Our TV Roundtable on Season 3, Episode 3, "Walk With Me"
I had a fleeting theory that, for shrewd brand-strategic reasons, AMC deliberately kept this week's Walking Dead episode off its screener site until midday Monday (?!) so that East Coast critics would have to watch it with an actual apocalypse bearing down on them. But that was only until I remembered "We Know Drama" is actually TNT's slogan. In any case, there's now this other challenge facing the TV Roundtable: Sandy could knock out our power at any instant. So I should be quick.
I agree with Scott--who was, thank you Scott, able to punch up some smart pre-Roundtable reax yesterday--that new character the Governor represents both the series's first true villain and a kind of alternate-world Rick. In fact, my first thoughts after the Governor and his people showed up to investigate the helicopter crash from the episode's opening scene were that since the beginning of the series, we haven't been watching a story about how "people" would react to a zombie apocalypse; we've been watching one about how a particular set of people do react. For all the broad themes Season 1 and 2 have touched on, TWD has focused on the evolving characters of a specific group, with specific dynamics, whose fate--this is something we see clearly by the end of "Walk With Me"--owe more to Rick's specific leadership than we may have realized without any real post-apocalyptic comparative context beyond Hershel's farm.
Throughout Season 2, I found myself, as noted, distracted by Rick's and his group's laxness when it came to some of the basics of what would keep them alive, like logistical discipline and protocol. Of course the alternative world I was imagining was Rick et al.'s; they were just taking care of business better. (Secure that perimeter! Organize tighter supply runs! Don't let people wander into the woods, for crying out loud!) But now we see a more distinct, and maybe more telling, contrast than I had in mind: the Governor's Woodbury. Here, everything is tightly marshaled and no one is outwardly distracted by moral conflicts. But that, it appears, has more to do with the Governor's cold-blooded suppression of moral conflict than it does with the his relative competence at managing a zombie apocalypse.
I think Scott's right that "Walk With Me" draws intentional parallels between Rick's group and the Governor's. What I'll be interested to see is whether Rick's and the Governor's stories continue to play out in parallel, or whether the Governor's emergence as TWD's new villain will create a kind of reverse pole for Rick as he struggles to reorient his moral compass.
Well, I think the last couple of days have proven something basic about The Walking Dead's deeper meaning, at least to those of us on the East Coast: Civilization is a very fragile construct, and the natural world from time to time conspires against us, sending us unmanageable storms and earthquakes and killer flus. (One recommendation, learned the hard way yesterday: Don't watch Contagion during a natural disaster; it doesn't fill you with happiness. On the other hand, at least I had power that allowed me to watch it. And I hope you guys had power, too.) The point is, most thinking people understand that what we have in our daily lives--electricity, heat, clean water, antibiotics, a steady supply of affordable food--are not things that most of humanity has ever been able to take for granted, and we know that we're one pandemic, or one storm double the size of Katrina or Sandy, from serious civilizational disruption. And of course, if the next pandemic leads to the zombification of most of humanity, then we're in for it. (Maybe it's just the reporter in me, but I've always been interested in the fake science behind the virus that brought about this mass zombification, and I'm hoping that the Governor's creepy little lab tech will tell us something interesting soon.)
But back to this wonderfully original episode: In addition to spending too much time searching out evidence that the show is simply an extended Holocaust metaphor, I've always watched TWD through the prism of left-right politics. John, you write about the group's "laxness when it came to some of the basics of what would keep them alive, like logistical discipline and protocol." This unforgivable slackery always struck me as a subtle commentary by TWD writers on the pitfalls of Pollyannish liberalism. Hershel's mistaken belief that walkers were somehow redeemable when all evidence suggested otherwise is a case in point. Rick's cold-blooded behavior inside the prison suggested he was abandoning his commitment to his particular notions of fairness and to the possibility of redemption in favor of a policy of survival at all costs. It is, of course, hard to blame him. What he needed, clearly, over the first two seasons, was to be more vigilant, more suspicious, more definitive, and less consultative in the way he led the group. In other words, he needed to be less of a tormented squish.
But just when we see a new, more practical Rick emerge--a Rick whose personality would be more pleasing to political conservatives--we're introduced to the Governor, who as Scott notes, is "a living example of what Rick could eventually become." In other words, absolute-power Rick would be just as unpleasant--or more unpleasant (the Governor's fish-tanks filled with dead heads come to mind)--than squishy, selfless Rick. This argument--between liberal and conservative visions of leadership, between the idea that humane leadership is an unaffordable luxury in a post-apocalyptic environment, on the one hand, and the idea that absolute power will corrupt absolutely, on the other --looks to me to be a source of continuing, and promising tension for this series.
