My husband used to fret that I was convinced civilization was about to collapse because I watched zombie movies, but he had it backwards. Having grown up in 1950s and ’60s Detroit, I saw firsthand how fragile even apparently solid social infrastructures can be, and ours seem particularly vulnerable these days. To pick just three existential threats out of a very large hat, hackers are poised to shut down the Internet, a foreign dictator plays chicken with nukes while an American presidential candidate keeps asking why we don’t use ours, and a global refugee crisis makes homelessness in New York City look manageable by comparison. That’s why I love stories about the zombie apocalypse: They’re a safe way to explore my fears about the breakdown of society, and to imagine how we might rebuild our lives and create communities after a major disaster.
One of The Walking Dead’s most consistent strengths is the social systems it conjures up, with Rick’s (Andrew Lincoln) group representing one reaction to the collapse of civilization—creating a family-like community of warriors—and every other group they come across representing another. As season seven of the series opens, Rick’s group is aware of more human colonies than ever before—not just their gated community of Alexandria, but also the Hilltop. And then there’s the ironically named Sanctuary, the roost ruled by Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a murderous psychopath so powerfully evil that his systematic breakdown of Rick’s group in this episode is difficult to watch.
Negan’s black-hearted lack of humanity is the logical end game of a series that has been consistently interested in the question of how to be a moral person in this unforgiving world, where turning the other cheek or granting people the benefit of the doubt can be a death sentence for yourself or your comrades—a question that’s been gaining urgency throughout the run of The Walking Dead. In the show’s early seasons, the doubts some characters raised about the sometimes morally dubious lengths to which Rick and his group went to survive were easy to dismiss. That’s partly because the killings were motivated purely by self-defense, but also because those who expressed doubts—like Father Gabriel, and several Alexandria residents—weren’t so much pacifists as passive, too frightened or “soft” to put down a walker. Their inaction was at least as morally compromised as Rick and company’s militancy, since it endangered the people around them.
Season six of the series introduced conscientious objectors who were harder to dismiss. When Morgan, Rick’s old mentor and protector, showed up at Alexandria, his new stance of principled nonviolence challenged the group’s matter-of-fact bloodthirstiness in a way Rick couldn’t just brush past. And Carol, whose badass bona fides were established many times over, gives in to the self-doubt the expressive Melissa McBride has hinted at for a long time, her anguished crisis of faith was spurred by guilt over killings that she—and we, more than likely—saw as justified at the time.
The bleak mockery of a community that Negan forces the group to acquiesce to in “The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be,” and the tortures he submits them to, make any moral qualms they may have suffered in the past pale to the point of near absurdity. And yet it was a morally questionable choice made by Rick’s group that opened them up to the full force of Negan’s black fury: They agreed to wipe out the Saviors in exchange for supplies, the first time they’d ever killed except in self-defense.
Which brings us to the conclusion of the cliffhanger AMC has been holding over us for six months, like an electronic version of Negan’s bat, Lucille. I was braced for Glenn (Steven Yeun) to get the bat, mainly because his death had been foreshadowed so many times before, not just in the cliffhanger from last season that saw him stranded atop a dumpster, but way back to that flu in the third season that nearly killed him. But I hadn’t expected it to be preceded by Abraham’s (Michael Cudlitz). And really, can anything prepare you for seeing two faces you’ve been watching for years reduced to puddles of blood and gore—let alone the final insult Rick sees in his rear-view mirror, of a hungry walker dropping to its knees to lap one of them up? Or that God-testing-Abraham-like scene of Rick being ordered to chop off Carl’s wrist?
Judging by the torrent of angry comments and stories about Glenn’s presumed death and reemergence last season, most fans think it was a sadistic ploy by the show to gin up ratings. I don’t doubt that it was done mainly to create buzz, but I wonder if it may have been more merciful than sadistic. After all, having already mourned Glenn’s death softened last night’s blow just a bit, and Glenn’s return last season gave us a little unexpected time with him (just the thing we always long for after the death of someone you care about), before he left us for good. And at least Abraham got some merciful resolution in season six, coming to terms with the pain of his wife and children’s death in one episode, reconciling with Eugene in another, and moving toward a relationship with Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green) in which the two were feeling hopeful enough to talk about having babies together.
But there’s no mercy in this episode. Every quick cut of a peaceful and happy time—including, most poignantly, Rick’s brief visualization of Negan’s taunt about how the group imagined themselves all sitting around a table enjoying a meal as they grew old together—is a sliver of the lost past or a vision of a future that can now never happen. As legendary comedian John Cleese points out in his very funny summary of the first six seasons of The Walking Dead, the most important thing to remember while watching the show is that there are no safe places in this world. And the corollary to that rule is: There can be no complacent people. The moment someone starts to settle into a comfy routine, you can be sure there’s a bloody death in his or her future.
Accustomed to beating the odds and secure in their bonds to each other, Rick and his group had begun to believe that they could handle anything. And The Walking Dead’s audience wanted to believe that they were right, as we’ve been trained by nearly everything else in our culture to privilege hope and to expect the impossible from our heroes. Negan’s ferocious sadism is a devastating reminder to us all that, when social systems break down, the leadership void is often filled by sociopathic strong men.
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