Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Best Defense

Even though the previous collection of The Walking Dead ended with Rick's nihilist pronouncement that he and his fellow survivors are ontologically equivalent to the zombies all around them, The Best Defense picks up at a moment removed from Rick's descent into existential pessimism. Instead, we see something of a return to the old Rick of earlier issues; he's busy organizing and fortifying the prison into a stronghold that will enable the group's survival. With the discovery of a cache of weapons and riot armor, the prison becomes a feudal castle; when Rick and Glenn don riot gear to venture beyond the prison's barricades, they do so as armored knights errant sent to protect the kingdom from invaders. These images and the actions they foreshadow gesture toward a stark possibility about the prison: if it is to be the group's castle, it must be a castle that can withstand a siege.

Glenn and Rick's knightly quest for gasoline is interrupted when they observe a helicopter go down a few miles away. Off they go, with ronin Michonne in tow, on a further quest to discover crash survivors on the boundaries of their domain. Back within the prison, Lori again feels (rightfully) abandoned by Rick's willingness to always be the one who takes action far afield instead of staying near his family. 

While Rick is away, Carol takes the opportunity to make an unusual proposal to Lori: she suggests that she "wed" both Lori and Rick, becoming part of their family. Carol explains that in this new world of survival against the walking dead, the old rules don't have to apply. And she's right. Since survivors will be forced to remake the world one way or another, they need not be bound by traditions, customs, or mores that no longer fit the world in which they're forced to live. 

But Lori will have none of it; she's not an open-minded woman--she cites the effect that a polyamorous relationship might have on the children--and rejects Carol's idea out of hand. Through this odd-yet-stereotypical interaction, Walking Dead poses a series of questions about our adaptability: if we had to rebuild the social world through which humanity coheres, could we do it anew or are we, as a species, inextricably bound to the social formations we've inherited? Is change, even when it might abet our survival, something we have difficulty navigating? Do the lines, rules, and strictures of interpolation and tradition have too tight a hold over not just what we think, but how we think and what we're able to imagine?

Our collective inability to break free from the hegemony of old patterns is underscored in several ways. When Rick, Glenn, and Michonne find themselves in the clutches of the Governor, he imparts a missing piece of why everything has gone to hell in the big cities: when the National Guard was called out to turn metropolises into sanctuaries, the men and women of the Guard couldn't let go of the idea that they needed to protect their families first and foremost. And so the cities went undefended because those with the power and mandate to make a difference simply couldn't think beyond the basic survival of their immediate tribe. They couldn't bring themselves to do something unprecedented in response to extraordinary circumstances.

The other way we see old habits dying hard is in the ridiculous artifacts of more civilized times that the various characters crave even though those artifacts have no meaningful place in the dangerous world that confronts them. Foremost of these misfit artifacts is entertainment. Carol is thrilled at the prospect of having access to the prison's library, and positively overjoyed at the thought of being able to watch a movie once they get the generator working in the prison. The possibility of movie night again rears its head as a form of escapism that might allow the survivors in the prison to forget, at least momentarily, that Michonne, Rick, and Glenn haven't yet returned from their expedition.

The craving for entertainment takes a darker form in Woodbury, where the Governor has arranged for gladiatorial combat to keep his populace dependent on the bread and circuses he provides. As the Governor states, "There's a lesson there. You gotta keep people occupied or they'll turn on you. Reading and fucking will only keep people busy for so long." Entertainment, then, is both a instrument of social control and a numbing form of self-medication and self-distraction. The ways that entertainment, especially bloodsport, appeases the populace is gruesome, but its not nearly as horrific as the populace's willful complicity in allowing that bloody spectacle to effect who they are and what they will accept as human beings.

The Walking Dead posits that our habitual desire to be entertained renders us vulnerable to a corrosive habit of distraction that has the potential to eat away at our humanity--or at least sedate it into quiet compliance. The reliance on spectacle, then, is just one more pattern that we cannot leave behind, even though distraction can be fatal in a post-apocalyptic world and escapism is a weakness when the current situation demands all of your focus purely as a matter of survival. Notably, despite the Governor's understanding of the role that entertainment plays in the community he leads, he isn't immune to it. The Governor keeps the severed heads of his victims in tanks as if they were so many television screens competing for his attention. He's seemingly aware that watching the heads diverts him for his purpose--he ironizes the moment by saying "Fifty-seven channels and nothing on"--but he still can't tear himself away from this macabre pageantry of his own creation.

But nothing in The Best Defense even comes close to the Grand Guignol grotesquery that is the Governor's repeated rape of Michonne. Michonne's abuse is framed as a form of entertainment for the Governor. Sexual gratification doesn't seem to figure into his ends; the pleasure he finds is in breaking the will of a strong woman. And yet, the sexual violence the Governor inflicts on Michonne is largely without purpose. Despite claiming that he does terrible things in the name of survival and keeping order, he knows that he's never going to get the information he wants about the prison from her. 

Michonne's assault is essentially a private theater of brutality that stages savagery for the benefit of a sole sadistic viewer in the comic's fictive world. The Governor's hope is that he can lead her to the final cathartic scene he desires--to crush her spirit to the point where she takes her own life. All of which means, of course, that Michonne's rape is another distraction that dehumanizes, another spectacle that unmans, another entertainment that functions as negation. This critique becomes more pointed when we realize that it is being delivered through a piece of entertainment media that is currently horrifying its audience with a depiction of sexual assault--and yet, we aren't likely to break the cycle of reliance or the pattern of mediation either. Instead, our complicity is likely unnoticed or perhaps just brushed away; we reach for the next issue because we must be entertained.

From the hip:

  • If donning the riot gears transforms Rick and Glenn into post-apocalyptic knights, it is playing with the imagery of a particularly fascist knighthood. If Rick's authority as a former policemen reached troubling extremes before, it's chilling to think of how that power might be exercised when given the equipment of militarized police intended to crush dissent.
  • While siphoning gasoline outside the prison, Glenn takes a moment to ask Rick if he thinks that Maggie would think less of him for being so proficient at sucking gas through a rubber tube. Glenn's need for reassurance about his masculinity is almost comical at this point, but it is noteworthy that he seeks affirmation from a man and not from women.
  • A point of comparison: Rick is unwilling to do what the National Guard was not--he's always running off instead of staying put to defend his immediate family, as Lori wishes he would.
  • Andrea reinforces the idea that the prison will have to sustain a siege when she stands atop its walls and mentions that some day they may be called upon to keep humans, not just zombies, out of their fortress. It's Chekov's castle.
  • Of course, the violent, power-mad, survival-obsessed Governor is essentially what Rick would have become if Tyreese hadn't intervened.
  • Something tells me the Governor's not going to get the ending he's dreaming of with Michonne.
  • As a person possessing an advanced degree in literature, I am legally obligated to whisper "Symbolic castration" in your ear during the scene in which the Governor chops one of Rick's hands off.