The more things change, the more they stay the same. I find that this statement keeps popping up in my head as this season of The Walking Dead treads on. Every time we settle in, we are on the move. Every time Rick and company find a place to call home, someone tries to take it by force and/or it becomes overrun with walkers. It never ends, this whole survival thing.
That is nature though, and a lot of the problems that we see in the world undone depicted in The Walking Dead can be seen as humans just acting according their most natural desires and urges, loosened shackles of morality cast aside and freeing people to do whatever they god damn please.
Philosopher Thomas Hobbes described this state of man in his book, Leviathan, as one that leaves no room for culture, industry, scientific knowledge or anything else because people are too occupied with staying alive. Life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” This is why we gave up some of our freedom (the freedom to rape, pillage, and generally act like all the villains on this show) when we agree to come together and form “civilization” or as Hobbes calls it, our “Common-wealth.”
Yet, even in modern society we trumpet vestiges of this “survival of the fittest” mentality: People fight for jobs and admission into universities; capitalism breeds greed and anything-goes justifications that accompany it. There is a definite push and pull of collectivism and individualism that can be seen throughout the history of humankind and in “Claimed” one is able to see it from both sides…to a certain extent.
Old habits die hard.
Much of this episode was about the world the characters have left behind and the new one they are forced to live in (unless they “choose” not to, like the family Michonne finds in the creepy pink nursery). In some ways, this “new” world is really the old one that Hobbes described and we end up in a peculiar situation where people are longing for bygone days of progressive notions like a police force and property laws. Without that one has to rely on the morality of others, and as I said last week, morals have lost their meaning when survival is all that matters. Humans are animals when stripped of morality or laws, and animals will fight and kill each other to get what they want.
The skeletons of our more peaceful and gentle world still remain and at times can lull both viewers and our wandering survivors into a false sense of security only to be harshly reminded of nature’s brutality. Talking about soy beverages is a conversation that many of us could find ourselves having over breakfast, but are breakfast preferences even relevant anymore?
I imagine it helps ease the pain though, or helps anchor one in the security (imagined or not) of a familiar life. Soldiers in foxholes or overseas in general do the same thing as do those incarcerated – anything to dull the sharp edges of reality I guess. The difference is that our survivors won’t be “going home” or “getting out” anytime soon. Well…maybe. But more about that up ahead.
Even Rick seeing off Michonne and Carl on their scouting and supply-gathering mission echoes the sentimental rituals of old, especially when taking place in such an idyllic location like the perfect little porch in the perfect little house they have holed up in. In another far-away place and time (how long has it been…two years?) this could be a father seeing his son off to school and I guess the metaphor that he IS going off to school is true – at least in the sense that he is getting a continuing education about the way that the world works now – but is quickly shown to be a metaphor the moment that Rick barricades the door with the couch.
Michonne is Carl’s teacher of course, and the lesson plan is how to safely clear and raid abandoned houses and take care of one self. There is no room for abstract thought or theorizing and Hobbes’ words are illustrated daily and without the constraints and embellishment of language which can be seductive in its beauty like all the talk about what used to be. Michonne may have had a child and a family, which we learn in a scene that reminds me of discovering that your teacher doesn’t live at school, but that doesn’t matter. The past may have shaped us but it is only our present self that exists in present times. This is what can make reminiscing painful: You will eventually remember that your child is dead or, in Carl’s case, that Judith is probably dead.
It definitely seems that the environments that we constructed during the pre-infection days will transform you if you let them. These places and things only have meaning when we allow them to. Four walls becomes more than just shelter once you decorate the walls with pictures. Carl experienced this two weeks ago when he let himself fantasize about living a normal teenage boy’s life, free of his bleak reality (although his daydreaming about a comfortable, struggle-free life reminds you that some children might welcome Carl’s current circumstances compared to the horror’s they might face even in our “civilized” world).
Even Rick had always appeared strong and fearless until this year’s stay in the prison. Though his attitude about violence was very much shaped by his experience with Shane and then the first run-in with The Governor, the metaphor of a man finding a more righteous and peaceful path while in a prison (and through the Zen practice of gardening?) can’t be overlooked. Nor can it be overlooked how the prison began to resemble actual incarceration during the quarantined days following the outbreak of the airborne illness that killed many there. Here the house transforms him too, this time it is into a victim, resembling a scared housewife as he hides from the marauders who have no respect for anyone’s claims. The Rick who finally stood up to the Governor emerges again when faced with his life in danger, and he is forced to preemptively kill a man who did nothing to him. Survival means moral murkiness with grayed and blurred lines instead of the black and white that we imagine exist now. The truth is that they are always at least slightly blurry.
For the good of one, or the good of many?
Glenn’s story arc this week goes beyond morality and laws and starts to highlight the struggle between collective good versus individual desire. Glenn, by chance, gets tapped to help military man Abraham escort a scientist with a mean looking mullet to Washington because he knows exactly why the dead have risen (nice to see progress on that front!). He wants no part of this mission even if it could lead to an eventual cure and end to the nightmare that surrounds him, all he wants is to find Maggie and…survive? I don’t know what it is that Glenn wants besides certainty of his wife’s whereabouts and maybe a little bit of lovin’.
His choice is his choice, and unfortunately his argument with Abraham over this decision leads to a wild moment in which a stray bullet takes out their heavy-duty vehicle and stranding Eugene and his escorts, who have no recourse but to stick with Glenn as he scours Georgia countryside for Maggie (or her Walker-self).
The question it raises is a tough one to answer: is it better to selflessly try to help all of humankind that still remains even though there is no guarantee that this disease can be cured; or is it better to merely survive this now probably short existence with one that you love. I have faith that humans can overcome any odds if they come together to do so, but life is short even without Walkers looking for lunch and why not spend it as happy as you can be (happiness a key to enduring hard times, something that Abraham touched upon in the cold open)? This applies to our world as much as it does to the fictional apocalyptic one. Some people want to just be happy and get by and I can’t blame them: the world is horrible and family is warm and comforting. In this case though, one would think that someone like Glenn who has come this far and seen the selflessness of Herschel would want to help, similar to the men of the Greatest Generation (one of the largest collectivist endeavors undertaken by America) giving up their lives to conquer what could have been seen as the greatest threat of evil to ever exist. Maybe he will after he reunites with his wife, but in the end it is the fundamental dilemma of modern man to insulate himself from the matters of men that didn’t have anything to do with their lives personally, or to join the fight whatever the sacrifice.
Crazy Cheese is better than no cheese at all.
I have complained in the past of a society and culture that has become almost wholly manufactured, plastic if you will. It is hard to deny it especially when you see movements to get back to nature and trying to restore “the real” in terms of farming, food in general, and needs vs manufactured desire. The soy milk and crazy cheese conversations reminded me, however, that despite how gross cheese from a can sounds it must be very comforting to experience something so removed from the natural state the survivors have found themselves in. The bad aspects of civilization make even the good of non-civilization seem bad. The alternative may be natural and free of the plasticity and slick sheen of modern “life,” but its dangers and deficiencies result in a life that is the equivalent of being just another beast on this planet. I’d rather live in a world that puts cheese in a can and corn in everything.
Next Week: All those other people.