Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Heart's Desire

I cut out of The Walking Dead tv show before Michonne showed up in it, but I distinctly remember being in a bar the day after her debut episode, listening in on a couple nerds (and I mean that lovingly) gush about how cool a character she is. And she is cool, in the classic metaphoric sense. Armed with a katana, Michonne is the samurai counterpoint to Rick Grime's whitehat cowboy shtick. She's deadly, stoic, fatalistically self-contained, possesses the ability to explode from silence into action, and (deep down) is more than a little tragic in the Romantic sense. Cool.

But if Michonne is a samurai, she's definitely the masterless ronin sort; her coolness also manifests as a distinct detachment from social bonds and a disregard for the bonds of others. When Michonne wants sex from Tyreese, she simply asks for it--with no thought given to how that will impact his relationship with Carol or the group dynamic in place before she arrived. Of course, since The Walking Dead is at least partially a soap opera, Carol catches an eyeful of the blowjob that Michonne gives Tyreese. In what is one of the sadder scenes in the series so far, that night Carol attempts to give Tyreese head--an act she's not comfortable with. She's trying to give him something he must need (why else would he get it with another woman?), but it's really a moment of internalized emotional coercion--and she knows it. Her bond with Tyreese, a bond that had sustained them both through the horrors of the apocalypse, is now broken, and leads Carol to attempt suicide by slitting her wrists. 

Sometimes coolness cuts like that.

If the Carol-Tyreese-Michonne love triangle exemplifies the thwarting and complication of this volume's title--The Heart's Desire--Rick's continued progression into a fascistic worldview is the extension of his desire for control as a means to gain safety, both personally and for the group he feels responsible for. Rick's behavior is disturbing. He decides who is allowed weapons--the tools of survival--inside the prison; members of the group only have guns at Rick's permission, and Michonne is told to surrender her sword if she wants to stay inside the prison. Rick also apparently has the authority to restrict movement and agency; some of the prison's residents are locked inside their cells at night because they have not yet earned Rick's trust.

Aside from controlling the movements and vulnerability of the group, Rick also feels empowered to enact force upon their bodies. When Allan is bitten by a zombie, Rick decides to amputate his leg to see if they can prevent Allan from turning into one of the undead. Although Rick's action may be altruistic (it may also be an experiment with a human test subject), it's important to note that he makes the decision to remove Allan's limb without Allan's consent or even group consensus. Rick is free to act because he feels that there is no one he answers to; he is the only sovereign agent within the prison.

The most egregious abuse of his position of leadership occurs when Rick kills Dexter. During an incursion of zombies, Rick sees an opportunity to rid himself of Dexter--the man who was just holding him at gunpoint and threatening to kick Rick's group out of the prison's sanctuary--and he takes it, shooting him down and later blaming his death on friendly fire. This is murder followed by propaganda to disguise murder. The art accompanying this scene shows Rick's face totally obscured by shadow; he has become unrecognizable as the protagonist of the story. 

This is, of course, a moment of snarling fascist hypocrisy. Rick casually violates his own law, "You Kill. You Die," because the king's word is only ever binding upon those subject to his will. Just as God cannot create a boulder he cannot lift, Rick cannot utter a pronouncement that sets limits upon his own actions. Since he feels that his actions are always to the group's benefit, to be forced to play by his own rules would be to risk the group's safety. Rick has unconsciously begun to live within his own personally engineered state of exception.

Rick's desire for safety has fully become synonymous with a desire for power. His assumption of authority as the means of security illustrate the fundamental tension in every fascist regime: fascism requires that the community feel threatened, but also requires that the threat be conquerable by the authoritarian's infallible authority over the community. As Umberto Eco wrote, fascism requires that the people living under it "feel threatened" by the "force of their enemies." As such, life is only seen as struggle and struggle becomes viewed as a way of life--which is certainly true of the traumatized survivors of the zombie apocalypse. And yet, despite the overwhelming threat of zombies without and enemies within, Rick feels self-assured that the struggle can be won and the group can survive--as long as they are willing to surrender their agency to his authority, his law, his will. 

The tension between the struggle for existence and Rick's insistence that if they follow his lead he can guarantee the group's survival explodes quickly because the theater of Rick's power has an audience too small for uncritical mass acceptance; fascism is a syncretic faith that cannot withstand the scrutiny of the individual's faculty for critical analysis. When Tyreese challenges the hypocrisy of Rick's actions and decisions, and thereby exposes the dark truth that Rick's desire for control has been masked by the notion of protecting the group, Rick has no rational justification for his behavior or the ideology behind it. His only response is a violent outburst intent on keeping and consolidating his power.

However, Rick meets his match in Tyreese, both intellectually and physically. Every accusation that Tyreese hurls at Rick is correct, and Tyreese is strong enough that Rick can't simply beat him into submission. Both men tumble over a railing, and Rick is knocked unconscious. When Rick awakes more than a day later, he is a changed man. But he isn't changed for the better. Rick's fascism gives way to nihilism. Initially, Rick seems glad to be free of the burden of leadership. In his absence, the group has decided that a more democratic, committee-based way of making decisions is wiser than leaving authority in the hands of one man. 

Rick approves of this change, but not because he has seen the monster he was becoming; he approves of the change ambivalently because he no longer feels that any of it actually matters. When Rick says "We are the walking dead," what he means is that the only difference between the survivors and the zombies is a matter of time--the former will inevitably become the latter, and the notion of exerting authority to forestall that becoming is nothing more than fantasy. Rick simply can't believe in a world in which security is made possible without his own unconstrained authority.

From the hip:

  • While in the prison, the group trades in their old, smelly clothing and adopts spare orange jumpsuits from the prison's supply--further underlining that life under King Rick I is a kind of prison sentence.
  • Racism is often bubbling under the surface of The Walking Dead, but Otis accusing Patricia of being a race traitor for aiding Andrew and Dexter is one of the comic's more pointed expressions of rising racial hostilities within the group of survivors.
  • Of course there are no women on the leadership committee formed after Rick and Tyreese brawl. Of course there aren't.
  • The Walking Dead does an interesting reversal in Rick's transformation from authority figure to bleak malcontent; usually disenfranchised white guys go from nihilism to fascism, but Rick walks backwards here.