As a TV critic and a New Yorker, I also spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about The Walking Dead as I weathered superstorm Sandy yesterday, which says something about how well the show has managed to capture the dangers of a genuine societal crisis. As I've watched The Walking Dead, I've always imagined that our survivors' best chance to move beyond day-to-day survival and actually overcome the zombie apocalypse would be to establish a well-protected, tightly-regimented base, and systematically branch out to track down like-minded survivors, with the goal of establishing a network of people dedicated to mutual survival. But the Governor's gang at Woodbury shows how easily that idyllic "Hands Across Post-Apocalyptic America" vision could be tainted and corrupted. The disturbing thing about characters like Merle Dixon, and perhaps the Governor, is that they're far better suited to life the zombie apocalypse than they ever were to the pre-apocalyptic world. For a certain subset of person, the cataclysmic event that set The Walking Dead in motion has been a positive thing, not a negative one--which is another way of saying that the least scrupulous people are also the ones who are most likely to survive.
John: Like you, I'm intrigued to see whether Rick and the Governor will see each other as kindred spirits or dangerous rivals when they inevitably meet later this season. Those are two equally compelling narratives, and I imagine we'll see shades of both as the season continues. I'd prefer to see them begin as allies, if only at first, because the newly dour Rick could use a sounding board. For the first time since the beginning of The Walking Dead, I'd actually like to hear him wax rhapsodic about his moral code.
Jeff: To your point, the "Pollyannish liberalism" of The Walking Dead used to bother me me because the give-and-take of Rick's uber-righteous moral code always felt incomplete. I wouldn't have been so annoyed by Rick's post-apocalyptic socialism in earlier seasons if he'd been made to face tangible consequences for it. Sure, Rick, give a bunch of guns and ammo to the Vatos--but when half of your group subsequently dies in a zombie attack, recognize that your generosity specifically made it harder for your loved ones to survive. Based on what we've seen this season, I think The Walking Dead is finally connecting those dots. The trick, of course, is finding out whether or not Rick can practice pragmatic leadership without turning into the Governor--a line that I suspect will grow increasingly difficult to toe as the series continues.
As inclined as I've been to criticize the Rick Group for its lack of tough-mindedness through the end of last season--when they were overtaken by a zombie horde in exactly the way they spent the season vulnerable to being overtaken by a zombie horde--let me defend them against the "Pollyannish liberalism" charge here.
I think of it this way: If you fail to take certain basic logistical measures to insulate you and your people from the more likely threats of this new environment, your zombie-apocalypse management is legitimately open to criticism. But if you hesitate to take other measures--if, say, you hesitate to harm or kill someone for the ostensibly greater good--because those measures bring you moral compunction, it's another thing altogether. Back on Hershel's farm, e.g., was Rick wrong not to kill the prisoner Randall, as Shane insisted on doing? No. There was no need to kill an incapacitated prisoner. Shane didn't have the threat matrix right here; he was losing his mind. And Rick wasn't holding himself back from doing what "needed to be done" (on account of whatever ethical liberalism his Hollywood screenwriters had infused a sheriff's deputy from rural Georgia with); he was failing as a leader to be clear-headed about Shane having the threat matrix wrong.
If there's a single theme at the heart of The Walking Dead, it's, exactly as Jeff puts it, the fragility of civilization. The show goes straight to a (the?) fundamental human conflict of a post-civilized world: the struggle to stay intact as a person, whose life has integrity and meaning, vs. the struggle to avoid being, well, eaten by others. That's not a conflict with liberal or conservative poles.
Which is one of the reasons why the Governor is going to be so interesting: Civilization as we know it is over. Our old society is gone. Our old politics is meaningless. There are no surviving institutions to build on. So when we find a new society with a new politics taking shape behind barricades, what will they look like? I think the Governor's compound illustrates how much any answer we'll find in The Walking Dead will depend on the characters of specific individuals--above all, on the idiosyncrasies of their leadership; and I think it illustrated this quite starkly before we ever saw the Governor recline with a glass of whiskey in a secret, dark room lined with a wall of zombie heads floating in back-lit fish tanks. ... I doubt Rick will find this guy a kindred spirit for long if at all, Scott.