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Category Archives: The Walking Dead
Imposter syndrome. Fake it till you make it. False confidence. There are dozens of phrases in hundreds of permutations that each stand for the proposition that if we can just project enough strength, if we can put the right mask on over our doubts and insecurities, then we will become who and what we hope to be. It’s the idea that inspiration can be built up from within, and eventually flow out to those we seek to lead or impress or merely comfort.
But what if you have imposter syndrome because you are, in fact, an imposter? What if you fake it with all your might, but the odds are too stacked against you for you to make anything? What if your false confidence just gets your friends and allies killed.
For a while, it felt like The Walking Dead had found a nice, consistent rhythm in its storytelling. Since about Season 4, each season would include a handful of episodes that featured everyone in the cast, but most would be smaller, more standalone affairs that focused on a narrower subset of characters. These episodes would tell individual stories and focus on small facets of bigger events that deepen our understanding of the personalities and problems at play. It gave the show a certain decompressed feeling that raised accusations of “boring,” but which also provided The Walking Dead with the space to flesh out its characters and make those stretches between the big set pieces feel less like wheel-spinning and more like an effort, however variable in its success, to make those grand finales matter.
But Season 8 has seemingly abandoned that tack. While not everyone has showed up in every episode thus far, each installment this season has felt like an immediate sequel to the prior one. The siege that began in the premiere continued in last week’s episode. And this week’s episode, “Monsters,” follows directly from there, depicting the same moral conflicts and the same lingering issues that Rick, Daryl, Carol, Ezekiel, Morgan, Jesus, Tara, and Aaron faced in the prior episode. We’re getting one giant story here, rather than a collection of related, but distinct plots that become part of a larger mosaic.
You are never going to fully get away from the “Is it right to kill?” question when you’re telling a zombie apocalypse story. One of the core aspects of the genre is forcing people to make life and death decisions in extreme situations. That’s part of what makes zombie movies and shows both thrilling and thought-provoking; they put the audience in the shoes of the characters and let us wonder whether we’d be saints or slayers when the rules of civilization no longer apply and mortal peril lurks around every corner.
But my god, The Walking Dead has been exploring these issues for seven-going-on-eight seasons at this point, and while it hasn’t dug into every possible permutation of them, it’s come close. There’s some benefit to putting new characters into those scenarios and having them vacillate between mercy and lethal pragmatism while trying to figure out the right way to live in this harsh environment. But you can only lean into this sort of “That’s not who we are” back-and-forth for so long on a television show before it starts to become rote.
Someday, The Walking Dead will end. Sure, with this premise, the folks in charge could theoretically cycle through cast members like Saturday Night Live and go on into eternity. But the practical reality is that, as the show begins its eighth season, it’s likely closer to its end than its beginning.
But it’s hard to imagine what that ending will look like. Comic book creator Robert Kirkman famously declared that his story could go on forever and that he had no clear ending in mind. The recent Robot Chicken special poking fun at the show envisioned a relatively normal future where society has been rebuilt and there’s a Walker Museum devoted to the struggle of the series (with a nice “historical game of telephone” vibe). Others have speculated about who might survive to the end, whether anyone will find a cure, and how a new civilization comes to fruition. Still, there’s no obvious place for this story to end, no clear way to reach a series-length measure of catharsis.
There was a hue and cry after the Season 7 premiere of The Walking Dead. Two characters we knew and cared about died, and people were undeniably, understandably upset. Some of that reaction stemmed from the mere brutality of it – the protruding eyeball and the last gasps and the earth stained with bloody mush of it all. But more of it stemmed from the senselessness of those deaths – the sense in which these individuals had perished not as the culmination of their journeys, but as fodder for puffing up the series’s new biggest of big bads, turned into sacrifices made on the altar of “this guy means business.”
The Walking Dead spends a great deal of time ruminating on what it means to take a life. That sort of thing is practically inevitable in zombie stories. You may have to kill the zombies; you may have to kill dangerous rival survivors; and you may have to allow good people to die in order to ensure your own survival. Weighing these sorts of choices is the bread and butter of the zombie genre and post-apocalyptic fiction of all kinds.
But most of the time, at least on The Walking Dead, it’s framed as an ethical choice, or processed through the lens of what taking a life does to the human soul. For all the hand-wringing about the supposed bad messages the series sends, TWD is and always has been a show firmly centered on moral questions. People don’t always like the answers it provides, but it’s been consistently interested in the ethics of killing, the impact the act has, and what sort of morality and mortality remains after the fall of civilization.
