*WARNING: Spoiler Alert

The brokenness of the world has a way of hardening people. There are times where I readily recognize just how cynical I have become. I have to fight not to become so jaded that I lose all compassion and sympathy. I suspect that this is true for many people. The realities of our broken world can shape us and change us in dramatic ways. Regular viewers of The Walking Dead are certainly seeing that happen to our main characters in season five. The longer they are out roaming this world the more they are hardened by it.

At the very beginning of episode eight Officer Bob warns Rick, “You’ve been out here too long.” This world has changed Rick. He has reached a place in his interactions with others where they get one strike, and then they’re out. “All you had to do was stop,” Rick tells Officer Bob. When he doesn’t stop, Rick hits him with a car and eventually shoots him in the head. There are no second chances with Rick.  “Take me back to the hospital,” Bob pleads with Rick. He says he can still try to iron things over with Dawn, but Rick won’t hear it. “You can’t go back Bob, not after this.” Surprisingly, we recall that these same words were uttered by Gareth to Bob Stookey. “You can’t go back Bob.” It’s not that Rick is as bad as Gareth, but he’s not the same man he was when things started out.

The contrast between characters is increasingly evident too. Father Gabriel remains shocked by the horrific ways in which people in this new world can act. Bob’s amputated leg, which the Termites cooked several episodes back, stares up at him in this episode. It’s a stark reminder of the wickedness of people in this world. He went to that school, he says, because he “had to see, had to know.” He can’t believe that the world is the way it is. He can’t believe that Rick is the way he is. The school confirms his worst nightmares.

Of course these characters weren’t always this bad. The world has hardened them, changed them. Dawn represents well the kind of change these characters can undergo. She was a police officer just doing her job. Now she has become obsessed with keeping the hospital. She’ll do whatever it takes to keep things in order. She has her justifications. She lets some of the officers rape her wards, because after all you’ve got to keep those officers happy. She will kill, let people die, and imprison people, all in the name of “keeping this thing going.” The depths to which she will go are revealed in this episode as she talks about killing her mentor and friend, and then allows for another old friend to be killed. Officer O’Donnell threatens Dawn, “You’re cracking, this is Hanson all over again. It’s time to make a change.” Dawn will have to kill him too, even if they are old friends. O’Donnell recounts their friendship:

We were rookies together. You were here in this hospital having cigars with me in the parking lot when my kid was born.

Yet here she stands, gun raised at her friend, ready to fire. She’s not the same person. “After Hanson, you changed,” he says to her. Of course, so has O’Donnell. “That guy is gone,” Dawn tells him. The guy she used to know has been exchanged for someone else. “We’re supposed to protect people, help them,” she says, “but look at you.” O’Donnell is now the guy who beats up old men, and laughs with his buddies about rape. “That’s who you are,” Dawn says. This world has changed them both. It has changed them all.

One of the more difficult questions to answer about the universe of The Walking Dead revolves around change. Can a person maintain their pre-apocalyptic self in this post-apocalyptic world? “I was like you when I was younger,” Dawn says to Beth. Tyrese wonders aloud about this very question. He says to Sasha:

I remember when we were kids you used to follow me around copying every little thing I did. What happened to both of us, maybe it’s because we still the same, just like we were back then. And maybe that’s good.

Tyrese is the same, Sasha says. But she’s not. “I don’t think I can be, not anymore.” The continual barrage of loss and heartbreak has so changed Sasha that she can’t go back. That’s the reality for many of these characters. The longer they roam this world the more they are hardened by it. The continual loss of hope has been a major factor in their changes.

Repeatedly they have clung to something for hope. In season one it was the CDC. In season two it was the farm. In season three it was the prison. In season four it was normalcy. They have hoped in each other all along the way. This season they put their hopes in Washington. Each time they have hoped, the broken world in which they live has destroyed that hope. The longer they roam this world without hope the more hardened they become. Beth herself became hard at the end of this episode. “Nothing’s gonna be okay,” she says. She sits in the doorway of the elevator shaft telling Dawn that the world will never change.

You keep telling yourself you have to do whatever it takes just until this is all over, but it isn’t over. This is it. This is who you are and what this place is until the end.

As hope slips away from her she dramatically changes. She becomes so hard that by the end of the episode she is able to stab Dawn, a decision that ultimately gets her killed. Life without hope will lead you to death eventually.

Life without hope will always dramatically change a person. There is unbelievable power in hope. It motivates, empowers, rescues, and retains us. Hope keeps the hardening at bay and directs us towards the restoration of all things. It is why the New Testament speaks so frequently of the future. The world is broken and the longer we roam this broken world the more it hardens us against grace, against truth, against compassion. We need to believe in that bright future of promise. We have to cling to the promised restoration of all things, or we too will become hardened. It will be interesting to see what renews hope in these characters. They can’t stay this way for too long. Their hearts are certainly hard now, but hope is powerful. It is so powerful that it can soften even an exceedingly hard heart. These characters need that hope restored, for the longer they roam this world without it the more they change for the worse.

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