My wife and I are slowly making our way through season 6 of The Walking Dead but we each had a number of questions we needed answered. Due to a bunch of factors (mainly being sleep deprived parents at the time) we’d both forgotten certain elements from the series. I decided to take one for the team and embarked upon an epic re-watch of the series during my lunch breaks. That said, please bear with me as I untangle my thoughts about season 1-4…
Going back and watching the show from the start has made a few things very apparent. Firstly, being a father changes everything. Rick’s relationship with Lori (and Carl) is something that became drastically different the second time of viewing. Initially, I found her character despicable; how quickly she moved on to Shane and her reactions to the resulting conflict between the two (former) friends. At first I thought Rick was weak for allowing the situation to stand because, of course, he knew before he was told. Yet, it takes a strong man to support his family, especially a wife possibly pregnant with another man’s child. There’s a steel will at the core of Rick’s character and this initial story arc showed just how deep his strengths go.
However, all of this was prefaced by Shane’s deceptions. This is another aspect of the first season that has repercussions over the course of the series. It portrays how, under the stresses of the apocalypse, people begin to unravel quickly. Or, using the cover of societies collapse, people’s real, unchecked desires come out. However, Shane was clearly a capable survivor but his crumbling emotional fortitude became his undoing. It’s a theme that stays current with all the characters: how the things they do in the name of survival change and warp them, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse.
And this brings me back to Carl. Rick’s sense of fatherly duty and love for his son sees him make harder and harder decisions quicker as time moves forward. Where he tried to maintain a moral code earlier on, it soon dawns on him (thanks to Shane) that he has to take decisive actions to keep his children safe. The protective instinct is something most parents feel deeply and his willingness to do whatever it takes to keep his family alive is a driving force that few can withstand.
Yet Carl, Glenn, Daryl, Carol, Michonne and others are all prominent protagonists each facing their own dark paths and emotional motivations. This is none so more apparent than towards the end of season 4. Glenn and Maggie have gone to great lengths to find each other and neither are the same as they were: Glenn is no longer a ‘yes man’ but is a husband, determined to make smart choices whilst Maggie has realised that she requires the whole family group to achieve safety. Carol has changed into a fiercely strong survivor yet her willingness to protect the core group verges on manic and she is forced to re-evaluate her choices though she remains willing to do what is necessary. On the other hand Daryl has lowered his emotional boundaries and become hugely important to the group, much like the emotionally damaged Michonne; a character who was, at first, reticent and obscure yet who has become integral to the group.
Yet, it is a discussion between Michonne and Carl that highlights an essential aspect of TWD. After witnessing a berserk Rick decimate a gang of human attackers, Michone is trying to explain to Carl how being a parent can drive a person to do anything it takes to protect their child. Describing how she became a monster after the loss of her son, Carl admits that he, like his father, is just another monster, committing acts of terrifying violence just to stay alive.
This is the crux of The Walking Dead in my opinion. It’s not the zombies that are the real danger in the story but other humans. From Shane to Merle and then to the Governor, it’s always these characters, twisted and unleashed by the end of civilization that pose the biggest threat. Whilst the undead create a shared psychosis within which all the survivors are caught, a perfect catalyst of loss and horror, it is the people, detached from social norms who are the true monsters at large.
Rick’s group need each other not just to stay alive but to also retain their humanity and it is characters like Dale, and then Herschel, who try to keep them from falling off the edge, who attempt to hold them back from the brink. However, at the end of season 4, trapped with Terminus, Rick offers a glimpse of where his crew are headed with the epic line, “They don’t know who they’re fucking with.” It speaks volumes about his resolve and determination to survive but also how far he is drifting without the likes of Herschel to temper him (something the fifth and sixth series display, though that’s another post).
This is what makes The Walking Dead such compelling viewing. The characters develop and evolve realistically within the framework whilst the storytelling and the plotting is wonderfully paced. It’s a brutal place and an effective crucible to tell stories about humankind and, in the end, that’s what makes post-apocalypse/zombie horrors such a gripping premise.