The Walking Dead is, at times, exhausting. Watching through any given season of AMC’s monster smash hit zombie drama is akin to reading through the book of Job. It can become a practice in watching characters you love continue to lose everything. The post-apocalyptic world around them continues to mar them as they wander around trying to survive. They make friends, they gain resources, they find shelter only to lose friends, lose resources, and lose their shelter. The biggest conversation as we take a tally of what’s left is: who will die?
I wonder, though, are there other questions to ask? This season in particular, as lead character Rick becomes more and more of a killer, the show is begging us to ask more about the show, the character and ourselves. This is as good a time as any to warn you about a few things. First, if you haven’t watched all of season six there will be spoilers. Two, the horror genre is not for everyone. At times it is filled with graphically violent images and is not something everyone should watch.
That being said, the zombie sub-genre in general has a long history of thoughtful social commentary. From George A. Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead to the farcical Shaun of the Dead, when the genre is done well it holds a mirror up to our society around issues of race, commercialism, ambition, guilt, and shame just to name a few. So much like the bloodier, more graphic images of scripture, these stories when told with intention can help us dive deeply into ourselves. If horror media takes you to a place where those graphic images rule your thoughts and feelings, please stay away. But if you can enjoy it responsibly with discernment, in the words of film critic Jeffrey Overstreet, author of “Through a Screen Darkly,”
“There are some meaningful films in this genre – stories that comment on the horrors of contemporary culture. If we stop to consider why the monsters scare us, what it is that made them or what the creature’s victims have in common, we might be surprised at the insight we can gain. We may begin to understand the nature of the menace and learn to recognize monsters growing within our own chests.”
All this to say, as this season of The Walking Dead comes to a close, I think the most important question isn’t who will die, but what will survive? What will be left of society? What will be left of our characters? What will be left of hope? These are questions we see all of the characters wrestle with, but more prominently this season we see it in the ideological matchup between Rick and Morgan.
In Rick, we see a man who has already lost so much. After losing the farm, the prison, and taking serious damage at Alexandria not to mention losing Lori his wife, his best friend Shane, Hershel his moral mentor, his hope for a new life with Jessie, and his son Carl being severely injured, he is a man that is holding on tight to what’s his. Like the season four episode “Claimed,” Rick is now laying claim to what’s left. He’s got dibs on the reigns of Alexandria, he is shacked up with Michonne (arguably the only woman that could survive being close to him), and he will do anything to protect his new life, family, friends, resources, and shelter. His first response to a threat is to nip it in the bud and kill or be killed. He is trying with all of his will to ward off death, the ever present enemy of his reality.
On the other side of the coin is Morgan. Morgan is different and thanks to probably my favorite episode of the current season, “Here’s Not Here,” we got to see why. He was a paralyzed, deadly, raging ball of imbalanced guilt and anger and was saved by a new moral code that all life is valuable. Morgan lives in a world with intrinsic value placed on the people around him. Rick lives in a world where Rick establishes value and the difference is clear in their behavior.
In Rick’s worldview the life of his friends have more value than the life of the baddies, thus it makes sense to kill anyone in his path. This is a concept that after six seasons was finally passed on to Glenn who killed his first living human with tears rolling down his face. In Morgan’s worldview he doesn’t determine value so the lives of his enemies matter. This most notably has effected Carol after she and Morgan came to blows over this worldview. Something was planted in Carol then, as now we watch her emotionally try to rip herself from her violent past to a more Morgan-like future.
With Rick and Morgan, The Walking Dead becomes a lesson in what survives, what is left, and what do we truly own? Over six seasons Rick has been in a constant struggle to have ownership of people, resources, and places only to continue to come face to face with how little control he actually has, a struggle that usually leaves a trail of death. Morgan got to a place where he realized nothing in this world is truly his and that allows him to let go of people, resources, and places and understand that survival doesn’t mean killing but it means living. We hold on tight to what we love, so tight that we do damage. And what are we protecting them from? Death? Well we follow a God that says that every life has value even beyond death.
Surrounded by hordes of literal walking dead, it is understandable that our characters fear death. They look it in its decaying eyes every day. However, The Bible treats death very differently. Death is a mercy after the fall in Genesis 3 and death certainly is not the final word. Of course this is apparent in the resurrection of Jesus, but can be seen throughout the Biblical story. Take 2 Samuel 21:12-14, King David takes the bones of the fallen King Saul that were rescued from embarrassment and gives Saul and his son Jonathan the opportunity to rest in peace in their family’s burial site. The dead bones of Saul and Jonathan had importance.
Move ahead to the death of the prophet Elisha in 2 Kings 13. Elisha dies and much later a burial party scattered by murderous marauders tosses a dead body into Elisha’s grave and when it made contact with Elisha’s bones the dead man sprung back to life. Even death in the hands of God breeds life.
Where does this value Morgan places on the lives of others come from? If we are like Rick and create our own value, it can only go as far as humanly possible. That value will always be a fraction of that which God places on his children and his creation. When we clinch our fists around our idols, trying to own what was never truly ours, death is the ultimate fear. If we offer back to God what is his, then the only thing we have to fear is God…and he is our friend.