The Walking Dead Season 6 has reached its mid-season hiatus, a good time to look back on what has happened so far and what it all means.
The Walking Dead is one of the few shows to maintain such a high quality for so long. The writing, performance and production remains exemplary six seasons in – there is a good argument that it just gets better and better. One of the joys of this season so far is the philosophical quandaries at its core. But to explore these we need to indulge in a few spoilers to bring us up to speed.
The series opens with a quarry full of walkers. Hundreds and hundreds of them. We then flashback a little to see the aftermath of Rick’s execution of alcoholic, domestic violence fiend Pete. Deanna, the voice of law and order in the gated community of Alexandria, has become a little unhinged by her husband’s brutal death (at the hands of Pete) and has become more open to Rick’s proactive, hawkish approach to the world. The first test of which is the quarry full of walkers that explains why the Alexandrian’s have led such a charmed life. Rick’s plan is to lead them away, but to do so, everyone “must do exactly what he says.” This is the first test of Rick’s new role as war leader of the town and brings him into conflict with those that have never seen what life is like outside the walls.
The first few episodes deal with the operation to get rid of the walkers and the simultaneous attack on Alexandria by a group of Wolves (a roving band of nihilistic murderers – think a post-apocalyptic Charles Manson’s Family). The noise of a horn distracts the walkers, drawing them towards Alexandria and as a consequence, drawing a large percentage of them away from Rick’s scheme. Abraham, Sasha and Daryl continue to try to lead as many walkers as they can away from town, while Glenn, Nicholas and a group of Alexandrians aim to create a new diversion to pull the walkers back on track. Rick, Morgan and few others hurry back to town to see what the noise is.
The noise was a truck that had tried to smash down the walls of the town. The Wolves are at the door and as some find their way in they set about killing indiscriminately. Only those left of Rick’s group, specifically Carol, offer any resistance. In fact at times it’s hard to distinguish Carol from the Wolves not least because she disguises herself as one but also because her brutality at dealing with the threat is pretty intense. Morgan, who is the first back, takes a different approach, disarming them with his stick but ultimately letting them go as long as they retreat.
The rest of the season deals with the various groups either trying to get home or, in the case of Alexandria, dealing with being under siege by walkers.
By separating the main groups and mixing them up, this season throws the differing ideologies into contrast. Whilst the ways in which different personalities clash and cope under extreme stress has always been a feature of the show this season, and the battle for Alexandria brings it into sharper focus. At its heart are Rick and Morgan, two old friends who have become very different. Rick has come to personify a Nietzschean ideal, the pure Will to Power. He is only interested in keeping his group safe by any means necessary. He will kill, cheat and bully anyone he does not see as on his side.
Morgan on the other hand respects all life. In the stand out episode of the season so far (Episode 5 “Here’s Not Here”) we watch his evolution from feral killer to person of reason through the intervention of survivalist psychologist Eastman who captures him and teaches him a new way of being. Morgan is the perfect yin to Rick’s yang. He will not compromise his principles, going as far as the help one of the wolves with medical attention. Every life has worth and it is this mantra that gives his life meaning.
In this way he reflects the Alexandrians who seem bent on a project of trying to make life as much like it was before the zombie apocalypse as possible. However, their complacency has led to them becoming vulnerable both from internal threats (Pete) and external ones (the walkers, the wolves). They don’t have the stomach to do what it takes to survive and look on in horror as Rick murders and uses violence. In contrast to the Alexandrians are the Wolves, a marauding death cult with no thought of the long-term future, just day-to-day survival, to take by force what they need, what they want.
One of The Walking Dead’s strengths is its moral greyness. The writing does not ever say one way of being is completely right or completely wrong. The Wolves are the most obvious, irredeemable bad guys but the show invites us to reflect on how they are different to Rick’s group, particularly the likes of Rick, Carol and Daryl who were quite prepared to hoard weapons and mount a coupe against the Alexandrians to get what they wanted. By showing us Rick’s willingness to kill Pete and Carol’s way of handling the Wolves we see two sides of the same coin – survival through force. Sure, we sympathise with Rick, Carol, etc more closely as we’ve been following them for longer. We are also allowed to see how they interact with each other and their humanity, but we also see their brutality.
Also, it would be easy to see Morgan’s morality as more just and more sympathetic as we witness him being tested again and again. By letting one wolf go he puts Rick in danger. His actions, now that he is part of the group, put others at risk. He is confronted by the question; how do you save someone who doesn’t want to be saved?
Rick too finds his preconceptions challenged. Try as he might to keep his focus on his group, others force their way in. In this way the goodness at the heart of Alexandria wins out. Though initially distrustful, as they see how effective Rick and his group are, they make amends. They recognise his leadership and start working towards his plans. Try as he might, he can’t not save them. When Deanna challenges him to treat her people as if they were his own he can’t refuse. He is unable to refute her point that they aren’t two separate groups, that now they are one.
No genre show since the Battlestar Galactica reboot reflects so purposefully the state of the world. The wolves are an analogue of ISIS/IS/Daesh – unrelenting, uncaring, death worshipping. And the struggle within the town is how to deal with them – with compassion like Morgan, or with force like Rick and Carol? Do they follow the founding principles of Alexandria and maintain safety but without involvement; do they follow the rule of law? Or, as we see them develop, do they become more hawkish? Do they intervene, take the fight to the Wolves?
And all of this plays out in the smallest exchanges. Who do they bury and who do they dump? Eastman would bury even walkers, going through their pockets to find their real names and creating grave markers. Rick doesn’t want killers buried inside the walls. Do we abandon our long-term mission for the sake of short-term intervention, regardless of how well-intentioned? Daryl initially leaves Abraham and Sasha to return, but soon realises that their mission is a three person job. While he may be useful back home, he would be endangering his friends and the long-term safety of the group.
As a viewer we are constantly asked to shift perspective. Sometimes we can see that Rick is right, there is no other way other than to fight for those you care for. But then again where do you draw that line? Do you care for all humanity (like Morgan), or a wider group of like-minded people (like the moderate Maggie and Glen), or do you keep the narrow focus on just those you’ve known longest (like Rick)? What do you do when confronted with someone who has killed your friends? Does their death make up for it? Do you kill those who may kill you first?
Alexandria is a liberal democracy threatened by unknowable forces, both the walkers and the wolves. The floodgates have opened. How will they survive? Roll on February and the second half of a thrilling and thought-provoking season.