This post contains spoilers through the October 16 episode of The Walking Dead.
Well, The Walking Dead is back, and grimmer than ever: Andrea’s suicidal, Sophia’s lost in the woods, Lori and Shane can’t quit each other, and God appears to hate Rick Grimes.
In an interview with Colson Whitehead about his new zombie novel, Zone One, that I’ve got going up a little after 4 p.m. today, we spoke a bit about what happens to social norms when society collapses: do people try to build societies based on radically new rules? Or do they preserve their traditions. A milder version of that tension is present in tonight’s episode. Lori expresses some discomfort when the characters come upon a huge number of cars full of the dead — and of valuable supplies. “This is a graveyard,” she says. “I don’t know how I feel about this.” But where Lori sees desecration, Carol sees a small potential for liberation. “Ed never let me wear nice things like this,” she remarks, holding up a pretty red blouse. And Lori’s moment of nerves doesn’t mean she’s consistently committed to upholding old norms, or that it’s easy for her. She’s struggling with her attraction to Shane, who she doesn’t want to sleep with, but she can’t quite walk away from either. “Just trying to be the good guy, Lori,” Shane tells her, informing of his intention to leave the main group. “Even if you don’t see it.”
Andrea’s similarly struggling with her relationship with Dale, and her larger need to find a reason to keep living after the loss of her sister. Dale confiscates her gun after she fails to put it back together in time to protect herself from the walkers, but also because he believes she’ll use it. “You chose suicide,” Dale protests when she demands her gun back. “What’s that to you? You barely know me,” Andrea spits back to the man who’s come to think of himself as related to her. “I didn’t want your blood on my hands…What did you expect? That I had an epiphany? Some life-affirming catharsis…I wanted to die on my terms, not torn apart by some drooling freaks. You took that away from me…You took my choice away from me. And you expect gratitude?”
Dale’s efforts to keep Andrea alive are part of an attempt to exert subtle leadership, one of the other themes of this episode. He tries to affect events by concealing material or information, whether it’s Andrea’s gun, or the news that the RV is fixed. “If the others know we’re mobile, they’ll want to mobilize and move on,” Dale explains. “Sooner or later, if she’s not found, people will start doing the math. I want to hold off the needs of the many versus the needs of the few arguments for as long as I can.” Lori’s the opposite, calling out Carol’s doubt in Rick in front of everyone, an act that inspires Andrea to give the gun they discovered in the tent back to Lori rather than holding on to it. Her leadership, rather than a sense of obligation, gives Andrea a reason to live.
And Rick tries to lead by moral example, charging into the woods after Sophia, explaining in an opening monologue that,”It’s all about slim chances now. I try to do everything right. To keep people safe,” and later, begging Jesus for reassurance, acknowledging that it’s possible that God doesn’t feel much for him. “Maybe it’s just indifference,” Rick asks a statue of Jesus “I guess you know already I’m not much of a believer. I guess I just chose to put my faith elsewhere. Family. Friends. My job. The thing is, we, I could use a little something to help keep us going. Some kind of acknowledgment. Some indication I’m doing the right thing.”
What he gets, instead, is a buck in the woods, and a gunshot that takes out both miraculous deer and son. In this world, the loss of children to death or misadventure feels both unsurprising and exceptionally tragic. It’s hard to convince children that the world is dangerous, much less that it’s exceptionally so, to teach them not to go after treasure in a truck or not to scream. And when you lose them, you’re not just losing members of the party, but the possibility of a subsequent generation. It’s hard to believe that children are the future when the possibility of a future seems nigh-impossible.