‘The Walking Dead’ Open Thread: If He Wants A War, He’s Got One

This post discusses plot points from the February 24 episode of The Walking Dead.

The Walking Dead took a break from the last few weeks of moral dilemmas this Sunday, but it didn’t leave hefty topics behind. “I Ain’t A Judas” was a meditation on the causes of war and peace; why do groups of people sometimes organize to kill each other while others coexist?

Zombie fiction has proven fertile grounds for analysts of world politics. Dan Drezner, a professor of international relations, has written a widely acclaimed book using zombies to explain international relations theory (his conclusions are summarized here). While Drezner’s work focuses on how currently-existing governments would respond to a zombie outbreak, The Walking Dead asks us how the proto-governments that form in a world of total social breakdown would relate to each other.

In keeping with the show’s broadly morbid aesthetic, Sunday’s episode gives us a grim answer. The prisoners and Woodburyites appear to be dead set on marching down the road to total war despite the best efforts of Andrea, who embarks on a lonely peace mission to the prison against the Governor’s wishes. “I Ain’t A Judas” suggests Andrea’s quest was doomed to failure; the anarchic, dangerous structure of the world and the history between the groups seems to have made deadly violence a certainty.

The first, and most important, reason that war is coming is the nasty combination of stakes and poor information. In keeping with what’s called a “offensive realist” theory of international relations, neither Rick nor the Governor knows enough about the other side’s capabilities or intentions to safely stay off war footing. Rick’s poor excuses for spies, Merle and Andrea, suggest the Governor is powerful and well-armed. Indeed, given Merle’s depiction of the Governor as omnipresent tactical genius, Rick is getting the sense that moving away from war, even for a moment, could expose them. The Governor, having already lost a number of people to Rick’s raids, begins drafting child soldiers. For both sides, preparing for violence is the only rational thing to do.

And given the stakes, those preparations will spill over to war. Both sides believe that their lives and community are forfeit if they lose this war; as Merle puts it, the Governor will “save Rick for last, so he can watch his family die.” Given this situation, why wouldn’t you strike first and ask questions later?

The calamity in all of this is that the violence is totally unnecessary. The most influential book arguing that real-world international politics actually works this way is titled The Tragedy of Great Power Politics for a reason; a war between the prison and Woodbury doesn’t redound to either side’s benefits. Cooperation would allow them to build a more secure society together. The seeming integration of Tyrese’s group into Woodbury after a chance meeting with Andrea gets the point across clearly; Tyrese’s people benefit from shelter, while the Governor benefits from the new soldiers and intelligence on the prison. Rick’s refusal to trust Tyrese, which led directly to his people switching teams, is Rick over-learning the offensive realist lessons about uncertainty and stakes. Sometimes, cooperation is worth the risk.

But sadly, there’s no chance these crazy kids will work it out. The conflict between Rick and the Governor is about more than sheer survival; it’s about history. These two groups hate each other for reasons that go beyond rational assessments of risk. As tortured-at-the-Governor’s hand Glenn puts it, “We have taken too much shit already. If he wants a war, he’s got one.” Rick and Darryl second him. Likewise, the Governor’s first question to Andrea after her return is about the people he most wants to kill: “Michonne there? Merle?” Even if the two sides could recognize that peace is preferable to war, they want to kill each other more than they want to reap the benefits of peace. As in the real world, war and peace are about much more than cost/benefit analysis. Sometimes, they’re about hate.