by Savana Newton, Ball State University
It’s down to survival of the fittest in AMC’s The Walking Dead (TWD), where only those with the loosest morals can make it out alive. The characters in the show adhere to virtually no moral rules, either in the ways they torture/kill the walkers (zombies) and or they brutally treat the remainder of humanity. The series’ most recent season has really taken a hit in the ratings department, which is most likely due to the show’s glacial pace and the overuse of the same tired storyline. Since season three, the show has focused on Rick Grimes and his patchwork family coming across increasingly disturbed groups that drive Rick’s family to further eviscerate any remaining morality that they have retained in this post-apocalyptic world. Those that wish to keep their soul untarnished, to cling to some sort of moral standing, will find themselves the newest dead thing on the show. Which brings us to the most recent travesty, the death of Carl Grimes. Sweet, pudding-eating, idealistic Carl is no longer among the living because he chose to save the life of a stranger over maintaining his own safety. In this short blog post, I will be focusing specifically on the episodes “Honor” and “The Lost and the Plunderers” and looking at how Rick and the group’s current adversary Negan handle Carl’s death and his last wishes, as well as what these choices say about our society as a whole.
Carl is not the first person with a moral-compass to bite the dust, far from it in fact. In season two, RV-owning and Hawaiian shirt wearing Dale dared to demand the group spare the life a young boy they were considering executing (Judge, Jury, Executioner). Dale’s concerns for the boy’s life were brushed off, causing him to demand, “So, the answer is to kill him to prevent a crime he may never even commit?! If we do this, we are saying there is no hope. Rule of law is dead. There is no civilization” (Judge, Jury, Executioner). And yet the group forged forward and killed the boy anyway. One episode after Dale’s final stand for morality, he was disemboweled by a cow-eating walker. In season four, god fearing Hershel mediated between impulsive-Rick and the villainous Governor, but was beheaded for his mediation efforts (Too Far Gone). These two men are not the only example but certainly two of the most prevalent.
James Berger states in his study After the End that many fantasize about the apocalypse because they believe “It would unmistakably separate good from evil, true from false. The apocalypse would replace the moral and epistemological murkiness of life as it is with a post-apocalyptic world in which all identities and values are clear” (8). Yet in this show nothing could be further from the truth. It would seem that the lesson The Walking Dead wishes for their viewers to take is that being moral or ethical or in any way idealistic is futile and a waste of time. The point of view that this show displays is radically different from what Berger sees in much post-apocalyptic writing. In this case, the apocalypse further muddies the line between right and wrong.
Carl has seen all of this, has lived through all of this, and has been up close and personal with the monster himself, Negan. And that amazing boy still believed that there was hope, that if he could set up a dialogue between Negan and his father that they could all co-exist peacefully. Carl was not always so forward thinking; in fact he used to lean towards a more ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ ideology, even going so far as to have shot an unarmed boy who had surrendered (Welcome to the Tombs). Yet he moves so far beyond this to the point where he saves a stranger simply because it was the right thing to do (The King, the Widow and Rick). Then he uses himself as a distraction when Negan and his people attack Alexandria (the group’s current home) so that everyone else can get away (How It’s Gotta Be).
In ‘Honor’ Carl attempts to impart his hard-won wisdom to Rick, “You put away your gun, how you stopped fighting, it was right. It still is. You can still be like that again.” Regardless of the importance of these words, Rick has always been hard-headed. In “The Lost and Plunderers,” Rick not only leaves a woman for dead but radios up Negan and says, “He asked you to stop, he asked me to stop, he asked us for peace. But it’s too late for that. Even if we wanted a deal now it doesn’t matter. I’m gonna kill you.” This message ends any possibility of an accord. Negan, to his credit, at least laments how his future plans for Carl are ruined and that “he was the future” and then calls out Rick on how his “shit decisions cause him to lose everyone he loves.” And Negan’s not exactly wrong. A lot of this all comes down to Rick and his inability to know when to quit. But going beyond that, the show articulates the idea that all efforts for moral reasoning are worthless and will in fact get you killed. Violence is the only answer.
After Glenn’s BRUTAL murder and the desecration and sheer debasement that was Carl’s death, I think it is fair to say that The Walking Dead has become a performance piece that makes a mockery of everything good humanity can be. Thus, the show negates the kind of post-apocalyptic visions that Berger explores and proves that the only ideal merit is “survival of the fittest” since moral murkiness is the key clause of the post-apocalypse shown in TWD. The show has gone beyond its original precept of displaying how people “might” function with the loss of civilization, beyond showing a real portrayal of anything, simply depicting a farcical caricature of what could happen after the end.
Berger, James. After the End: Representations of Post-Apocalypse. University of Minnesota Press, 2005.
Darabont, Frank, and Robert Kirkman. The Walking Dead, AMC, 31 Oct. 2010.
“Honor.” The Walking Dead, created by Frank Darabont and Robert Kirkman, season 8 episode 9, AMC, 25 February 2018.
“How It’s Gotta Be.” The Walking Dead, created by Frank Darabont and Robert Kirkman, season 8, episode 8, AMC, 10 December 2017.
“Judge, Jury, Executioner.” The Walking Dead, created by Frank Darabont and Robert Kirkman, season 2, episode 11, AMC, 4 March 2012.
“The King, the Widow and Rick.” The Walking Dead, created by Frank Darabont and Robert Kirkman, season 8, episode 6, AMC, 26 November 2017.
“The Lost and the Plunderers.” The Walking Dead, created by Frank Darabont and Robert Kirkman, season 8, episode 10, AMC, 4 March 2018.
“Too Far Gone.” The Walking Dead, created by Frank Darabont and Robert Kirkman, season 4, episode 8, AMC, 1 December 2014.
“Welcome to the Tombs.” The Walking Dead, created by Frank Darabont and Robert Kirkman, season 3, episode 16, AMC, 31 March 2013.