Submitted by Corodon Fuller
The Walking Dead Season 3 opens many hard months after the end of Season 2. It’s time to ask again, who are these people? But instead of peering into the survivors’ souls today, let’s take a look at the beards. The facial hair on The Walking Dead is a surprisingly clear window into the bearer’s mental state.
Through the first two seasons, while the survivors tried to hold onto scraps of civilization, they struggled to keep themselves clean-shaven. Like the ideals of democracy and interior decorating, smooth cheeks have more or less disappeared in Season 3, replaced by varying degrees of perma-stubble. Scruffiness, once a signifier of acute crisis, is the new normal.
We’ll see this evolve in the next season, once the survivors have built something like a stable community. Not one of them goes back to their clean-shaven pre-apocalypse selves—instead, the men of Rick’s group start sporting well-trimmed beards. They have learned to treat their follicles like something to control, even if they can’t eliminate it, just like the zombies outside, or their gnawing guilt over the things they’ve done to survive.
It may not even be a coincidence that Hershel somehow begins Season 3, when the rest of the gang is at its scraggliest, with a sleek mane worthy of Father Christmas. In Dale’s absence, Hershel steps in as the group’s calm moral center, and a stable beard betokens a stable soul.
The shift between Seasons 2 and 3 is that the survivors have learned to stop hoping for the old, well-groomed world. Zombies dictate more utilitarian aspirations. That’s why Hershel’s bucolic, indefensible farm is out, and a prison is in. It’s a much grimmer setting, but one with a promise of actual security.
Should we read into this? Is safety, in fact, a prison? Rick and his group at least seem to have admitted it to themselves, and accepted how far they’ve fallen. We spend the first half of Season 3 setting up the contrast between life at the prison and life at Woodbury, the settlement nearby.
Woodbury is the land of the clean-shaven. It’s a land of block parties and suburban homes. It’s got a “Governor,” while the prison has been more accurately called a “Ricktatorship.” To all appearances, Woodbury is the more functional settlement. But then, they’re both dealing with the same dangers and the same fears. For Rick and company, these things float to the surface; in Woodbury they get hidden.
The people of Woodbury don’t realize the trade-offs they’re making for their security. The Governor brings in supplies and doesn’t bother his citizens with details about who he murdered to get them. Zombies are brought inside the walls as literally toothless entertainment, minimizing the threats outside the town’s walls. If Rick’s group is fundamentally more honest with itself about what it has to do to survive, that’s also part of what gives them the potential to grow into something more humane.
There’s also the issue that the Governor is as crazy as a sack of spiders. But then, Rick is hardly a paragon of psychological stability either. In fact, insanity may just be the cost of leadership in this world.