*WARNING: Spoiler Alert*

If life is purely about survival then worth and value is only ascribed to a very narrow set of things. In the post-apocalyptic world of The Walking Dead there is a lot of conversation about what constitutes “living.” The things that once held meaning no longer matter and the things that once held value no longer hold such value. As the characters focus constantly on survival their world shrinks, and as it does they find that though they are still alive, what they have does not always constitute a life. The ultimate goal of survival devalues the rest of life.

The focus on survival can certainly be appreciated when you’re being pursued by the dead and threatened by the living. The days of the prison are over for our main characters. There’s no more “spaghetti Tuesdays,” no more farming, no more friendly breakfasts around the table. “Every direction is a question,” says Abraham. Survival is the only thing that matters right now as they roam the open streets and scavenge for food. They must survive, and that need has become all consuming. “We will get through this because we have to,” he says. But what do you do if you’re just not built for this world? What if you’re not a survivor?

That’s the question that plagues Eugene in episode  five of season five. “I am no Samson,” he tells the others as they poke fun at this hair. He’s afraid, and that paralyzing fear is part of his very nature. “It isn’t voluntary,” he tells Tara. He has no confidence in his ability to survive this world. “I know empirically and definitively that I cannot survive on my own, I cannot!” His value, even in his own mind, is contingent upon his ability to get to D.C. and cure the disease. “If I don’t cure the disease, if I don’t save the world, I have no value…If I don’t fix things there’s no way you people would keep me around, share resources, even protect me.”

What value does a man like Eugene possess in this world? “Some people just aren’t meant for this world,” Officer Dawn had told Beth. That truth doesn’t bother Officer Dawn, but it does bother her if those people drag the rest of them down. If those who can’t survive become a hindrance to the rest of the team then what value are they? When life is all about survival there’s no room for those who can’t survive. Eugene is like the painting in Dr. Edwards’ office. “It doesn’t have a place anymore,” he tells Beth. It was just on the sidewalk, like a piece of useless trash. “Art is about transcendence,” it’s about being more than animals. But if survival is all that matters there can be no transcendence.

It is this realization that drives Eugene to lie. He gives himself value through fiction. In some ways he utilizes art, in this case storytelling, to give himself value in this natural existence. In a surprising twist even in a world as pragmatically driven as this one art still has a place. Yet it is a very reductionist place. The value of art, like the value of Eugene is entirely based upon survival. Life is consistently devalued by that goal.

Viewers have witnessed the increasing devaluation of life across all five seasons. In season two Shane became so focused on survival that he had no qualms about shooting Otis and leaving him for “walker bait.” The Governor was the same way, using people to advance his own agendas and keep his community alive. The most evident example of this devaluation of life for the cause of survival is found among the Termites. They were so bent on survival that outsiders were viewed as nothing more than food. Abraham too, in this episode, is so bent on survival that he is ready to walk straight into a hoard of walkers. “We don’t go back,” he screams as the others protest. The ultimate goal of survival, in this case of getting Eugene to Washington to save the world, could end up getting Abraham and his team killed.

The psychology of survival speaks of the “will to live.” This “will to live” is a mental motivation to fight for survival. Though there is debate around the legitimacy of the idea, the phrase captures an important element of the survivalist mentality. When life is threatened a defense mechanism is triggered that blocks out all unnecessary desires. A pragmatism takes hold that focuses the survivor’s attention on doing all that he can to stay alive. This defense mechanism narrows the interests and essentially the world of the would-be-survivor. He must live, and so there is no room for the non-essential at this point. This is the mentality that engulfs the characters of The Walking Dead. Abraham spoke of it as strength. He said:

Kinda at the point where everyone alive is strong now…They’re either strong and can help you and so you help them. Or they’re strong and they can kill you, so you gotta kill them.

This is the survivalist mentality. People are enablers or impediments. They can either help you survive or they must be eliminated. There is no middle ground. People are not people in this world, survival dictates that they can’t be. There’s no room for that kind of transcendent love and relationship in the world of “staying alive.”

There are some who fight against this trend. Tara insists that the group would love and care for Eugene even if he couldn’t save the world. The group’s attempt to protect Eugene from Abraham’s rage is a hopeful continuation of Tara’s insistence, but only time will tell if it continues. Among the rest of the group there are others who still cling to the belief in transcendence, who still value more than just surviving, Beth, Carl, and Tyrese among them. They believe in some form of transcendent love, a love that trumps even staying alive.

Survival devalues the rest of life. It can’t love people. It can’t treasure art and beauty. It can’t risk unnecessarily. When survival is all that matters very few things have worth and value. And though a survival mentality may keep you alive, in truth it’s not really living.

1 Comment

Comments are now closed for this article.