After a strong opening, I was starting to worry. Episode 4 put my mind at rest. A Tarantino-esque stand-off over hostage exchange between our guys, and what appears initially to be a scary band of lawless Hispanic gangbangers throws you for a loop when it turns out [spoiler alert] that the gangbangers are actually former workers in a nursing home who now live to protect its aging residents. This subtle poke at the viewers’ own racial assumptions is gentle and unsanctimonious, and not even the main point, which is the following flash of dialogue. In discussing the difficulty of knowing who to trust in a now lawless environment, one of our regular characters, T-Dog, says “I guess the world changed,” to which Guillermo the leader says, “No. It’s the same as it ever was. The weak get taken.” Unstated are all the other things which haven’t changed: that trust is earned, that strength tempered with justice will always be necessary because strength without justice is always present, that the basis for lasting leadership is ultimately moral authority. And that a part of that morality involves how we treat the truly helpless.
In some sense, all the better entries in the zombie genre try to assert something about how things really are in our zombie-free world. Zombies always struck me as a combination of two primordial anxieties, about embodiment, and about sociality. Survivors are always outnumbered just as each of us is always outnumbered, and the thought of what it would mean to live in a world where society has turned on you utterly seems to be at the root of that anxiety. Our continued embodiment depends on that not happening. Along with this thought is another, adjacent one: the “veneer of civilization” is all that prevents us from devouring each other. Morality is nothing but that veneer.
Guillermo’s words, and the context in which they are spoken affirm that whether or not that is true depends on the quality of the people involved. Morality is not only a veneer produced by society. Potentially, it is something deeper rooted in humanness. It is the condition of the possibility of society in the first place. While I don’t think that is the whole truth, it is an important part of it, and by committing to it, The Walking Dead proves itself to be one of the most deeply hopeful pieces of television I’ve seen in years.