adam jerks off and refuses to let Hannah participate beyond telling him how much she likes watching, we see some serious (and odd) character development ... which ends with Hannah taking a hundred-dollar bill from Adam’s wallet, for cab fare and pizza (as well as her services).

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Booth Jonathan, "Bad Friend"

    Oh, Booth Jonathan -- the little man who “knows how to do things.” After he turns Marnie on enough to make her masturbate in the bathroom at the gallery where she works, Booth finally seals the deal in a mortifying and nearly painful to watch sex scene that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about how much Marnie is willing to fake it.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Tad and Loreen, "The Return"

    The only sex scene in the series not to feature one of the main characters, Hannah’s parents’ showertime anniversary celebration is easily one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the show’s first season. Even Hannah’s mother, Loreen, observes how embarrassing the situation is, which ends with her husband, Tad, slipping out of the shower and falling naked and unconscious on the bathroom floor.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and the pharmacist, "The Return"

    Tad and Loreen aren’t the only ones to get some during Hannah’s first season trip home to Michigan. The show’s protagonist finds herself in bed with a former high school classmate, who doesn’t exactly enjoy it when Hannah puts one of her fingers near his anus. “I’m tight like a baby, right?” Hannah asks at one point. Time to press pause.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Role-Play"

    While it’s not quite a full-on, all-out sex scene, Hannah and Adam’s attempt at role play in Season 3 is certainly an intimate encounter to behold (or not). Hannah dons a blond wig and gets a little too into her role, giving a melodramatic performance that ends with a passerby punching Adam in the face. So there’s that.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and Ray, "Together"

    As Shoshanna and Ray near the end of their relationship, we can see their sexual chemistry getting worse and worse. It’s no more evident than when Ray is penetrating a clothed and visibly horrified Shoshanna from behind, who ends the encounter by asking if her partner will just “get out of me.”

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Frank, "Video Games"

    Hannah, Jessa’s 19-year-old stepbrother, a graveyard and too much chatting. Need we say more about how uncomfortable this sex is to watch?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Desi, "Iowa"

    Who gets her butt motorboated? Is this a real thing? Aside from the questionable logistics and reality of Marnie and Desi’s analingus scene, there’s also the awkward moment when Marnie confuses her partner’s declaration of love for licking her butthole with love for her. Oh, Marnie.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Vagina Panic"

    There is too much in this scene to dissect: fantasies of an 11-year-old girl with a Cabbage Patch lunchbox, excessive references to that little girl as a “slut” and Adam ripping off a condom to ejaculate on Hannah’s chest. No wonder it ends with Hannah saying she almost came.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>