'The Walking Dead' as the Holocaust

Our TV Roundtable on Season 3, Episode 2, "Sick"

TWD-Sick-Banner.jpgGene Page/AMC


Is it possible for The Walking Dead to get any darker? Obviously, this is not Three's Company, and I don't associate a cannibal apocalypse with levity, but this latest episode sets a new bar for horror, and not just the stab-a-zombie-in-the-eye sort of horror that is the house specialty, but a quieter, more meaningful, horror as well.

This episode represents the moment when Rick finally decides not to search for the spark of humanity lurking inside an adversary (a living adversary, that is) but instead decides to finish him off, this time in true walker-killing style. For some viewers, this linchpin killing by Rick is overdue; his morally precious, and deeply unrealistic approach, to the problems the survivors have faced had started to grate a while ago. The danger is that Rick's new moral clarity about the importance of survival, even survival through homicide, makes him a less interesting character, a Shane without certain psychopathic qualities, and better abs.

The shocking scene in which Rick commits double murder reminded me of the tension between two Jewish brothers in Ed Zwick's 2008 film Defiance (based on a book by Nehama Tec), which tells the true story of the Bielski partisans. Zus and Tuvia Bielski hid hundreds of their fellow Jews in the Belorussian woods during World War II, fighting the Nazis when they could, and running when they couldn't. Zus was the rougher fighter of the two, and in Zwick's rendering, their relationship was infused with tension because Tuvia held the group to a more refined standard of moral conduct than did his quick-tempered brother. Zwick posited the idea that it was possible, even in a blasted and heartless landscape, to abide by a humane code of conduct.

As I suggested last week, The Walking Dead has been, for me, a Holocaust allegory from the beginning, and Rick's desire to preserve the codes and behaviors of civilization in a brutal world has often reminded me of stories like that of the Bielski brothers, stories of hunted and haunted Jews going to sometimes-unworldly lengths to stay human.

I will admit to possessing a special talent for locating Holocaust themes in popular literature and film that others do not see, but the argument for The Walking Dead as a Holocaust story is not a hard one to make. Rick's band of survivors, scurrying from safe house to safe house (and hiding perfectly still, as if trapped in an attic, or under the floorboards -- see the opening scene of Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds -- when the enemy is nearby), is the story of the hunted Jew in World War II. Life is reduced to a moment-to-moment struggle for survival; betrayal is everywhere; and, in The Walking Dead as in the Holocaust, the enemy is an automaton, a mindless killing machine -- and cannibalistic as well (the Nazis, as is well known, cannibalized Jewish bodies for their teeth and hair.)

Now I suppose you can analyze me and come to the conclusion that one way I excuse my obsession with a lowbrow and pulpy cable series is by convincing myself that it is actually a thoughtful and effective exploration of the most challenging subject of all, genocide. And I won't mind if you do. But I don't think I'm conjuring this idea from thin air.


Lowbrow? Come on, it's at least middlebrow, Jeff. But I can add a piece of evidence to your case for The Walking Dead as a Holocaust narrative: Last year, showrunner Glen Mazzara tweeted that every writer on The Walking Dead is required to read Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning. As Rick and company explained the post-apocalypse to the prisoners, who can't even wrap their heads around the new world order -- no government, no phones, at least half of the population dead -- I found myself thinking about a similar scene in Band of Brothers, in which the Allied soldiers discover the Landsberg concentration camp. Some things are so massive and so horrifying that it's impossible to process them at once.

To your point about Rick's double homicide in tonight's episode: I'm not as convinced that there's been a shift in the moral trajectory of his character. Last night's episode had a lot in common with a season 2 episode called "Nebraska," in which Rick shot and killed a couple guys at a bar as soon as it became clear that they represented an existential threat to the group. I think Lori has Rick pegged tonight: There's no malice in his heart, but he's willing to do whatever it takes to keep the group safe. The prisoners he killed in tonight's episode, the guys in the bar in "Nebraska," and Shane each represented immediate, existential threats to Rick and the rest of the survivors. But Rick is also pragmatic (and, arguably, merciful) enough to conclude that two of the prisoners don't represent a threat, and to fulfill the original terms of his bargain. To steal a page from Man's Search for Meaning, there are decent people and indecent people, and Rick remains the former. If he was really growing more ruthless, he'd have killed every prisoner outright, taken all the food, and killed Hershel based on the possibility that he might become a walker -- positions, incidentally, that the fundamentally indecent Shane would almost certainly have taken.

But even if I wouldn't go as far, I think you're on to something important. Until you mentioned it, I hadn't thought about the fact that Rick kills the prisoner (not named in the episode, but listed as Tomas in the credits) in the exact same way he's grown accustomed to killing walkers -- a machete to the head. There's something genuinely unsettling about the ease and comfort with which the survivors kill zombies now, which -- as you noted last week -- they seem to be enjoying for the first time. The most disturbing thing about The Walking Dead's world is that dehumanization is totally inescapable. If you die, you turn into a zombie; if you live, you have no choice but to give up the best part of your humanity. As numerous commenters have noted, the title The Walking Dead doesn't refer to the zombies; it refers to the survivors.

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