So once more, The Walking Dead offers an episode centered around people deciding whether or not to kill. But in “Something They Need,” the show treats it as a question of prudence, of planning, of strategy, rather than of morals. Whether it’s Sasha, Gregory, or Natania, the major characters in this episode contemplate if they should kill, but they don’t seem to be affected by moral considerations so much as practical ones. Will it help them accomplish their goals? Will it advance their cause? Will it hurt, help, or save their people, or their own skins? That’s not a typical tack for this show, but it’s an interesting one, even as the slow table-setting for the finale soon feels a bit rote.
Fault is a slippery concept. It’s bundled up with intentions, results, and a host of other complicating factors, all of which affect whom we blame and whom we absolve when things go badly. Some people wrong us without meaning to. Others intend to hurt us but inadvertently give us exactly what we need. And some people simply twist in the wind, unsure or unaware of the damage they do to others. How we credit and blame people for their actions and inaction says as much about who we are as it does about the person we’re judging.
But how we move past those assessments of fault, whether we’re blaming others or blaming ourselves, can be just as telling. It matters how we try to overcome, or avoid, the bad blood, hurt feelings, and guilt. In “The Other Side,” Daryl blames himself, Gregory bends over backwards to avoid any perception of fault, and Sasha and Rosita hash out their awkward, shared part in Abraham’s life and death, each trying to figure out where they fit into this intricate ethical hierarchy.
Moments flash before Morgan’s eyes. His sanity begins to slip as he falls back into disjointed ramblings once more. The lives taken, the lives lost, the lives tainted, all linger with him, brought to the surface again: Ezekiel, Richard, Carol, Benjamin, Duane.
That sort of thing always gets me — montages of past events, the images of old faces and old places returning in a grand, dizzying cacophony. Something about the rush of those little moments makes an impact. I know it’s a device. I know how manipulative it can be. And yet, I cannot help but find it affecting.
So when Morgan starts to lose his mind again, to crack from the equal and opposing pressures of his pacifist philosophy and a world that requires something different to protect those with their futures still ahead of them, I cannot help but feel it too. “Bury Me Here” is not The Walking Dead’s finest hour — more than a few clunky moments see to that — but it’s an episode centered around Morgan’s moral turmoil, the fault lines of his ethical stance, and that gives it power, in harmony with and apart from the glimpses of the path that led him here.
For a while now, the running line on The Walking Dead has been that the show is too bleak and too steeped in misery. The open-ended nature of the series, and thus the requirement for ever more adventures, means our heroes can never truly win. The abject state of the world has to continue. So for the plot to have any bite, people we care about have to keep dying; equilibrium can’t ever be established, and more problems and obstacles and losses have to pile up.
It’s understandable how the prospect of that continuing struggle wears on critics and viewers alike. Maybe I’m just jaded from years of post-apocalyptic fiction and other gritty works that allow me to take this sort of thing in stride. But I get it; the notion that this is simply the unending march of The Walking Dead, never to cease, with characters we like continually being picked off, could easily be too much for people.
But what I like about the show, what keeps me coming back (and, incidentally, what’s always underemphasized when this debate picks up again and again) is that The Walking Dead is also a show about what motivates people to go on in these circumstances. It’s about the emotions and connections that give the survivors something to fight for when there’s no institutions or societal expectations to force them to do it. It presents a world of outrageous freedom, one where people still choose to sacrifice and to love, where there is still joy and comfort regardless of whether the environment is hospitable to it.
One of the questions The Walking Dead has interrogated from the very beginning is whether the end of the world and the ensuing social breakdown changes people, or whether it just reveals who they truly are. The show has often played around with the idea that the end of civilization and the lack of rules and order that otherwise keep people in line can forces those caught up in the unrest to become different in order to survive. But it also suggests that for others, the fall of society just gives them license to be who they were the whole time.
The centrality of that question in “Hostiles and Calamities” fuels the episode, a slower character piece, but also uses it to pay subtle tribute The Walking Dead’s network-mate. Breaking Bad. Fans of Vince Gilligan’s seminal drama know the significance of a character hanging onto a cigarette with a loved one’s lipstick still on it. We’re familiar with the notion of a former science teacher enjoying the spoils of war, formulating poisons, puffing himself up, and taking to his new role a little too easily. Most of all, Breaking Bad-watchers can appreciate the exploration of whether changed circumstances may change a person or if they simply let the beast out of the cage.