Monday, February 27, 2017

The Walking Dead: Miles Behind Us

The first volume of The Walking Dead ended with the death of Shane, and there is no way that the second is going to let us forget that. We immediately get a flashback scene to the start of Lori's affair with Shane, which is in turn linked to the notion that to live during the apocalypse inevitably changes a person. Rick describes the change in Shane's character as "drastic," but that undersells it by quite a bit. It would be more accurate to describe Shane's descent as a "monstrous" change of heart. But even Shane's sudden, horrific willingness to kill his best friend is given an understandable explanation: the stress of survival is transformative, and whatever alterations it brings pose profound dangers to the self and the cohesive of the social units to which they belong. Any individual person can only endure so much before the breaking point makes them a liability to the survival of the group and an internal threat. Stress we cannot cope with makes us the enemy within.

As a way of exploring the idea that the group's survival is dependent on the individual's ability to handle stress, The Walking Dead starts loading its protagonist with new stresses to illustrate that not even a square-jawed hero is immune to the eruption of personal demons. First, Rick learns that Lori is pregnant. If the world hadn't gone to hell, this would be cause for celebration; but in a zombie-plagued landscape where the living are hanging on by a thread, being in the family way pushes new obstacles and concerns to the forefront for a guy who is already expected to provide for and protect both his immediate family and the larger familial unit of the group. When Lori and Rick break their news to the group, no one knows how to respond because, given the context, this isn't a joyous occasion. Of course, because The Walking Dead is a soap opera at heart, Lori's pregnancy carries an additional layer of stress in that Rick can't be sure that the baby is his. 

When The Walking Dead starts piling it on one character, it really unloads on them. With the prospect of a difficult addition to his family on his mind, Rick also has to deal with his son Carl getting shot during a hunting accident. This is the incident that pushes Rick past his personal breaking point and reveals that, although it might take more to get him there, he has the same sort of monstrosity lurking under his heroic exterior that we have already seen unleashed through Shane's murderous breakdown. Rick's blind rage and willingness to kill Otis for shooting his son is understandable, but it also delineates that even a good man might not hesitate to pull the trigger when the thing he clings to is being taken away from him. Perhaps we get a sense of why Lori is drawn to both Shane and Rick; they aren't so different, after all.

Of course, Rick doesn't end up killing Otis, but it's easy to imagine that if he did it would have a disastrous impact on the group's stability. Knowing what we do about Rick's sentimentality and hidden fragility, it is likely that he would soon spiral out of control and leave the group without its linchpin. The comic gives us a displaced version of how Rick might hypothetically response to loss; Allen's nearly-complete emotional shut down after the death of Donna could be taken as an alternate universe version of Rick's fate should he lose Carl, Lori, and his internal moral compass. Indeed, this chapter of the story gives us another instance of a good man who is pushed too far by hellish circumstances; after the death of his son and daughter in the barn, Hershel snaps and draws down on Rick the same way that Shane drew down on Rick and in the same way that Rick drew down on Otis.

Much of the stress depicted in this chapter is directly related to the assumption that if the group is it to survive it must have a leader who is both stereotypically male and stereotypically capable. Dale reveals that the reason the group hadn't moved camp earlier was because Shane--the default masculine authority--didn't endorse the idea. Now that Rick has assumed the role left vacant by Shane's death, it all falls to him to be the locus of authority they seem to expect and desire. Dale makes it clear that it has to be Rick: Dale is too old (and therefore too weak), Glenn is too young (and therefore not yet truly a man), and Allen is simply too incompetent (he later reveals that Donna wore the pants in their family, which is a damning sin according to the patriarchal order being established here). The oddest part of the exchange between Rick and Dale about the need for a man to lead them to the promised land of safety is that Rick doesn't question the imposition of the role or even the worldview behind it. Rick also seems to believe that the role is a natural requirement and that he is the obvious candidate to take on the mantle.

With all of this potentially fatal stress buffeting the group at every turn, the characters use sex as their release valve. There is a massive, and obvious, emphasize on sex, pair bonding, and the need for physical and emotional intimacy even in close quarters in this volume. Dale and Andrea are spotted having sex as a way of getting through Amy's death; Glenn and Maggie have sex to boost Glenn's feelings of inadequacy and give Maggie something of her own not related to her family; Chris and Julie have sex as a form of rebellion against life under what they perceive to be Tyreese's thumb; Tyreese immediately pairs off with Carol beause both need reaffirmation after their personal losses. Even the interactions of Carl and Sophie are viewed by the adults in the group through this lens; there is a heightened level of projection here that assumes that the children will ultimately end up together because they will inevitably need to rely on each other in the same way that the adults currently need each other as physical and emotional reassurance.

However, as much as sex is one of the few pleasures they have recourse to in an anhedonic world, it is an imperfect form of release. Sex can function like any other stressor for the group and can threaten the group dynamic. Rick's worries over Lori's pregnancy, to say nothing of his anxieties that another rooster has been in the hen house, are the most stark illustration of this, but it crops up for the other characters as well. The introduction of Tyreese and the ease with which Tyreese catches Carol's attention puts Glenn in a mindset where he reconsiders his sense of belonging within the group; the sexual relationship between Chris and Julie sets Tyreese on edge because it is a facet of the social dynamic he's not fully in control of; catching Glenn with Maggie is the event that pushes Hershel into ejecting Rick's group from the safety of his farm. Sex, physical contact, and pleasure are things we cling to when the world upends, but they also leverage already extant cleavages in the social dynamic--pairing off with one person is always already a matter of exclusion, and exclusion is a luxury that survivors don't have.

From the hip:

  • It's interesting that the introduction of Tyreese--a powerful, former NFL player--doesn't shake up the masculine pecking order established earlier in the comic. He doesn't seem to challenge Rick's leadership of the group in any meaningful way. Is it assumed that the leader of the group will be white and this is just an unspoken part of the job's requirements?
  • The depiction of Glenn as not masculine enough to be a leader is reinforced by the later revelation that he is a virgin. But now that he's got some stank on his hang-low I'm curious to see how his place in the larger narrative evolves. Also worth noting: Glenn isn't positioned as a potential leader and he's also not a white guy.
  • I stopped watching the tv adaption of The Walking Dead once they reached the farmhouse because their stay there seemed interminable. The comic handles this episode at a much brisker pace; the comic's depiction of those events is quicker moving and ultimately more satisfying because of it.