Before this Sunday, the Walking Dead had seemed to suggest the brewing war between the two factions was nearly as much a tragic systemic failure as it was a byproduct of deep-seated hatred created by a long history of violence.
After Rick and the Governor’s meeting this week, the answer is clear: hatred is the root cause, but not in the simple, “out for revenge” way one might have assumed. Sunday’s episode was a lesson in how history and memory become overlaid with moral meaning, shaping how we perceive the world and decide to act when faced with hard choices.
We like to think of history as something clinical: people look at the past, scientifically discern its lessons, and distill them down to principles that guide them going forward. Milton was the night’s avatar of clinical history, awkwardly asking Hershel if he could see his amputated stump because “it’s important data” for future generations studying the zombie apocalypse. Hershel’s partly creeped out (“I’m not showing you my leg”), partly amused (“at least buy me a drink first”) reaction captures this approach’s alienness. People don’t see themselves as data; writing a history isn’t the same as compiling social science data.
Moreover, historical facts don’t speak for themselves: they require a lens of interpretation to be knit together into a sensible pattern. The central struggle between Rick and the Governor in “Arrow in the Doorpost” was over how the former should interpret the latter’s history. The Governor unsubtly pushes a narrative of himself as a decent man who never wanted anything that’s happened, sharing a heart-wrenching tale about his wife’s death and telling Rick “they chose me because I was the only guy around.” This kind of man, the Governor suggests, is one whom can be forgiven past transgressions: “I know all about you and you know all about me. I don’t care about any of that. We’re here to move forward.”
But Rick doesn’t buy it (at least, at first). It’s not only because the Governor’s strategic choices have betrayed a ruthless killer, though that certainly helped. No, the clearest piece of history that breaks the Governor’s frame apart is the memory of what he did to Maggie. The sexual assault of a helpless prisoner isn’t something that’s required by the exigencies of war or interrogation; it’s the kind of violation committed by a person who loves power and its assertion in the service of cruelty. When Andrea asks “What happened with Maggie?,” and Hershel answers “he’s a sick man,” you can almost literally see the scales drop from Andrea’s eyes (which, judging by the preview for next week, could have major ramifications down the line). Rick is never angrier at the Governor than when discussing his violence against Maggie.
Once the Governor’s violent past is put in proper context, his present falls starkly into relief. Maggie’s testimony creates a new moral frame for the Governor’s broader pattern of violence, an overlaid sinister sheen that makes him virtually impossible to trust. So Rick appears to reject the Governor’s Faustian “give me Michonne to torture, and I’ll call off the war” bargain, rightly anticipating something like the Governor’s plan to kill them all at the handoff.
But does he really? Beneath Rick’s strident rhetoric to the group (“He wants us gone. Dead…We’re going to war.”), he confesses to Hershel that he’s not sure if he’s making the right choice, ambiguously admitting to “hoping [Hershel] can talk me out of it.” Because, as the Governor pointed out in their meeting, there’s more moral history to contend with: the deaths of all the people on the way. So many of Rick’s friends and family have been killed so far, and the guilt — judging by his hallucinations — is crushing him. So when the Governor says cooperating “could save your son. Save your daughter. Everyone you know,” that risking their lives is entirely Rick’s “choice,” the logic is seductive. Which moral memory ends up wining out in Rick’s understanding of the present is, worryingly enough, up in the air.