The rotting zombies on The Walking Dead, foul as they are, have nothing on the show’s decayed human souls. The third season of The Walking Dead has been about what violence and scarcity do to our society’s moral codes — how our sphere of ethical concern narrows to a pinhead as conditions become dire. Last night’s midseason finale hammered the point home, using the battle between Rick’s band of survivors and the Governor’s to examine the hows and whys of moral decline after the apocalypse.
As The Walking Dead becomes less of a turgid zombie soap, and more about the conflict between bands of humans in a dangerous, anarchic world, its central question has become less “how do we survive?” and more “who do we want to survive?” Each major turning point in the midseason finale — Rick’s choice to spare Michonne, Darryl’s decision to turn back for his brother Merle, Carl’s intervention on behalf of a new group of survivors, and the Governor’s big speech casting Merle out of respectable Woodbury society — are all about defining who matters morally and what the answer to that question means for the people asking it.
The Governor’s answer to this question is the simplest and most inhuman: kill everyone who isn’t one of His People. “We’ll have to take them out, let the biters move back in,” he says of the prison group, comparing them to the National Guardsmen he massacred in cold blood at the beginning of the season. While Rick is more compassionate, treating people outside his group as objects of suspicion rather than targets to slaughter, his worldview also centers on a stark us-and-them distinction. “If this goes south, we’re cutting her loose,” he says of Michonne, who has yet to earn ingroup status despite putting herself on the line to rescue Glenn and Maggie from the Governor’s clutches.
It’s the reversion to this tribalism that makes The Walking Dead‘s apocalypse so chillinglly real. Modern moral progress, as Peter Singer argues, has proceeded by expanding the sphere of moral concern to an ever-larger group of people. People may have once only cared about those who share their nationality, race, or gender, but as Enlightenment ideals about universal human rights took root, humans have moved inexorably towards treating everyone as equally worthy of moral concern. The Walking Dead‘s third season has suggested that, when you demolish a stable society, this purported moral progress will have proved a smokescreen, and that our enlightened selves are just as brutally tribal as our ancestors.
The moral drama in the struggle between the two groups of survivors, then, isn’t over the appropriateness of groupism in the shadow of the End. Instead, it’s about how we rebuild our moral code from the ashes. The difference between the Governor and Rick rests mostly in how they make decisions, and not the decisions they make.
The Governor is, for all his pieties, a dictator. He alone makes every critical political decision, hiding critical information from his subjects to ensure that they always come to see his own righteousness. His labelling of Rick’s group as “terrorists” who “want to destroy us” depends on Woodbury’s residents not knowing that the attack was really a rescue mission, a worrying suggestion that War on Terrorism secrecy may be dulling our own moral sense. What seems right in Woodbury, in short, is whatever the Governor says is right.
Though Rick declared that “this is not a democracy” at the end of the second season, his decisionmaking has become more cooperative, depending on input and informed consent from all the group members. When Rick asks Darryl to escape with the group and leave Merle behind, he gives him reasons to so, appealing rather than ordering. When the Governor instructs his lover Andrea to stay away from the battle, he dismisses her questions with a curt “do as I ask.”
So though Rick is the clear leader of his group, their moral code is determined by mutual consent and deliberation rather than dictatorial fiat. Indeed, Carl’s suggestion that Rick give up his leadership post in the preview hints that the group’s moral democracy may bleed into an actual one. Under the Governor’s rule, that would be unthinkable.