Submitted by Corodon Fuller
AMC’s The Walking Dead will be starting its sixth season this October. What’s made it one of the best things on TV almost all the way through has been its willingness to ask big questions. What does it mean to be a good person? What does it mean to survive? How much are these things worth?
In this feature, I’ll be looking back at the last five seasons of the show. I’ll talk about how Rick’s band of survivors (and near-survivors) have changed, the questions they’ve faced, and how the show has answered them.
Who Are These People?
For the characters who have made it this far, it’s been a crazy trip—literally so because they’ve traveled a long way and left a lot of their sanity behind. At the end of Season 5, the survivors are a hard, ruthless crew. It’s an open question whether they’re good people anymore. Would Season 1 Rick even recognize himself in Season 5 Rick or vice versa?
Yet as they face a group of comparatively innocent people who would pass judgment, Michonne claims that Rick is what they’ll all become if they’re lucky. To understand any of them, you have to know what they’ve been through. And it’s the choices they make in this first season—most of all the choice to stay alive—that put them on the course to who they become later, for better or worse.
So let’s go back to the beginning and see who these people were.
As the series starts, the apocalypse is only weeks old, and it’s jarring to see how innocent everyone is. (Also, how clean-shaven! But I don’t want to get ahead of myself—we’ll look at the meaning of the beards when I break down Season 3.)
Rick is a sheriff, and he holds onto that piece of his identity for a long time. Having slept through the initial outbreak, he enters the zombie apocalypse relatively unsullied (both morally and emotionally). When he joins the group of Atlanta survivors, he’s the voice of morality and heroic determination. At first the other survivors look at Rick as dangerously naïve. (Season 5 Rick would agree.) Rick’s the one who launches a rescue mission into Atlanta because it’s the right thing to do. He’s the one reminding Daryl that “we don’t kill the living,”—a ban that includes mercy-killing.
But even with their good intentions intact, the survivors get a useful reminder of how quick civilized people can be to resort to senseless violence. Their first meeting with another group—the posturing “Vatos,” who are kind-hearted nursing home orderlies—devolves into hostage-taking and grandiose threats at the first sign of trouble. That episode establishes early on that the pressure of survival will push good, rational people toward bad, irrational actions. Constantly facing that danger is the real cost of survival.
To Be or Not to Be
That is, in fact, the question this season. In a world gone to hell, is the best option simply to kill yourself? Failing that, do you stop fighting and accept the inevitable? The existentialist philosopher Albert Camus considered whether or not to commit suicide to be the only real question, and that was in the world relatively free of zombies.
The Walking Dead wastes no time putting the question of suicide in front of Rick. In the first episode, he finds a couple who shot themselves in their home after writing “God forgive us” on the wall. By the end of the same episode, Rick is turning his gun on himself—trapped under a tank and surrounded by zombies on all sides. Of course, he spots a way out (or else this would have been a short series), but the incident is significant. It’s the only time Rick considers killing himself. After he finds out his wife and son are alive, and even in spite of everything that happens after that, he never gives up on merely surviving.
The Walking Dead is, by necessity, a story about people who choose to survive at all costs. In these first six episodes, everyone has to grapple with the question of whether survival is worth it.
We see Jim, burning up with zombie fever, persuade the group to leave him behind. We watch Merle (no role model, but a tough sumbitch) survive being handcuffed to the roof of a zombie-filled building. We see the question writ large after the group makes it to the CDC compound through sheer refusal to quit, just in time for the last episode.
The CDC bunker is a haven from zombies but, inconveniently, is scheduled to “decontaminate” itself with high explosives. Naturally the clock is ticking, and the doors are all locked. The bunker’s only inhabitant, Dr. Jenner, doesn’t understand why anyone wants to stay alive. As imminent doom becomes more likely, every single character has to decide whether they wish to escape.
Among those who choose survival, there are several people who keep on living to keep someone else alive. Rick has his family to live for now. Andrea leaves to keep Dale from staying with her, and Dale is arguably living to protect Andrea at this point. One way or another, everyone makes their decision.
The survivors survive, and hope seems to carry the day. In Season 2, though, they’ll have to face how long is too long to hold on to hope.