***Caution: The following contains spoilers for The Walking Dead, season 4.***
“Dad, You can’t keep me from it…from what always happens.”
Carl knows that in the post-apocalyptic world death and chaos always find their way back into the normal routine of life. Season four of The Walking Dead was one extended reminder of this reality. The brokenness of this world always finds you.
The question of redemption haunted the survivors last season. In episode one, Clara, a deranged mad woman living the woods, asks Rick, “Can you ever come back from what you’ve done?” At that moment in the season Rick’s answer was a resounding “yes.” He was living proof of it. Rick prioritized fatherhood and laid down his gun for a plowshare. He didn’t lead scavenging parties. He didn’t even kill walkers at the fence. He just raised pigs, planted crops, and fathered his son. He had come back. He had found redemption. He believed it was possible and he urged this hope on the Governor’s new army as they prowled at the prison fence waiting to attack. “We get to come back,” he pleads. “You put down your weapons, walk through those gates, and you’re one of us. We let go of all of it.” There’s hope and redemption possible for all.
The Governor didn’t believe it, even though he too sought redemption in season four. He tried to change his ways; he tried to make up for what he had done. He takes on a new family, a new community, even a new identity. In the end, however, there’s a sense of fatalism that overtakes him. “It was always gonna be like this,” he says as he prepares to launch another attack on the prison. There’s no change for him. It seems that as the season progressed there was no change for any of the other characters either.
After the prison’s destruction, hope is dashed, chaos ensues, and the brokenness of their world is brought back into full view. Cornelius Plantinga describes this as the “vandalizing of shalom.” The cycle of dashed hopes repeats itself again and again throughout the season.
When Carol, Tyreese, and the girls find a beautiful little home situated in a protected and flourishing meadow they experience a glimmer of hope. “My mom used to say things always have a way of working out,” Mika says as she runs up to the house. But all hope is dashed when Lizzy kills her hopeful sister Mika. Carol is then forced to shoot Lizzy. An act of both mercy and justice in this twisted broken world. It was easily the darkest moment of the season. It betrayed their hopes as well as ours. “We can’t stay here,” Tyreese says. Paradise is lost. No matter how hard they try they can’t return to the lives they had before. The brokenness of the world continues to find these characters.
Others experience it too. Beth and Daryl don’t get to stay long at the beautiful home they’ve found. Their momentary respite turns ugly when a hoard of walkers invades the house and Beth is kidnapped. Even the finale’s climactic moment, when many of our wandering characters are reunited at Terminus, turns out to be a trap. Mika was wrong. The world is not the way it’s supposed to be. Things don’t just work out. The de-shaloming of the world has left its mark and brokenness will always find you.
This resurgence of brokenness is most disturbing for Rick. By the time he rips a man’s jugular out with his own teeth, he has long since abandoned the farm. It is at this point that Rick embraces the monster in himself. Like the Governor, Rick has learned to embrace who he really is in order to protect and survive.
It was Martinez who reminded the Governor that you can’t escape the evil inside. “Some things you just can’t come back from. They become part of who you are. Either you live with them or you don’t.” The Governor accepted he was a monster. In season four’s finale, so does Rick. He can’t escape it. He can’t play farmer anymore. In his world, the plowshare must be set aside for the gun.
Though our dead rest in peace, the world of The Walking Dead echoes our own. The world is broken. Most of us know this and have a litany of examples that testify to it: divorce, school shootings, rape, racism, genocide. We experience this brokenness inwardly too: depression, mental illness, loneliness, self-loathing. Brokenness has a way of finding us. We can’t escape it, but we can fight through it. That’s what our protagonists do in The Walking Dead. They cling to hope, to faith, to each other, and find that they can persevere in the midst of chaos.
Faith becomes a dominant theme later in the season. Beth leans heavy on the faith of her father, now dead. Lines from her journal provide the voice-over for various scenes as she clings to faith. “We’re not gonna die. I believe now, I believe for daddy,” she wrote. When Tara asks Glen how he knows Maggie made it out of the prison alive, he can be honest. “I don’t,” he responds, “But Herschel, Maggie’s dad, said all I have to do is believe. That’s what I am going to do.”
Faith is a strong motivator for these characters. They believe. Not naively. Not like Rick when he had a blind optimism about the CDC in season one, or Sophia in season two. Rather, it is a faith that readily recognizes the brokenness of this world but sees the possibility for joy in its midst. And though there’s no return to paradise, no recapturing the peace of the prison, as the season ends the group is reunited. It’s not all lost, and Rick is not giving up. Despite the brokenness of their world, hope abounds as the season ends.
The Walking Dead never speaks simply about the fictional world of its existence. In its complexity, despite the backdrop of a zombie apocalypse, it speaks too about our world. It speaks about us as it reveals our aches and longings. Our world is broken, and yet our hopes need not be dashed. C.S. Lewis knew something of this tension. In The Problem of Pain he observed:
The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment, He has scattered broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy. It is not hard to see why. The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose any obstacles to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting out with friends, a bathe or a football match, have no such tendency. Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.
Joy exists even in this brokenness, but the brokenness points to a hope beyond it. The Walking Dead constantly explores this tension between sorrow and joy. Brokenness will find you, but it doesn’t have to destroy you.