Is morality a luxury? One might think that, in a world overrun by zombies, setting up an ethical code should take a backseat to survival. But the strongest moments in Sunday’s othewise lackluster Walking Dead made the opposite case, using a breakdown in the relationship between brothers Merle and Darryl as a case study in why morality would and should be a central concern in a post-apocalyptic world.
The brothers begin feuding in the woods, as the meager spoils of their hunting efforts lead Darryl to question whether they shouldn’t make a beeline back for the well-stocked prison. But the real rift emerges when they spy a small group of survivors fighting a losing battle against a group of walkers. Darryl sees people in trouble who need his help. But Merle sees useless dead weight to whom he owes nothing. “They ain’t never cooked me a meal,” he sniffs.
However close Darryl and Merle may have been at one point (even morally speaking, as they apparently planned to rob the prison group when they first encountered it), the conflict over the embattled group on the highway reveals how far they’ve grown. Darryl believes human life is something worth protecting irrespective of utility. Like a normal person, he believes leaving people to die when you can save them to be a grave moral ill. It’s such an important part of his moral character that he barely hesitates to run in, crossbow blazing, and save the day. Merle is left little choice but to follow his brother but, in a nice touch, he saunters towards the battle in a fashion resembling nothing more than a walker’s shuffle, his move away from humanity reflected in his actual movement.
Darryl finally snaps after Merle attempts to stick up the terrified survivors for food. Demanding “an enchilada” from the Spanish-speaking “beaners,” Merle’s moral ugliness is on full display, and Darryl can’t take it anymore. He points his crossbow at his brother, demanding Meryl let them go and deciding to march back to the prison irrespective of what his brother wants. Merle’s Randian selfishness has made him toxic, so untrustworthy and morally repellent that his own brother can’t stand to be alone with him.
The underlying point here is that morality isn’t just a luxury in this world: it’s something people need, both a survival adaptation and, more importantly, one of the only things that makes their apocalyptic life worth living. Last week, it seemed like family ties were the most powerful motivating force for survivors, shredding group bonds as if they were paper. But Darryl’s move back to the prison suggests ethics run deeper than blood. Merle’s utter lack of humanity makes it impossible for Darryl to depend on him; he needs to be with people who place the same value on his life as he places on theirs to survive in a world where no one can really provide for themselves.
In a clever bit of dialogue, this point is directly connected to Merle’s racism. When Darryl sets off for the prison, Merle pleads with Darryl that he might not be welcome: “I tried to kill that black bitch…damn near killed that Chinese kid.” Darryl’s pithy response — “he’s Korean!” — points to the fact that he’s bothered to get to know these people, while Merle’s refusal to see them as anything other than stereotyped cartoons keeps him out of a community defined by shared trust. Human kindness isn’t a relic of a bygone world. It’s a necessity.
But Darryl’s moral revolt isn’t just about the fact that he can’t trust Merle in a tight spot. Darryl appears to simply not want a life in which he either leaves innocent people to die or thieves from them. In his mind, Merle has abandoned the very things that make life good and valuable, the values and beliefs that make humans noble and underpinned their brotherly love itself. “I may be the one walking away,” Darryl tells his brother, “but you’re the one who’s leaving.” As they’ve both returned to the prison by the end of the episode, the central question going forward is whether Merle can return from this moral exile as well.