At the intersection of writing and life with the author of the Cameron Ballack mysteries

Monday, April 1, 2013

The Walking Dead: Constructive Morality With Your Back Against The Wall

In 1948, during the Jewish War of Independence, the city of Jerusalem was subjected to a vise-like siege by the Arab troops surrounding much of the area. A Canadian lawyer named Dov Joseph was in charge of  supply lines and other details for the Jews in the city. With a potentially bloody battle looming, some reasoned with Joseph that perhaps they should look to evacuate the women and children of Jerusalem to safety along verified escape routes. Joseph thought about it for a bit and then gave that idea the thumbs-down. No, he said, the women and children would stay. Joseph's reason? He believed that if the Jewish army's fighting spirits would go through the roof if they knew their wives and kids were right behind them, a hair's breadth from destruction. They would be most effective with their backs against the wall.

Fast forward sixty-five years later, and 12.4 million viewers tune in to watch another band of fighters with their backs against the wall. Last night, that many folks saw the Season 3 finale for The Walking Dead and saw a riveting episode, viewed many thrilling moments, and said goodbye to some characters who have clearly grown on their devoted audience. The hordes of viewers who watch The Walking Dead do not carve out time at 9ET/8CT Sunday evenings because they have nothing else to do. This is a drama (of which last night's telecast was the most-watched drama series episode in basic cable history) which pushes us to ask questions, which probes us to place ourselves in its world and ask "What is right? What is wrong? And why does it matter?"

I am one of the millions who watch every episode. Some people ask me, "You mean you didn't watch any of The Bible series?" Trust me: Not doing so doesn't make me an irreligious clod. Besides, I've read the Bible myself. Taking nothing away from the TV series, but reading the story is much more exciting. But back to the Dead.

For those of you unfamiliar, TWD is set in north Georgia and the countryside around Atlanta, tracking the movements and stories of a band of survivors who live in the wake of a zombie apocalypse. Led by Rick Grimes (played by Andrew Lincoln) they seek shelter and safety, fighting off "walkers" (as the zombies are known) whose bites infect humans and "turn" them into zombies. Much of the ongoing story deals with how the members of the group try to hold on to their common humanity but value their survival. The collision between being human and needing to go on living leads to some intriguing dilemmas.

SPOILER ALERT! What follows reveals details of previous episodes! SPOILER ALERT!

Some of the ethical variables arise from the question, "What is a human being designed to endure?" During the second season midseason finale, Shane Walsh discovers a barn on the farm where they are staying is full of zombies. Going hammer and tongs with Herschel, the farm's owner, Shane opens the door, preferring killing off zombies for safety as opposed to viewing zombies as living souls. When Rick's wife Lori gets pregnant, she agonizes over even bringing the pregnancy to term. "What sort of a life is this child going to have?" she wails as she waffles back and forth about swallowing the morning-after pill, which she refuses to do in the end.

Questions about the individual vs. the community arise, as well. During the third season, viewers encounter the existence of another group, the town of Woodberry that hunkers down against zombies under the draconian rule of the Governor. Toward the end of the third season, Rick is offered a deal by the Governor as a detente for their warring tribes: If Rick hands over Michonne--the sword-wielding woman who took out the Governor's eye in a fight--the Governor will leave Rick's group alone. After plodding through the angst, Rick declares his reasoning to the group at their compound, that he will not give up Michonne: "We will not sacrifice one person for the greater good, because we are the greater good." Even with backs against the wall, individual value and communal security can exist side-by-side.

One final undercurrent I've noticed throughout the show is that the good can be a tragic necessity and the evil is often cloaked by the perpetrator. In the most recent season finale from last night, Rick's son Carl shoots and kills a person who has given up his gun. Ambivalent at best about the essence of his actions, Carl sluffs off any confrontation and says he did what was necessary. By contrast, when Daryl Dixon (played by Norman Reedus of The Boondock Saints fame) discovered his brother Merle had been bitten by a zombie, he weeps uncontrollably as he has to kill Merle for his own survival. Doing the right thing there still is difficult.

There are other examples, and space will not permit me to go on and on. But perhaps that is the most pertinent and instructive message coming out of The Walking Dead: Doing what is good and right means going through several difficult layers and hard choices. In a world gone horribly wrong, how do we discover what is right? I have to confess that some of the moments of critical mass on the show leave me at a loss. How does one hold to objective truth and good when the rules have gone horrifically whacked?

As a human being, as a Christian, I find that watching The Walking Dead challenges me to think critically about my own choices. Ethics is not done in a vacuum, but very often under the broiler of life at searing heat. To what or to whom we turn in those moments determines a lot, and it's that reality that The Walking Dead rightly puts before its viewers week after week.

Although--doggone it--I have to wait until October for any more new episodes. One sick April Fools' moment...

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