THE WHALING DEAD #2: There Are No Rules
The Whaling Dead is a continual feature at GATW. In these posts, we take a detailed and analytical look at the new AMC series, The Walking Dead. This week’s entry focuses on the second episode, “Guts.” Be warned: spoilers ahead!
Just when it looked like things couldn’t get any worse for Rick Grimes, he was given a beacon of hope in the form of a radio transmission from an unknown person. In the second episode of The Walking Dead, we learn who that person is, and Rick manages to escape his predicament and meet a handful of other survivors. Unfortunately, as I discussed in last week’s analysis, in a post-apocalyptic society overrun by zombies, there really is no escape, just a move from one prison to another. In this episode, Rick stopped being trapped in the tank only to find himself trapped in a department store. It’s here that we got our first look at what life in this new society might mean for a group of people. And it was not a particularly optimistic picture.
Like the pilot episode, “Guts” starts off with a bang. Not the same kind of bang, but a bang nonetheless. We see Lori head off into the woods surrounding the survivors’ camp to pick mushrooms or any other form of food, only to discover that she’s actually going there to meet Shane for a little afternoon delight. Like many other elements of this episode, things got a little heavy-handed (what with her locket being a reminder of Rick that quite literally comes between them), but the opening scene did imply some intriguing things about the nature of their affair. For one thing, considering it’s supposedly only been a month or two since the beginning of the zombie outbreak, she doesn’t seem to show many doubts about her actions. Perhaps this affair didn’t begin as recently as we’d like to believe. Either the level of marital tension simmering between her and Rick was much higher than normal, or she and Shane have been doing this for a while, since the idea of betraying Rick doesn’t seem to faze her at all. Plus, she and Shane seem quite comfortable coming up with an alibi to hide their extracurricular activities – perhaps it’s due to past experience sneaking around before the world went to hell.
This implication is interesting in and of itself, but director Michelle MacLaren (an AMC regular, having helmed a few of Breaking Bad’s best episodes) wisely uses the opening scene to develop more than just Shane and Lori’s affair. She introduces the sex scene not as romantic or erotic, but as something straight out of a horror film, with Lori alone in the woods and seemingly attacked from behind by an unknown assailant. Shane thus becomes associated with a feeling of foreboding and the prospect of something monstrous. During foreplay, he licks her stomach and tastes her flesh, setting in motion what will become the dominant theme of the episode: that in many ways, the human survivors are no different than the zombies.
Firstly, we have the walkers, which continue to be much more layered than the zombies of an average horror flick. Even more so than in the premiere, this episode implies that they aren’t just dumb brutes with no real intelligence. Where the last episode suggested they might have lingering memories of a past life, or at the very least leftover behavioral instincts, here we see that there is some sort of basic logic process that stems from their root desire for food. After Rick flees from the tank, he and Glenn must quickly climb to the rooftops in order to escape the crowd of zombies. In a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it-moment, one zombie begins an attempt to climb the ladder after them. While on the surface this may appear to just be a case of a predator doing whatever it can to capture its prey, it’s the kind of action that involves more brain function than mere instinct. It indicates that they’re capable of mimicking the actions of their targets in order to get to them (something which will occur again at the end of the episode as a group of zombies successfully chases Rick and Glenn over a mesh-wire fence) and that they are capable of simple problem-solving: “If my prey can do it, maybe I can too.”
But those actions pale in comparison to what occurs about two-thirds of the way through the episode, when a small group of humans is trapped in a department store surrounded by hundreds of zombies. In a nice nod to the original DAWN OF THE DEAD, we’re given a few shots of the undead horde clawing at the glass, trying to get in. In Romero’s masterpiece, such imagery was used as a metaphor for man’s mindless drive for consumerism. Here, what’s most fascinating isn’t what the zombies represent but what they actually end up doing in order to get inside. One lone zombie finds a cinder block and proceeds to slam it against the glass doors in order to break through.
Stop and think about that for a minute.
The teddy bear in the premiere, the twisting of the doorknob, the climbing of ladders and fences...such actions could all be chalked up to behavioral programming or instinct. But how are we to explain the use of an actual tool to overcome an obstacle? That’s not the action of a mindless beast. It requires basic logic skills. For a caveman to realize that he can use his fists to kill an enemy is instinct. For him to realize that he can use a rock as a tool to better bash in his enemy’s head requires a certain level of learning – this rock is heavy, it can break hard objects, my neighbor’s head is hard, this rock can break his head. For him to then realize that he can use the rock to break into his enemy’s house so that he can then bash in his head? That’s a rather significant leap in evolution, and it indicates that these things aren’t just teeth attached to a functioning brain. They’re smart. How much of their old lives do they concretely remember? Is it possible that rather than actually being dead, they’re actually just sick, driven so mad by fever that their primary impulse has become the drive for food, but not at the expense of basic brain processing? Could there indeed be a cure?
