The following article contains spoilers up through the current season of “The Walking Dead.”
Last week, Sarah Wayne Callies (who played Lori Grimes on “The Walking Dead”) and IronE Singleton (who played T-Dog) got on the phone with a group of journalists to participate in what’s becoming a tradition for shows in which no character’s place is guaranteed — they were there to talk about their deaths on the episode the night before. They’re far from the first to get killed off on a series in which the dead characters have come to outnumber the living just as the walkers outnumber the survivors in its bleak vision of the decimated planet, but Lori’s chosen death by brutal, messy C-section in order to save the life of her child was of note. Lori has been, dramatically, one of the show’s most significant characters. Her death, as Callies pointed out on the call, means that only four of the characters introduced in the pilot are still alive, and only two of them — Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and Carl (Chandler Riggs) are regulars.
As befits a show about the zombie apocalypse, death plays a leading role on “The Walking Dead.” TV series in general have gotten more comfortable offing major characters in ways that aren’t all about ratings stunts or providing a departing cast member with a memorable send-off. But “The Walking Dead” is unique in its sense that death is coming for everyone. There’s no cure, no goal to be achieved, no end in sight other than the ongoing struggle for survival, and every potential sanctuary that’s been found is precarious at best, beset by danger from without and within. It’s death, not life, that’s the default in the series, which makes watching it a unique and sometimes grating experience — it’s hard to have any deep attachment for these characters when all they have to look for is a continued rough existence, and this difficulty is compounded by the fact that they’re so often their own worst enemy.
The second season of the show, in fact, suggested these people are kind of awful, as they arrived at the Greene farm and proceeded to slowly destroy it with their infighting, love triangles and leadership skirmishes. Rick and his crew proved themselves to be a post-apocalyptic version of terrible houseguests who stay for months on your couch claiming they’re totally about to get their own place, picking fights with your landlord and eating all the food in your fridge while lecturing you about how you should buy organic. With the endless, doomed search for Sophia, the skirmish over Hershel’s (Scott Wilson) right to delusionally keep a collection of walkers in his barn with the intent of eventually treating them, the escalating Rick/Shane (Jon Bernthal) tensions and constant battles over the right way to behave, Rick and company often seemed unwilling to actually accept that the world was ending and there should be more important things to focus on.
But in its much improved third season, with Rick and his remaining crew ensconced in the prison they took over at a very high price, that bickering has taken on a melancholy quality — it’s maddening, but it’s also indicative of the characters’ remaining humanity and the fact that they care. They want to live together, to trust each other and to figure out the just way to act at a time in which the rules have crumbled away. These are qualities that seem likely to doom them, but that also make them rare beings now that “The Walking Dead” is presenting a vision of the world in which the only successful survivors left are going to be the savages and psychos. Gruff Michonne (Danai Gurira) with her samurai sword, the cheery nutjob the Governor (David Morrissey), hard-bitten Merle (Michael Rooker), even the now traumatized Rick — these are some of the series’ most fun characters, but they’re also the most disturbed. They are probably the best suited to what the world’s become, with their fondness for violence and their unruffled reactions in the face of terrible things, but the fact that they’re destined to inherit the earth doesn’t offer up a lot of hope for humanity.
In this past Sunday’s episode “Say the Word,” directed by effects guru Greg Nicotero, the show presented a grieving Rick taking out his rage on walkers with an ax, Michonne slicing up a few herself for fun after she discovers Woodbury’s locked up stash, and Merle cackling as his research team hauls up some walkers in a net. While the debates over the ethical implications of killing zombies got old awfully quickly, the pleasure these characters take in slaughtering them and the numbness they feel toward what used to be people is troubling. But the installment’s great reveal, its zombified take on the old image of dark uncurrents in idealized suburbia, was that the seemingly bucolic enclave of Woodbury, where the town celebrates together and everything seems safe, also needs this kind of brutal relief.
As the Governor presided over his arena battle, with its ring of chained up walkers, like a Roman emperor unaware of the approaching fall, he tells a horrified Andrea (Laurie Holden) that this “makes people feel better,” demonstrated that even his apparently peaceful community is fueled and stabilized by the spectacle of rage and destruction, no matter how staged. Before everything goes to hell, as it’s of course destined to, this sequence provided a genuine quiver of unease unlike anything the show’s managed before. If all that’s left of humanity are, despite the Governor’s protestations, “barbarians,” rooting for their survival becomes even more complicated and challenging. If the only people suited to remain alive are bloodthirsty, unfeeling or ready to kill others to ensure their own survival, how much the show expects us to invest in their continued existence becomes a legitimate question. It’s a nihilistic prospect, but also an excitingly unconventional one — is the end game of “The Walking Dead” just that, the end? It’s the living who are always more dangerous than the hungry but predictable dead — and with the strong and crazy coming out on top, what’s left for them but to destroy each other?