Tuesday, June 27, 2017

This Sorrowful Life

Part six of our read-through of the collected volumes of The Walking Dead. Read the rest of the series here.

This Sorrowful Life begins with Rick, Glenn, and Michonne still imprisoned in Woodbury, but their imprisonment doesn't last long. Martinez, a former gym teacher and current citizen of Woodbury, helps Rick's crew escape--and they take along Dr. Stevens and Alice as well. The escape from Woodbury, and the Governor's clutches, is easy--too easy, in fact.

However, before we move away from Woodbury we get one last view of the way the Governor leverages the violence of his gladiatorial arena as part of his bread-and-circuses regime. After one of his usual arena combatants gets offed by another for smashing out the latter's teeth, the Governor approaches Michonne about "performing" in the arena for the populace's amusement. He sets the ground rules--they want to see a violent struggle, but no one is supposed to get seriously hurt. This is entertainment, and a way of channeling the citizens' violent impulses in a controllable direction instead of letting them coalesce into resistance to his rule.

But when it comes down to the arena fight, nothing can contain Michonne's deadly prowess; she kills her opponent, and destroys all the "biters" in the ring as well. This sequence illustrates Michonne's skill with a blade, but it also draws attention to the shaky dividing line between the kind of violence we're willing to accept as entertaining spectacle and the kind of violence we find gratuitous and wish to exclude where possible from our culture. 

The rules the Governor set before the "match" were meant to police that dividing line. He has a good sense of where the line is; after Michonne's massacre, one of the onlookers complains to him that the violence of the night's performance has overstepped the bounds--it went too far and wasn't the kind of violence acceptable for her children to see. Of course, the implicit critique troubles all sorts of arbitrary divisions we've erected regarding violence: is this a PG-13 movie or an R movie?; does this album or video game need an advisory label on it?; why are we more permissive about violence in general but puritanical about sex?; etc.

Although the rest of the group makes their departure from Woodbury, Michonne opts to stay behind to get payback on the Governor. At first, her confrontation with the Governor has the hallmarks of a classic standoff--which one of them will get to the katana first and kill the other?--but it quickly devolves into a torture-porn sequence in which Michonne uses pliers, a hammer, an acetylene torch, a spoon, and a power drill to exact revenge on the Governor for beating and raping her repeatedly. It's a deeply unpleasant sequence that leaves the Govenor maimed and dismembered.

And yet, despite its grotesquery, the Governor's torture rings a little hollow. It doesn't provide catharsis; the barbarism of the scene doesn't weigh itself against the brutality done to Michonne as a way of balancing the scales. Michonne realizes this herself--she vomits at the degradation she's inflicting and gains more trauma to deal with rather than purging the violation she suffered at the Governor's hands. If this scene is meant to emphasize the idea that people who are subjected to monstrous violence become violent monsters themselves, it's underscoring an idea the comic has already leaned on heavily in past issues. This particular depiction feels graphic for the sake of being graphic, like the comic is toying with the boundary between titillating its reader through ultraviolence while attempting to be critical of how, why, and on what terms we vicariously encounter violent media, but as much as that dovetails to the earlier questions raised about violence-as-entertainment in Woodbury (and Western culture in general), it also feels like it's raising questions it isn't really prepared to answer.

Back at the prison, Rick, Alice, Glenn, and Martinez arrive to discover that the safe haven has been overrun by zombies. (Dr. Stevens didn't make it there; we barely knew ye, Doc.) The zombies get pushed back, and it turns out everybody is okay. (Except Otis. Which one was he again? Oh, right, the racist one. We also hardly knew ye.) Once order is restored at the prison, Rick realizes why they had such an easy time escaping Woodbury: Martinez was helping them so that he could learn the location of the prison and then bring his people from Woodbury to it as well.

Rick heads out to catch Martinez before he can bring word of the prison's location back to Woodbury. Rick runs Martinez down with the RV and then strangles him to death with his one remaining good hand. Later, Rick explains to Lori how effortless it was for him to kill Martinez, even though Martinez was probably being honest about wanting to provide a new start for the "good" citizens of Woodbury (rather than the Governor's psychopaths). 

Rick doesn't really care about Martinez's motives; as he says, he feels nothing at having murdered a man. All of this should be harder hitting stuff, but like all of the other "a violent world diminishes our sense of humanity" themes currently orbiting around Michonne's plotline, we've seen this all before--and often in ways that were more subtle, compelling, and gut-wrenching. I'm a little worried that the series is running out of gas at this point and recycling its central themes. Put it this way: the return of Nihilist Rick does not hit as hard as the introduction of Nihilist Rick.

From the hip:
  • There is no way that we've seen the last of the Governor, even though Michonne messed him up royally. I won't believe he's gone until we see the corpse.
  • When Rick runs off, leaving his family behind once again, Carl voices a question that the reader has likely been asking for a while now: if Rick is so concerned with protecting his family, why does he leave them alone and unguarded so often?
  • The first interaction One-Hand Rick has with Tyreese is Tyreese remarking that Rick is now less of an alpha male due to his disability. It's okay, though; they later make up and are bros again. But can they shake on it?
  • The introduction of Alice as a character who can help pregnant Lori give birth is a tad bit convenient.
  • Is Glenn looting dead bodies to find a wedding ring so he can propose to Maggie morbid or sweet? Jury's out.
  • Remember how I was talking about how all the references to the prison as a castle were priming the series for the introduction of a siege storyline? Called it! I mean, come on, it was like Chekov's gun.