'The Walking Dead': Can Morality Survive the Zombie Apocalypse?

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The characters wrestle with what it means to do the right thing in a changed world

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For a show that's ostensibly about zombies, The Walking Dead spends a lot of time on what it means to be human. Living a moral life is enough of a challenge without zombies around, and The Walking Dead has already some very bad things happen to some very good people. This week's episode, "Chupacabra," raises the basic question that separates series protagonist Rick from antihero Shane: Is it possible to live in this world without sacrificing what you believe is right?

Before the zombie apocalypse, Rick and Shane occupied the same moral sphere: They awoke each morning, put on identical police uniforms, and protected and served a small Georgia county. As we learned earlier this season, Rick and Shane have (at the very least) been friends since high school, and the honesty and candor of their first scene—a conversation over hamburgers, shortly before the world went to hell—demonstrates a kinship that we've rarely seen since. These are two men who started in the same place and shared the same values. But when the dead began to walk, Shane—unlike Rick—abandoned the uniform that symbolized law and order, and shortly thereafter abandoned that ideology that went along with it.

At what point did Shane begin to change? The most obvious catalyst is Lori, who Shane confronts yet again about how much he loves both her and Carl (bringing the series' total times to 8,000 or so). Intriguingly, "Chupacabra" features a flashback that depicts what was probably the beginning of Shane and Lori's affair: his instinctive, protective decision to hold her as they watched the firebombing of Atlanta from afar. This marks the series' third flashback to date, and—tellingly—each of them has focused on Shane, not Rick. Rick may be our protagonist, but Shane is the character who has most fundamentally changed since the zombie apocalypse began, and that makes him the one to watch.

On the surface, this week's obligatory Rick-Shane conflict centers on the still-missing Sophia. With no Sophia in sight, Shane is prepared to give up the hunt and move on to the presumed safety of Fort Benning (after four "where's Sophia?" episodes, many viewers are probably feeling the same). When Carl was shot earlier this season, Rick assuaged his own guilt by affirming his own moral righteousness: a "little girl goes missing, you look for her." But Shane's hard-line pragmatism makes Rick worry that his "good intentions" are making the group weaker. He's asking the wrong question; splitting up, sharing resources, and giving away guns unquestionably makes the group weaker. The question is whether or not that sacrifice is worth making.

For argument's sake, let's review the consequences that "good intentions" have wrought for the Greene family. After Otis accidentally shot Carl, Hershel Greene spent considerable time and medical supplies to revive him. In return, Hershel has risked his family's safety, lost a horse, and had his son-in-law murdered by one of the people he took in. Given the way things have played out, it's hard to fault him for taking a Shane-esque approach: Protecting the people he cares about and leaving the rest of the world to fend for itself. Shane thinks Rick is too soft to make the hard choices that come with leadership, and he expresses his opinion forcefully enough to make Rick doubt himself. Shane is self-centered, violent, and dangerously amoral—but in principle, it's hard to say he's completely wrong about Rick. Is there a fine line between survivalism and humanism? If so, neither man has found it yet.

Somewhere on that line lies the crux of the series, because in the context of The Walking Dead, we're talking about what it means to be human. Andrea's mistaken attempt to shoot Daryl is a reminder that there's very little separating the survivors from the walking dead, who were people just like the survivors not so long ago. The pivotal difference is the ability to think—to do more than consume and survive. Rick's overriding morality can be maddening and ill-advised in practice, but as always, it's hard to fault him. As Lori tells Shane, it's not difficult to sacrifice a moral code; it's difficult to hold onto one.

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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