Each week in “Walking with the Dead,” David Dunham reflects on the latest episode of AMC’s The Walking Dead.

Who are the walking dead? It’s the perennial question of the show and the graphic novel. The monsters of this story are not always as easy to discern as they might seem at first. “We’ve all done the worst kind of things just to survive,” Rick says. The list of worst kinds of things is pretty bad, and everyone has their own list. There’s a little bit of monster in all these characters, which makes it sometimes difficult to determine who the good guys really are.

You can’t live in this world without getting blood on your hands, or teeth. Carol has murdered some of their own group, including shooting a little girl. Carl shot a kid in face while he was surrendering. Daryl tortured a boy. In the Season Four finale the “monster” revelations just keep coming. We learn the story behind Michonne’s pets. She cut up her lover and her friend. She chained them up and dragged them around behind her. Rick’s revelation is the most disturbing. When backed into a corner the monster comes out in full-force. He rips a man’s jugular out with his teeth, and brutally butchers the man who assaulted his son. He looks more like a walker in that moment than a man.

It’s more than just looks too. He is a monster; he confesses it, owns it. When Daryl tries to convince Rick he’s not evil, he won’t hear it. “Hey, what you did last night, anybody would have done that,” Daryl reassures him. “No, not that,” Rick responds. Again Daryl tries, “That aint you.” But Rick knows better. He knows his heart, and he’s seen these actions play out before. “Daryl, you saw what I did to Tyreese. It aint all of it, but that’s me.” Rick knows he’s a monster, at least in part. It’s not something created simply by his circumstances, not simply something he did, it’s part of his character. Michonne isn’t any different. She confesses it. With her pets she was moving among the walkers like “just another monster.” “That was me,” she says, “I was gone for a long time.” Add to this growing list Carl’s own confession and we see a world of monsters, both living and dead.

It’s been this way from the beginning. The guys Rick shot in the bar when he went to find Herschel in Season Two, they were monsters. The Governor was most assuredly a monster. The Claimed Gang that Daryl was running with this season were another set of monsters. We’ve seen lots bad people throughout this story. But this season finale tells us our beloved heroes, our main characters, they’re bad people too. It’s a shocking reveal.

What makes it so shocking is that we’ve seen the other side of these characters. They’re not so one dimensional. Michonne knows the truth of their complexity. She knows that Rick is “okay” because she knows that she is too. “You don’t have to be afraid of me,” she tells Carl, “or him” – meaning Rick. The evil isn’t all there is to them. Even Rick is clear that he does what he has to do to keep his son alive. The monster is important. “That’s why I am still here. That’s how I keep Carl safe, that’s all that matters.” He’s not just blood-thirsty, or maniacal. Rick is not the Governor.

In fact, that seems to be the point of the periodic flashbacks. Farmer Rick is clearly very different from the monster, and yet both are part of who he is. Both represent the lengths and depths to which Rick will go to rescue his son. That’s all that matters. It’s not that this motivation necessarily makes the acts themselves moral. There is an objective morality, but it’s not always that simple for us to discern it. It’s easy to call the Governor a “bad guy,” or to say that the Claimed Gang was wicked. But we hesitate to call Rick an outright monster. We know his actions are extreme, that they have serious consequences – not the least of which is how they will impact Carl. Yet, we are much slower to call the man himself wicked.

Ethical decision making is not always simple. Philosophers have often attempted to simplify the morality question by highlighting one particular approach to ethics. Deontologists say it is simply about following the rules consistently and perfectly. Situational ethicists, in turn, argue that the context determines the morality of the decision. Others, like Sartre, argued that all that mattered was the ethical self-seeking authenticity. We know, however, it’s not that easy. Rick knows it too. Not everyone will rip out a man’s jugular. Ethical decision making in this world is complicated. There’s a lot that goes into thinking rightly about the morality of these people and their actions. There is something in us as viewers that is both unsettled and gratified by what we saw in that scene, which speaks to the complexity of our own morality.

The Walking Dead constantly calls us not merely to think about the humanity of these characters, but to think about our own humanity. My response to the unfolding events raises questions about who I am. Am I a monster too? We may rightly call upon the Scriptural teachings of Paul that we are all sinners (Rom. 3:23), that nothing good dwells in us (Rom. 7:18), and yet even monsters can do good things or have good reasons. Morality is complex. The season finale, reminds us that our morality is always complicated by our own brokenness and by the brokenness of our world.


3 Comments

  1. I thought the flashback sequencing with Herschel and Rick farming (in the small garden) in contrast to Rick’s current circumstances was very well done. Herschel tells Rick that it is by his actions that will show Carl the way.. he says ”He needs his father to show him the way. What way are you going to show him?” – then the scene is cut to Carl being held by Michonne as he sees his father ripping a person apart with his teeth. What did Rick show him?

    This episode was a stark reminder that we too live in a world that is far removed from the garden from whence we came.

  2. The part where Rick inserted himself into the neck wound he’d made was a little gratuitous I thought. Can’t believe AMC allowed that to air! Great episode otherwise, can’t wait for next week. :)

Comments are now closed for this article.