Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Safety Behind Bars

The Walking Dead's group of survivors are, of course, in search of a safe haven--which leads them to an "abandoned" prison that seems like a good spot to stake a claim on. The prison has a lot to offer: secure walls, a stockpile of food, room for everyone to have at least a modicum of privacy, and land enough to start a self-sustaining farm. However, this is also a moment of irony: a prison is a place where we incarcerate the dangerous to keep the wider world safe, but now that the world has become unfathomably dangerous, the prison's thick walls become a place in which survivors incarcerate themselves for safety. There is also the implication that, whoever they may be, the inmates of a prison are always already dangerous. We might question whether a prison is actually the most thematically apt home for this particular group of characters.

Unmindful of the irony implicit in this situation, there is a preponderance of talk in this volume about civilization. When the characters speak about civilization they tend to talk in two directions; they speak about the reality of civilization's collapse and about civilization as a theoretical concept. Some of their talk strays into talking about civilization as a reified ideal. Rick's comments about the lack of civilization in the outside world during this apocalyptic moment is very telling: "From the looks of it, our government has crumbled. There's no communication, no resistance, any military presence, which I'll admit seems odd. It appears civilization is pretty well screwed." To Rick's mind, then, civilization equals the government and the military. It is something that can communicate to its constituents and it is something capable of resistance. Civilization is authority and control leveraged for the protection of the people.

Since Rick is a former policeman who still behaves as if he is on duty, this worldview makes sense for his character. Notice that he still wears his badge, as if it signifies anything without the society that lends it meaning. We've already seen him assume the mantle of authority by positioning himself as the surrogate of government and military force, and thus as the defender of an imperiled notion of civilization. Now that a potentially secure location seems to promise the opportunity to start a new life--their own private slice of civilization--Rick assumes more and more authority, but the assumption of leadership does not go as unquestioned as it did in the days when the group's survival was more in doubt.

Rick decides that he will return to Hershel's farm and get Hershel to bring what's left of his family to the prison. Although there is some talk of the prison being a better bet for the survival of Hershel's family, it feels like the real rationale is that the group will require Hershel's knowledge of farming to make a real go of transforming the prison into a community that doesn't depend on foraging for food in the dangerous world outside its gates. Rick never really stops to consider how Hershel might feel about packing up and moving to the prison. Hershel's skills are needed, and Rick sets out to make sure that his group will have access to them. That's not quite what we'd call civilization, but it is a combination of authority and force.

Rick's assumption of authority takes a darker turn when it is revealed that there is a killer in their midst. Hershel agreed to come to the prison at Rick's request, but there is a price to be paid for following what Rick thinks is best: two of his daughters are killed by someone within the prison walls. Blame immediately falls on Dexter, a black man who was imprisoned for the murder of his wife and the man she had taken up with. That's a crime of passion, not a cold-blooded murder like the one they're currently dealing with--but it doesn't matter, as the black man is considered a threat and his guilt is assumed. The real murderer turns out to be Thomas, a white man who claims he was in the prison because of tax evasion. Even in the post-apocalyptic world you're more in danger of a "lone wolf" white man snuffing out your life than anything else.

But this scene is only about prejudice in a minor key way; it has much more to say about authority, how it is constructed, and whether it can allow itself to be questioned. The revelation of Thomas's guilt poses a problem for the civilization burgeoning behind the prison's walls: what are their laws and how will they administer justice? Again, Rick assumes authority; as a lawman, he acts as though his opinion is a binding logos. Rick says that a killer must be killed. "You kill. You die," he pronounces. The verbiage of his statement is chilling; the sparseness of the language feels unquestionable, the simplicity of it is asserted authority masked as truism. Most of the group agree with him, but there are fault lines here. Lori, for example, isn't so sure that Rick should have the ability to make that call for the group as a whole. She accuses him of acting like a father, of playing God; even if the group is better off without Thomas in the fold, she's correctly heard the tenor of Rick's dictum.

The most troubling thing about Rick's version of justice is its fundamental disconnect from the laws he upheld as a policeman. He does not talk about rights, about fair trials, or about juries composed of peers. His attitude is that when civilization is at its most fragile, it must be defended vigorously with force and the imposition of unquestioned authority--even if it means that the philosophical underpinnings of civilization must give way. Rick doesn't even bother with dispensing justice equally. He knows that Tyreese is guilty of killing Chris, but he covers up the murder that Tyreese committed. The appearance of justice is just as good as the real thing if it works in service of keeping authority inviolate. In his mania to forge a polity in the prison, Rick is willing to abandon the ideals that make a civilization worthwhile in the name of security and safety.

Of course, Rick's attitude is essentially fascist, and it is one that blows up spectacularly in his face. Enforcing his authority by pummeling Thomas moves Rick no closer to the locus of justice, and he manages to mangle his own hand in the process. The wound is castrating; his attempt to exert force renders him unable to deploy it as well as he could before--without his right hand, he's no longer the best shot in the group. 

Similarly, when Dexter acquires force of his own through access to the firearms stockpiled in the guard tower, we get a clear depiction of how the idea of "might makes right" ultimately works against Rick's aims; in the final panels of the volume, Dexter has assumed authority and power and is insisting that the group leave the prison, as well as all the hopes they've pinned on it as a safe haven, because he sees no place for people like them in his polity. Dexter calls them "crazies," and names their condition as "broken." He's not wrong; the only thing that differentiates Rick's group from the prisoners is numbers. In the end, who belongs in a civilization, who will have recourse to authority, and who gets to exercise power is all down to whose finger is currently on the trigger.

From the hip:
  • Startled by a zombie as they're clearing out the prison, Rick bemoans the idea of getting used to the ever-present threat that the zombies represent. This is interesting to me because, as much as Rick is always preoccupied with the idea of survival, he fails to see that getting used to horrific traumas is an essential part of the survival process.
  • The ways of opting out of the civilization the group begins building within the prison hardly look like pleasant alternatives. We have the suicide pact between Chris and Julie (that goes horribly wrong) and Tyreese's suicidal one-man rush against the zombies in the prison gym as nonviable alternatives.
  • Sex is still the troubled intersection where physical survival and human emotional needs collide. Deprived of female companionship during their incarceration, Dexter and Andrew have formed a sexual and emotional relationship. Axel insinuates to Andrew that the introduction of the women in Rick's groups of survivors threatens his bond with Dexter. Now that women are available, surely Dexter will be "switching sides" and abandon Andrew. There is a lot to unpack from this small scene: the way that necessity mediates the kind of relationships we have, fluidity based on circumstances, the human need to maintain connections, and the multiform ways in which those connections are threatened by "interlopers." 
  • Speaking of Andrew, I'm not sure if this was an intentional way of telegraphing his sexuality, but I think he's drawn in a very feminized way. I initially thought he was a female character, in fact.