This post contains spoilers through the Nov. 6 episode of The Walking Dead.
I haven’t felt exceptionally engaged by this season of The Walking Dead, but tonight’s episode raised two big questions for me. First, related to the actual events of the show, what’s really going on at Hershel’s farm? And second, at what point the show’s grossness disgusting for the sake of disgustingness?
Given that most American popular culture doesn’t take belief particularly seriously or delve into theology, I’m glad to see the show reveal Hershel’s faith slowly and to set up a genuine religious conflict between him and Rick who, as he puts it, is trying to stay out of the Almighty’s way. There’s an interesting symmetry to the episode, beginning with Hershel’s eulogy for Otis — who Shane killed to save his own life — in which he calls children like Carl “now, more than ever, our most precious asset,” and the end, in which it’s revealed that Lori is pregnant. Have Rick and company stumbled on a theocracy? Will Lori’s pregnancy be the subject of a tussle that brings their uneasy arrangement down? Hershel’s initially reluctant to let them stay, but after Rick appeals to his religious beliefs, telling him, “If you saw how it is out there, you wouldn’t ask,” he relents, on a trial basis, warning Rick that “If you and your people respect my rules, no promises, but I will consider it.”
And that raises an interesting, and perhaps corollary question: why is it that Hershel and his people have been able to remain unmolested? There’s a road that lead to their place. It’s not fortified. There are a lot of humans concentrated there. So what’s going on? What rules could possibly keep zombies out, except for the one living in Well 2? And how did he get there in the first place?
All of these questions are, to me, vastly more interesting than the site of yet another intensely grisly zombie death. When the bloated, shambling corpse breaks in half while they’re trying to haul it out of the well, it’s just disgusting, serving no other purpose other than to illustrate the futility of their effort. And then the show compounds the sickening nature of the scene by having T-Dog bash the zombie’s head to a pulp, a sequence that’s shot in typical detail, rather than a merciful dispatch to the head. I’ve worked hard to get myself used to violence, but I still tend to think that there ought to be some justification for extreme instances of it. And I can’t really see the point: this is pulping someone who was once human just because the outer parameters of the show permit it. I miss the moments from the first season of the show when the actors playing the zombies had a chance to impart a real pathos to their characters, to suggest a strange fragment of humanity remained beneath necrotizing flesh. Those kinds of scene lent a sense of horror, and of choice, to the violence the characters had to admit. Absent that sense of conflict — or a sense that poisoning this one well will have real consequences — scenes like this are just disgusting. They don’t actually mean anything about the dead, or the people forced to dispatch them a second time.