'The Walking Dead' as the Holocaust

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

TWD-Sick-Banner.jpgGene Page/AMC

Goldberg:

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.



Meslow:

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.

A final thought: I'd agree that The Walking Dead is darker than ever -- but do you guys think it's also gotten funnier? I laughed harder at the prisoners' first, inept attempt at a zombie killing than I've laughed at anything else in the series, and the premiere had a few pretty good laugh lines too. I'm glad they've found ways to balance out all the new horrors with a little levity.

Over to you, John.



Gould:

Yeah, I figure my take would have to be that as long as we're invoking contrasts with Three's Company, we need to think of another category than "lowbrow" for The Walking Dead ...

Other than that:

Jeff's hypothesis that the show is an allegory for the Holocaust is fascinating. The connection never occurred to me until you brought it up, Jeff -- I've maybe been too inclined over the first two seasons to see TWD as looking inward for its meaning as a genre reboot rather than outward as an allegory -- but now that you have, that connection seems unavoidable. If we're imagining having to confront a reality in which the civilization around us has given way to something as inhuman and mass-lethal as the world of The Walking Dead, what's the nearest thing to this we've known in our history? I think Jeff's right that there's a powerful, intentional link here; it makes eminent sense that Mazzara would have had his writers read Frankl's account of what surviving the Nazi concentration camps -- physically, psychologically, spiritually -- meant to the survivors.

But is The Walking Dead an allegory? I expect that depends at least as much on the genre's ability to express historical inhumanity on the scale of the Holocaust as it does on the show's actual intentions. One of the strengths of the allegory, if it's an allegory at all, I think, would be in the similarities between TWD's post-American wasteland and the breakdown in German society that led to the subsuming of the European continent by the Reich. Another strength would be in the similarities between the experience of our group of survivors and that of European Jews on the run from the Nazis, like those who took to the forest with the Bielski brothers. What the allegory couldn't get to, it seems to me, is the hardest thing there is to understand about the Holocaust: the nature of the human evil that drove it. What transforms people into walkers, after all, isn't a moral phenomenon. It's utterly amoral and separate from the human heart; it's literally a disease.

So let's watch to see what Season 3 will make of the compelling, but I think still dotted, lines between TWD and the Holocaust. In the meantime, let's also see what it will make of Rick's ongoing personal transformation. He's certainly left behind the moral compass of the sheriff's deputy he used to be. But I'm not clear on what definitive turn moral he's made. As Scott points out, Rick has already killed preemptively, when all the instincts he'd developed as a police officer told him -- rightly -- that two men in a bar near Hershel's farm meant to kill him and harm his group. Here, in "Sick," he was likewise right that Tomas, the leader of the group of prisoners they'd come across, had it in for him at any moment. Yes, Rick is now prepared to forego procedural justice and kill someone on the spot, if he believes that someone is an immediate threat, but is this murder? Or is it justifiable?

Back in the bar in "Nebraska" and in the confrontation with Tomas here in "Sick," I have to defend Rick against a murder charge. When Rick shot those guys, and when he machete-ed this one, they were, as a matter of fact, going to kill him. By killing them first, he didn't just defend himself; he protected his people. But what I don't get is why, after killing Tomas, Rick would then chase a second prisoner -- someone who wasn't obviously a threat to anyone -- to his death? I.e.: In the risk matrix of The Walking Dead, killing the first prisoner arguably wasn't murder. But killing the second prisoner? Why did that guy have to die? -- at all, let alone in the worst possibly way, being left to be eaten alive by walkers? To me, this raises even bigger questions about Rick's moral trajectory than his final conflict with Shane did.

I agree with Scott that The Walking Dead is getting funnier at times -- but only as the emotional texture of the show gets more complex overall. In the last scene of this episode, it looks like a moment of relative calm will allow Lori and Rick to reconnect, however tentatively. She credits him for what he did to save the group. He credits her for what she did to save Hershel. She then jokes that she thought he'd come outside to talk to her about their relationship. He pauses and responds in just about a the most disassociated way possible, "We're awful grateful for what you did," before turning and walking away.

What's happening to him?



Goldberg:

Just a couple of things: I promise not to invoke Three's Company, but I do not promise not to invoke the Holocaust again, especially because both of you see some of the same things I'm seeing. And I especially appreciate John going directly to the question of whether Nazi ideology was a kind of infectious disease that colonized the brain and turned its hosts into unthinking killers. This is the basic metaphor that connects zombies and Nazis. By the way, we should talk about the Golem next week, but I don't want to digress here.

One other note: You guys keep comparing Rick's actions in the bar last season with the killing of these two prisoners. I'm sorry, but we're just not in the same universe. Last season's killings were simply a matter of immediate self-defense. If you recall, Rick understood that these vagabond gunmen were about to draw on him. And then Rick begged (literally begged, as Joe Biden would say) the companions of the men he killed to leave, rather than simply set a trap for them. And we know, quite obviously, that Rick is the best shot in the history of television, so it would not have been implausible for him to go on the immediate offensive against the outside gunmen. In the case of the prison shooting, Rick could have disarmed and jailed the prisoner he wound up axing through the head, but he made a decision Shane could be proud of, and, to top it off, he chased the second prisoner, who was not an immediate threat to the group into a scrum of walkers. To answer your question, what is happening to Rick is that the writers are finally allowing him to react to his untenable situation the way most people -- not bad people, just people -- would react. I imagine they heard from a lot of viewers last season who weren't abashed to admit that Shane's actions made more sense to them than did Rick's.

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