After weeks and weeks of what often seemed like pointless meandering, this week The Walking Dead once again got its legs under it and gave us a glimpse at what it has all been building toward.
In many different forms and settings, ever since Terminus, our heroes have been having variations on the same conversation: Is this is all we will ever have? Or is this just a terrible chaotic interlude between civilization and the renewal of civilization? Has the world—and human nature with it—been fundamentally changed? Or can we go back, if we remember how we used to be?
Bob clearly fell on one side of this debate and Sasha on the other. Glenn slowly came around. Michonne seemed eternally on the fence. But whatever their opinions, it seemed like a purely philosophical debate, a way of looking to the future, generating hope. Considering the world is still overrun with terrifying monsters, any practical implication of such an inquiry seemed years if not decades off.
Then they came to Alexandria. And much too quickly this once-seemingly theoretical question became of the utmost importance in everyday, practical interactions. And every question starts to look very stark, all of a sudden: Is this real life, or just an illusion of safety? Should we remember, or forget? Us/them. Inside/outside. Our world/their world.
It’s there when Glenn warns Nicholas not to go outside of the walls anymore. Nicholas, with his inside-the-walls mind, thinks he’s being punished, not rescued. And Glenn—who may desperately want to make this new situation work, and who refuses to go along with Rick’s distinction between his people and the Alexandrians (“We are them. We are now.”)—almost laughs in his face. Glenn may want to start a life here, but he still has to acknowledge that the world outside the walls is more real.
It’s there when Michonne confronts Sasha about her zombie-hunting. Michonne—who has changed as a person more than any other character on this show, and who is trying as hard as she can to fit in at Alexandria and leave that old world behind—flashes back to her old warrior self and starts kicking zombie ass. She’s been straddling an untenable distinction, between who she was outside on her own and who she is inside with a community, for too long, and it emerges very violently. (It’s no wonder she’s the one to silence Rick at the episode’s end: she has to come in from the cold somehow.)
And it’s even there with Enid and Carl and their (actually rather refreshing) idyll in the woods. They’re both “from the outside” and they’re both struggling between remembering and forgetting, between the tough people they had to be out there and the vulnerable teenagers they want to be now. Like any teenagers, they want “to feel alive,” but they’ve already known what that really means and how it really feels, how little the actual payoff and how dangerous the prospect, and they’re compelled to go for it anyway. (““We’re supposed to be out here. We’re supposed to feel like this.”)Like teens, sure, but also like Sasha in her ongoing nervous breakdown, and Michonne in her warlike episode, and Daryl in his always.
But mostly, as per usual, this conundrum all comes down to Rick, and how he chooses to deal with Alexandria as a mode of existence.
There is a moment toward the end of the episode when Rick steps outside of Jessie’s house and looks around at the idyllic life of Alexandria—people chatting on a porch, a girl reading, a kid walking a dog—and all but sneers at it, at the naïve insanity of pretending to live that way in the world he knows. And then he steps back inside and tells Jessie that “In here, you can’t see it, but it’s the same. It’s the same as out there. We have food and roofs over our heads, but you don’t get to just live.”
Especially because Jessie is a victim of domestic violence and Rick is (at least outwardly) trying to save her life, this scene resonates dramatically with the “suburban malaise” subgenre (see: American Beauty, Revolutionary Road). There is a creeping evil hiding in the apparently mild luxury of the place, lurking behind the McMansions’ lovely façades. Frustrated people, ready to explode. Husbands who beat their wives. Wives who long to cheat. Teens who want to run away to the woods.
We’ve all seen this scene played out 100 times, and when Rick says “It’s the same as out there,” it reads as a neat and convenient comparison: You think the hazards and the drama are all outside the walls? They’re in here. Your husband is just as dangerous as a walker. That terrible place is just a metaphor for this one.
But it would be a mistake to read this scene this way. It would be the same mistake, in fact, that Rick thinks Mayor Bubbie and everyone else in Alexandria is making every day. Because for Rick, the outside is not a metaphor for the inside. There is no outside or inside. The walls are an illusion. And treating them like they’re real, like the world inside the walls is good and rational and civilized, that is going to get everyone killed.
No matter what we may think of Rick’s way of thinking (or his actions, or his speeches), it is clear that Deanna has put him in somewhat of an impossible position. He’s the new constable, but it turns out he has no way of enforcing rules. There’s no prison, and Deanna won’t hear of threatening Pete with death. Her only proposed option is exile, but Rick, having been out there, knows that this is too great a threat to the community. Any exiled person’s best option for survival would be to recruit others and mount an attack on Alexandria. And knowing where it is, and their layout and routines, they could stand a chance of conquering their way back in.
Lest we think these are idle fears, Daryl and Aaron have been busy uncovering evidence that someone very bad is prowling nearby, severing limbs, tying people to trees to be fed on by walkers, carving the letter W into corpses’ heads. There has been no real hint as who the perpetrator is, but there are worse guesses than to supposed that the people Deanna previously exiled are out there, doing terrible things and somehow plotting their revenge.
So when Rick decides that Pete needs to be dealt with, he has few options. It’s interesting to note that even he bows to the illusion of civilization at first. He doesn’t just kill Pete when he encounters him at night, though clearly he wanted to. He waits until morning and brings the problem to Mayor Bubbie. There were better times and ways to do this, of course, than when she is in deep mourning for her son (not to mention, unbeknownst to him, that she has just been warned that he’s evil by Father Gabriel), but the end result could only be the same.
Rick can’t let it go, of course, and so we end up with a bloody fight in the street, Rick yelling like a demon preacher telling the Alexandrians to wake up and see that they’re in constant danger, and Michonne, back to her old (new) self, keeping the peace by knocking him cold. And as much as we and they all want him to be wrong and Deanna right, that this is the start of civilization and the world going back to normal, it is hard to see that line of thinking through.
Next week, the extra-long season finale will give us more to go on, show us how they deal with Rick’s outburst, and possibly reveal that it was George W. Bush mutilating those corpses all along.