Even Rick acknowledges that there must be some sort of humanity left. When he begins the gruesome task of chopping one up into bits in order to use its body parts as a disguise, he finds that he’s unable to do it without first acknowledging its former humanity. He gives a small eulogy about an undead stranger, recognizing that these creatures were not always monsters, and that at least from a biological standpoint, they are still his fellow man. T-Dog cracks a joke about imagining them as “puppies and kittens,” but they’re more than that, and even if one views them as such, at what point does maiming them become an immoral act? In the premiere episode, Rick treated them like sick humans that needed to be euthanized. What if instead of sick people, they’re more like healthy animals? Is it wrong to kill a zombie if it isn’t in self-defense, just as society would (formerly) frown upon killing a dog or a cat? If only PETA were around to answer these questions!
While the zombies appear to be evolving, the humans in contrast are becoming more primal. This is no more obvious than through the character of Merle Dixon (brilliantly played by Michael Rooker), a high-strung white supremacist who acts like he'd rather be eaten by a zombie than take orders from a black man. Not only is he a racist, he's also quite stupid. He stands on the roof of the department store and picks off individual walkers, which only serves to rile them up even more. When he's rebuked by T-Dog, he responds with violence, and Rick is forced to intervene with the butt of a rifle and a pair of handcuffs.
If anything can lead to a “post-racial” society, you’d think it would be a zombie outbreak, but apparently that isn’t the case. For some people, disaster brings their prejudices bubbling to the surface rather than erasing them. Dixon is the kind of person who thinks he's better than everyone else, and as such will jump at any opportunity during a crisis to prove he's in control. In a move reminiscent of many fascist governments, he declares they should vote to see who's in charge...while holding them at gunpoint. "This is democracy!" he declares. Well, not really.
If the zombies don’t kill them, they might kill each other, and perhaps that would be even worse. After all, zombies just kill because they have to eat, but Dixon might kill just for the hell of it. In the episode's climactic scene, Rick and Glenn cover themselves in zombie guts in order to hide their scent and stagger through the horde outside. It’s the literal embodiment of what has until now been a figurative idea: the survivors as just another form of the “walking dead.” In order to survive the zombies, they must come as close as possible to actually being zombies themselves. They will have to kill, maim, and sacrifice if they want to claw their way from one day to the next. In the new America, there are no majorities and minorities, no Republicans and Democrats, no whites and non-whites. When society’s institutions have crumbled, zombies and humans are more similar to each other than might first appear; they're both just desperate to survive.
Becoming one of the zombies.
Last week's major theme was the idea that there is no escape. This week, the main idea seemed to be that in this new world, there are no rules. While they wait for Glenn and Morales to come back from the sewers, Rick and Andrea discuss whether or not it's okay to take non-essential items from the department store. "I don't think those rules apply anymore," Rick tells her. His actions later justify this claim, as he helps Glenn hot wire a stolen car for the rescue mission. Clearly, old notions of right and wrong aren't as black-and-white as they used to be. But which rules still apply?
Some form of morality must still exist. The question is where to draw the line. Most of the ethical conflict in this episode revolves around whether or not the life of individuals is as important as the well-being of a group. At what point does risking your own life for the sake of someone else stop being noble, and instead just become stupid? Glenn, like Rick, still retains some sort of altruistic motives. When asked why he helped Rick escape the tank, he responds, "A foolish naive hope that if I'm ever that far up s*** creek, someone might do the same for me." He does it knowing full well that in this kind of environment, the favor might not be returned. Rick, as a police officer, likely holds the same philosophy about the virtue of risking oneself for the good of another.
Shane and Dixon, however, clearly do not. Shane is pragmatic and understands the gravity of the situation. When the rest of the survivors at the camp discover the plight of those in the city, he makes the tough call to do nothing. "They knew the risks," he states. Attempting a rescue mission would put even more people in danger. Similarly, Dixon seems like the kind of person who wouldn't hesitate to leave a man behind if doing so ensured his own survival. He curses T-Dog for abandoning him, when in all likelihood he wouldn't have even attempted to free him if their roles were reversed.
No doubt this will lead to conflict between Rick and Shane once they're all reunited in the next episode. Shane likely won't feel it's worth risking their lives in order to rescue Dixon. Plus, it's not like Dixon is of any use to them anyway - if anything, he's the kind of person that would only cause further problems for the group down the road. Rescuing him serves no practical purpose, and a decision to go back is one based entirely out of a belief that leaving a man - any man - behind to die is the same as killing him yourself. Is there a right answer? Is it a sin to leave Dixon behind, or would it be worse to risk the lives of others in order to save him?
If there are no rules, anything and everything can be justified. Perhaps it's time to start creating new ones.
Andrew Johnson is the host of DeadChatter, a new podcast dedicated exclusively to discussion and analysis of The Walking Dead.