Submitted by Corodon Fuller
Remember in the shootout midway through Season 4, with Daryl hiding behind cover and zombies creeping up behind him?
The camera cut away as one of them lunged at him—when we cut back, Daryl had dispatched the zombie and was using it as a shield. It was good for a laugh, but it also showed how far we’d come from treating the dead as a real threat to the main cast. After four seasons, why would there be anyone left who can’t take care of themselves?
“Everyone alive is strong now,” Abraham muses in a quiet moment in Season 5. And it’s true that everyone’s found a way to survive, but they didn’t all manage it by evolving into killing machines. The Walking Dead Season 5 is where The Walking Dead considers the characters who the march toward badassdom left behind: people like Eugene, Beth, Father Gabriel, and Noah. It turns out weakness and cowardice can be as bad as brutality; the people who do the worst things this season are the ones convinced they have no choice.
Let’s start, as the season does, with the people of Terminus. It might seem weird to call them “weak” when they come so close to killing Rick and company, but Gareth and the Termites see themselves that way: too weak to choose their own actions. “These aren’t things we want to do. They’re things we got to do.” In a way, it’s natural that the Termites surrender so easily when Rick finally gets the drop on them. “There’s no choice here,” says Gareth.
No matter how efficiently they murder people, they see themselves as the victims. They turn their own evil up to 11 as if to spite the world for being unfair to them. Considering how self-consciously vile they are—the human abattoir, the Holocaust-evoking storerooms, even Gareth’s awesomely passive-aggressive monologuing—it’s almost funny. Maybe it is funny, depending on the sorts of things you can laugh at.
Gareth compared his group to bears who eat their own cubs if they are in danger. By contrast, Rick and his group have at least one principal virtue: a willingness to protect the weakest among their own number long enough to let them come into their own.
Beth has been one of those “cubs” since Season 2. Her first significant action in the show was a suicide attempt, and singing is her most prominent talent. The hospital arc is her chance to prove she’s strong in her own way. Kidnapped and trapped in this weird new society, she’s got the place figured out. Including what’s wrong with the people in charge, who she can trust, and how to escape—by the end of her first episode there.
The system Beth’s up against runs on cowardice, starting at the top. The “cops” living in Grady Memorial Hospital kidnap outsiders, let the hospital treat their injuries, then trap them in a bizarre system of debt slavery. Dawn, the woman in charge, turns a blind eye to their abuses because she can’t “keep it together” without them.
The hospital thralls, meanwhile, stay in line because they don’t think they can make it on their own—as Dr. Edwards says to Beth, “We’re not the ones who make it.” Beth’s fellow thrall, Noah, is convinced doctors let his father die and only saved his life because they thought he wouldn’t be a physical threat. After he escapes (with Beth’s help), that same idea of weakness puts him on the wrong side of the heroes. Good-hearted though he may be, he justifies stealing Carol and Daryl’s guns, leaving them defenseless in a dangerous city, because they, unlike Noah, “look tough.”
Eugene is another character screwing people over because he can’t take care of himself otherwise. He claims to be the world’s saviour, so the most competent survivors will keep him alive. Having watched seven protectors die on his “mission,” his fear leaves him little options. He freezes at the prospect of facing zombies himself—“It’s not voluntary,” he protests. Rosita throws him into the fight regardless, saying, “It is when you’re screwed either way.” It turns out this shift in perspective forces him to come clean, if only to save his own skin.
Finally, Father Gabriel, introduced to us as an inept coward, doesn’t seem likely to improve. Unlike Noah or Eugene, he doesn’t lie or deliberately sabotage the group, yet he manages to be a bigger liability than either of them. He refuses to kill people and can’t bring himself to kill zombies either, but he let his whole congregation die through inaction. The best you can say about him is he genuinely feels bad about it.
Some of these characters grow into valuable survivors once they realize their own strengths. Some, admittedly, don’t. But the first half of this last season makes it clear that there’s still room in the world of The Walking Dead for weak characters. More importantly, there’s room for them to get stronger.