So the final episode was a bit disappointing (what’s up with those low budget pyrotechnics? why no more tantalizing reveals?) but the overall impression from the series remains strong. I believe that this is actually the first television series that grapples directly with the meaning of death. Why do I say that?
Because death has no meaning.
The notion that human beings actively deny their own mortality is an old one, usually used to get the attention of those whose behavior someone wants to change, oftentimes in the direction of some preferred religious or philosophical commitment. We see this in Tolstoy, and the early Heidegger. Another tradition, linked to the Enlightenment, tries to persuade us that our cowardice in the face of death generates most religious and philosophical commitments in the first place. These traditions can learn from each other, and in some cases, fuse, as in Ernest Becker.
In our culture, which is largely a secular one (actions speak louder than words), and one in which philosophers have abdicated responsibility for orienting and advising, material death is in our faces often enough, and often enough on television. So why do I say that The Walking Dead is new in grappling with mortality? Because every presentation of death on television so smothers it in meaningfulness that the whole being dead part disappears while remaining continuously visible. Death hides in plain sight.
On television, one dies in order to temporarily get a loved one stuck in the past, so that they can heal and Find Love Again, because that’s what the dead would’ve wanted. Or one dies to illustrate just how irredeemably evil the bad guys are, so the survivor can become his glowering sense of justice and make the final bad guy death all the more satisfying. Or one dies after a long struggle but one finds a kind of inner peace and acceptance in the end. Or one dies to make the ultimate sacrifice, to save the lives of those one loves and leaves behind in a state of sublime and indestructible gratitude. Or, as the joke has it, one just dies because one is wearing the Red Shirt, and this is an efficient way for a narrative to locate danger.
The point is, we need not create a system of symbolic references that includes the idea that death is ultimately not real to make death as-if not real. None of these deaths happen to you, nor (my first example notwithstanding) to those you truly love. Now it is a remarkable claim that The Walking Dead shows us death as it is, given the utterly fantastical premise, but consider. One dies because one headed to the toilet at the wrong moment. One dies because of getting bitten by an insignificant animal. One dies of an infection we don’t happen to have a cure for yet. One dies because when help is supposed to come, it doesn’t. One gives in to death not out of inner peace, but out of exhaustion and despair. One dies no matter how much one is loved, no matter how deeply that hurts those one leaves behind. And most importantly, one dies because, well, everyone will.
The counsel of despair? Not at all. True courage faces its battles with open eyes. Everything important and good is of life; Christianity knows this, which is why Christianity teaches the resurrection of the body. But do not deceive yourself: death is not a symbol of something other than itself. Death is brutal and stupid and against everything, and we must resist it with all our cunning and strength and we will fail. And when we fail, we strive for dignity, we grieve, we comfort each other, and then go back to fight some more.
Try putting that on television. Oh, wow. They did.
[hat tip Lisa Wichowski, for most of this]