This post discusses plot points from the March 3 episode of The Walking Dead.
In both style and substance, The Walking Dead returned to its roots this Sunday, bringing back both the haunting aesthetic and a critical, seemingly forgotten character from the show’s premiere. The result was the most effective episode since the midseason break, a psychological horror show that tells us the worst thing about the apocalypse is being alone.
Only three of the regular characters (Rick, Carl, and Michonne) appeared tonight, as the show abandoned its standard whole-cast format to spotlight their mission to acquire the guns from Rick’s police station to sustain their war effort against the Governor. The more focused plotting facilitated the sort of nuanced character work that had been missing in the past few episodes: Michonne gets to display some welcome droll humor and Carl gets to step out of the “kid badass” archetype to remind us (through a sentimental quest for a photo of his family) that he is, in fact, still a kid.
But this was Morgan’s (Lennie James) episode, returning for the first time since Rick parted ways with Morgan and his son Duane in the first episode. As Rick himself notices, it’s hard not to see Morgan as Rick’s double, but while Rick suggests he and Morgan been through the same travails (“Things went bad for me, things went bad for you”), he’s wrong. While Rick found a community, Morgan and his son trod a solitary path. And that made all the difference: people need each other, often in more ways than we know.
Morgan lost Duane to an attack by his zombified wife (who, back in the first episode, Morgan couldn’t bring himself to shoot). Alone, Morgan spun further and further away from reality, and by the time we see him again he’s surrounded by an unnecessarily enormous weapons stockpile and walls defaced with disturbing, incomprehensible graffiti (“sometimes interrupt with the start;” “we PULL upon detention”). It wasn’t just seeing his wife devour his son that drove him over the edge; we know from real people that solitary living is the death of sanity. Terry Anderson, a journalist kidnapped and held in solitary confinement in 1985, described the experience as the destruction of thought, happiness, and human experience:
The mind is a blank. Jesus, I always thought I was smart. Where are all the things I learned, the books I read, the poems I memorized? There’s nothing there, just a formless, gray-black misery. My mind’s gone dead. God, help me.
Without people to tether him, Morgan snapped. The apocalypse remakes the whole world as a giant solitary cell, a hellscape that slowly but inexorably pushes one’s sanity to the breaking point.
Though recent research has proven that being held alone (quite literally) damages the human brain, the insight that people need each other is old. In his seminal Politics, Aristotle famously defines humans as “political animals,” capable of flourishing only in a community. Communities make people better: we define right and wrong for each other, while our moral faculties collapse when left alone. “For man, when perfected, is the best of animals,” Aristotle argues, “but, when separated from law and justice, he is the worst of all.”
The difference between Rick and Morgan’s lives could be Aristotle’s exhibit A. While Morgan nearly killed Rick (twice!) for essentially no reason, Rick nursed him back to sanity. Morgan, who when introduced in season one appeared morally exemplary, had lost his ethical compass. “People like you, the good people? They always die,” he tells Rick. The survival of Rick’s group says otherwise, and goes a long way towards showing why, despite the dangers of war with other groups, the members of Rick’s little band need their little city after all.
While the dangers of holding people alone have been well-known since Aristotle’s time, the US prison system still routinely locks people away in solitary. Over 80,000 people are currently living in what’s euphemistically called “segregated housing,” including children and at least one person who’s been held alone for 42 years. The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture has advised against extraditing suspects to the US who will likely be held in solitary, on grounds that, as you might have guessed, it’s torture.
In a world without these kinds of legal structures, there’s also a more obvious need to have others around. At the beginning of Sunday’s episode, we see a man sprinting after Rick’s car desperately calling for help while they coldly drive by. At the end, they come across to his bloody backpack, and stop only to scavenge his supplies.
Sometimes, hell is the lack of other people.