And Now: 'The Walking Dead' as the War on Terror

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Our TV Roundtable on Season 3, Episode 8, the mid-season finale, "Made to Suffer"

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Tina Rowden / AMC

Meslow:

When I read that The Walking Dead's mid-season finale would be titled "Made to Suffer," I took some private guesses as to what it might mean. Would the Governor and his group extend their torture of Glenn and Maggie? Would Rick or one of our other heroes prove to be as vindictive as the Governor during the Woodbury raid? In retrospect, I should have known that "Made to Suffer" didn't refer to a specific event; it referred to the show's philosophical backbone. Who's "made to suffer" on The Walking Dead? Everyone. All the time. The series has gone out of its way to undercut every scene that offers even the barest shred of hope or humanity with tragedy and horror. We have three groups of survivors now: Rick and the rest of our usual gang, the Governor and his followers at Woodbury, and the newly-introduced Tyreese and his small, ailing band. Everyone is afraid of everyone else -- and not without reason.

We've discussed The Walking Dead as an allegory for everything from the Holocaust to global warming in our roundtables this season, but the series has never been more explicit about its political concerns than in "Made to Suffer," when the Governor referred to Rick and the rest of our heroes as "terrorists" -- twice, in case anyone missed it the first time. There are few words more loaded in our own current political climate than "terrorist," and the residents of Woodbury can presumably still remember a pre-zombie era when terrorism was commonly regarded as the biggest existential threat to America.

I'm not willing to call The Walking Dead some kind of pointed allegory for the war on terror, but there are some parallels being drawn here that shouldn't be ignored. The Governor has earned the unwavering loyalty of the Woodbury residents by offering them the security and the semblance of the lives they used to have. They live in actual houses, have an ample supply of food and alcohol, and walk down zombie-free streets. In return, they agree to give up certain freedoms, and don't ask too many questions about how the Governor ensures their security. And notice how easily the Governor convinces his followers that the others -- including their erstwhile protector Merle -- are an enemy to be vilified and destroyed.

One of the biggest themes of The Walking Dead has been dehumanization, which we've seen in a few forms. There's the literal dehumanization when a person becoming a zombie. There's the survivors' need to accept that their loved ones are no longer human after they've turned -- a process abetted by calling them "walkers" or "biters." And most subtly -- but also most importantly -- there's the othering of fellow human beings with labels like "terrorist," which can turn a group of people into a bloodthirsty mob within moments.

The irony here is that everyone in The Walking Dead is living under fear -- of zombies, of each other, of the fact that day-to-day survival continues to get harder as resources dwindle. When Maggie says, "All this time running from walkers, you forget what people do," she's talking about being tortured by the Governor. But she's expressing her nihilistic view of human nature to people, who have just risked their lives to save her, and who have been her allies for months. Given what she's been through, it's hard to blame her -- but the fear and distrust stirred up in Maggie by the Governor doesn't bode well for our new friend Tyreese, whose group gets locked up by poor, jaded Carl as a matter of course. (And while we're on the subject: I wish the series hadn't decided to debut Tyreese, a major player from The Walking Dead comics, without really giving him anything to do in an already crowded episode -- and I really wish they hadn't debuted him as the show killed off yet another underdeveloped black character, whose demise was all but unremarked upon by the rest of the survivors.)

It'll be a while before we get the chance to discuss The Walking Dead here again, as the show takes a midseason break until February, so in the interest of time, I'll leave you to dissect the dangling threads of your choice (The Governor lost an eyeball! Rick hallucinated Shane! Tyreese made a Springsteen reference!). But as someone who's been fairly hard on The Walking Dead's second season, I have to commend the show's creative team for the first half of the third season, which is easily the strongest run in the history of the show. The pacing was much improved. The deaths were more visceral and shocking. Undercooked characters like Carol and Merle came back much-improved, and new characters like the Governor popped off the screen in a way that no else in this series ever really has. It's hard to imagine anything good happening to these characters, but I've never been more optimistic about the future of The Walking Dead.

Over to you, John.


Gould:

With Goldberg out of the country again, it's just me here with Scott at the roundtable this week. And given AMC's apparent fear that TV critics are creatures with the inclination and power to destroy The Walking Dead by saturating the surrounding culture with spoilers so that no one will want to watch the show itself, there were no screeners for the mid-season finale; so I'm jumping in late.

Just a couple of quick codas to Scott's excellent review, then:

It's striking that TWD's first references to "terrorism" are, yes, emphatic (the Governor repeats for good measure the casual allegation that Rick and his group are "terrorists") but nevertheless weirdly perfunctory and nonsensical. Scrambling to assert social order over the unexpected chaos around him, the Governor grasps for a designation from the pre-apocalyptic world that people might recognize and respond to. But this conspicuously isn't that world. "Terrorist" might get people's attention in the short term, but it won't make sense to them in the long term -- or for very long past the short term at all. Ultimately, the Governor's invocation of "terrorism" is more a signal of his sudden insecurity than it is a way he can sustainably control his people's perception of another group.

It's also striking, to Scott's point about the show's ongoing exploration of dehumanization, that the Governor, the show's alpha dehumanizer, is also secretly the least able emotionally to let go of what he's lost: his now undead daughter, whom he keeps locked away and manacled, bringing her out repeatedly to talk to her as if she were still alive, hoping time after time that she'll recognize him. Inhumanity, literal and figurative, is ubiquitous in The Walking Dead. But the hopeful / desperate impulse to recover or restore humanity persists, too, even among the most depraved survivors, even where humanity is utterly gone.

See you in February ...

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