A Come-to-Jesus Moment for 'The Walking Dead'

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The zombie series tackles religion for the first time in this week's episode

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"Some men do not earn the love of their sons."

–Hershel Greene

Religion played a fairly small role in The Walking Dead's abbreviated first season. There were no hopeful prayers, no divine interventions, no appeals to grace—just the living, the dead, and the in-between. Under Rick's guidance, the survivors reached what they assumed would be the ultimate source of resolution: the Center for Disease Control and Prevention—and its lone representative, Dr. Jenner. Jenner's utter hopelessness in the face of the outbreak has forced each of the survivors to contemplate how to go on living in this post-apocalyptic world. To borrow a phrase from Lost, a series that The Walking Dead often resembles, our heroes were failed by a man of science. Last night's episode, "Cherokee Rose," raises the question: Will they also be failed by a man of faith?

Hershel Greene's farm offers enough security for the survivors—and the show—to pause for a moment of contemplation. In "Cherokee Rose," for the first time in the series' history, the survivors encounter only a single zombie (albeit a very memorable one). Our heroes have been so caught up in the day-to-day struggle for survival that they've had few chances to reflect on the ramifications of the zombie apocalypse. For the religious members of the group, the fate of the world begs a haunting question: How could God allow something like this to happen?

It's a question that's been weighing heavily on Rick's mind since his failed prayer in " What Lies Ahead," when he prayed for a sign almost immediately before his son Carl was shot. For a man who's been struggling for weeks to hold himself and his family together, it was the final straw; when Hershel appeals to Rick's faith in "Cherokee Rose," Rick replies, "I try not to mix it up with the Almighty. Best we stay out of each other's way."

The world of The Walking Dead is godforsaken—in the most literal sense of the word. In the second-season premiere, when the survivors heard the distant ringing of a church bell, they sought the safe haven that it turned out the CDC couldn't offer. But once they'd arrived at the church, the survivors found nothing but a hoard of zombies and a bell on a timer. The Walking Dead is rarely subtle, and the undead parishioners who occupied the empty shell of a church offered a clear message: Nothing is sacred, and there is no sanctuary anymore.

As with most things in life, God's hand in the horrific world of The Walking Dead comes down to a matter of perspective. For Rick, the fact that Carl was shot is enough reason to reject God outright; for Hershel, the fact that Carl survived is enough reason to embrace Him. As the de facto leaders of their respective groups, the two men understand each other's burden, but they can't come to an agreement about what the burdens mean. And their disagreement is far from abstract; though Carl is out of harm's way, Carol's daughter Sophia is still missing in action, and Hershel wants the rest of the survivors to move on as quickly as possible.

As Rick and Hershel debate the group's next move, the rest of the survivors continue to develop coping strategies for the nightmare that surrounds them. In last week's "Save The Last One," Glenn confessed to his new lover Maggie that he had begun to pray for the first time in his life. Shane continues to be haunted by his betrayal of Otis, and the awkward, stilting eulogy he offers at Otis' funeral is far less authentic a remembrance than Shane telling Andrea to "turn off the switch" that allows you to feel.

Throughout it all, there's one survivor who has consistently opted out of the religious debate entirely: Darryl, whose sole comment on the subject was "it's a waste of time, all this hoping and praying" earlier this season. If God helps those who help themselves, Daryl is His prophet (and, perhaps significantly, the survivor you'd most want on your side by far). By contrast, Carol—Sophia's mother—spends much of her time hoping, praying, and looking nervous. Given the alternative, it's hard not to get behind Daryl's secular, pragmatic approach.

But whatever role God plays or doesn't play in this world, religion has one immediate, tangible function: It changes the way people treat each other. The most poignant moment in "Cherokee Rose" comes when Glenn and Maggie arrive at the pharmacy, which bears a hand-painted sign: "Take what you need and God bless." And Rick is understanding enough (or, perhaps, manipulative enough) to know that appealing to Hershel as a "man of belief" is the group's best chance of being granted permission to stay at the farm.

Religion is one way to find solace in a world gone to hell. But it's not the only way. So far, Rick has stuck unwaveringly to his own beliefs, but it's clear that in the face of such horrors, even his staunch sense of purpose is beginning to erode. As Rick explains to Hershel, there's only one thing left in his life that he can't afford to fail: his son. As "Cherokee Rose," draws to a close Rick offers Carl the only solace he has left: "I know we'll find her... I don't know. But I truly believe it." As Rick sees it, Sophia's still out there somewhere, and God can't be counted on to protect her.

So Rick will. Because in a world like The Walking Dead's, you have to believe in something to stay alive—even if all you can believe in is yourself.

Note: For the sake of those who haven't read  The Walking Dead comics series, please avoid revealing spoilers for upcoming episodes in the comments section below.

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Scott Meslow is entertainment editor at TheWeek.com.

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