Somebody poisoned the waterhole*
The Walking Dead: “Cherokee Rose”
So, we now have two episodes where a “sign” has been prominently featured; the first almost immediately foreshadowed Carl’s shooting, certainly a life-ending event in our survivors’ circumstances were it not for the appearance of the farmhouse clan, and then this episode gives us Daryl’s story of the “Cherokee rose,” signifying the loss of a beloved child and a mother’s tears. The first sign represented a clear focus this season on questions of God, providence and suffering; while the religious backdrop has had its moments, notably the visual poetry of the so-not-Baptist zombie congregation, we find ourselves continually returning to the same attitudes of “I want nothing to do with this God” countered with “Hasn’t God provided for our survival and brought us together?” Granted, as I said a few weeks ago, this is exactly the kind of conversations apocalyptic survivors might have; I’m still wondering – do you all see something interesting developing in these conversations? Myself, I’m tempted to place it alongside Shane and Andrea’s conversation about the ability to kill an opponent, a conversation obviously loaded with subtext (barely “sub,” but still). What I mean is that both signal a conversation about the passing away of something – the possibility of faith and the voice of conscience, which aren’t perhaps all that far away. Put up against the themes of social displacement, exile, and dispossession associated with Daryl’s story of the Trail of Tears (perhaps somewhat facilely), it’s an interesting thought: it suggests these “signs,” or the desperate belief in them, are not so much invocations of the divine so much as echoes of vanished social conventions, vague gestures in the dark with no one to see.
Over against this idea of disappearance is the other clearly dominant theme of the season, the significance of the children. This episode did a nice job of playing with the intractability of biology – I mean, what else is a zombie but the literal intransigence of biology? – in ranging from the hookup of Glenn and the “farmer’s daughter” to Lori’s pregnancy (!) to, of course, Sophia’s continuing absence. As it looks more and more like we’re going to be following the Carl-Sophia storyline for a while this season, I can’t help seeing the same tension just named displayed – an aporia, as Martin put it a few weeks back. The obvious metaphor is that the search for Sophia is a lot like that eternally stalled gridlock back on the interstate – the halt of progress that only makes clear that the survivors weren’t really going anywhere in the first place. I wonder if we could push the question of Sophia, though, and wonder to what extent what we’re not watching is not so much the desperate search for a lost girl but the slowly dawning awareness that the loss of the children, potential or real, only serves to reveal the hollowness of the social system they’re absented from (I’m thinking of Children of Men, especially). The zombie in the well is a nice way of representing how no source of comfort and stability remains uncontaminated anymore. Except, apparently, this farmhouse with no obvious means of protection that somehow remains untouched by the zombies. Seriously, is this bothering anybody else?
*Woody, Toy Story
So I’m intrigued by how this rejection/acceptance of the Divine relates to the characters’ pre-apocalypse faith. If they had some sort of faith before the end of the world, how now does that faith endure? The apocalyptic catastrophe seems to have pushed the characters’ individual faith concepts to their limits, broken them, and then left them with pieces to re-stitch together. Carol’s comment, “save your ‘thoughts and prayers,’ hit me hard. Words are meaningless in this context – but a symbol, a flower – something tangible and unexpected – that’s where faith might rise up in the midst of this destruction. So I guess I part from Travis, even with a form of agreement (if I’m hearing you right, Travis?): precisely in being echoes of a broken past, these signs can become an invocation of Divinity. Indeed, it’s only in the faint whisper of an echo that the Divine can be witnessed in this place.
Two quick sidenotes – with this new religious scheme, they seem to be developing another tension between knowledge and belief. In this new world, you can’t really know anything, but you can believe or hope it (consider how often a character uses language of belief to replace language of knowledge!). It’s actually a lovely narrative telling of faith at the end of Modernity or in post-modernity (however you want to frame our current, pre-apocalyptic, early 21st century time). And second, perhaps it’s just because I watched Maggie as Rose in The Vampire Diaries have a lovely sexual encounter, then get bitten by a werewolf and die (did you recognize her, K?), but is anyone else worried that we’re about to watch an all too standard narrative of a woman getting punished for enjoying sex? Can we predict Maggie is going to get bitten soon? Man, I hope not – I’m enjoying this cute little storyline between her and Glen.
Can’t wait to hear what you all thought!
I don’t know what to say about the broader theme of religion at this point. I just want to add the following: I took all of the “religion” stuff and the stuff Daryl introduces to be all about the same stuff: the problem of evil (which obviously is almost impossible to divorce from its religious manifestation). In this way, the issues (say, political, social, etc.) that Daryl brings up are linked to the issues that Rick has been discussing (say, religious, ontological, etc.)
I just have to say that I found this episode largely filler. I (sort of) appreciate how they linked various themes across the domain of something like “the biological” (e.g. the *water* zombie, the sex between Glenn and Maggie, pregnancy, etc.), but overall this episode represents all of the things that I don’t particularly like about the show: its occasionally plodding and filler-esque plot points (the sexual encounter doesn’t quite work–even though I give the writer’s credit for going that route even though the invocation of loneliness was somewhat misjudged, and, yes, Natalie, I totally share your fear and am hoping they don’t go that wau) and its occasional de-evolvement into implausibility (yes, Travis, I also agree, the farm is *too* serene and untouched–I suspect that this is setting up a conflict between the farmers and Rick’s new group, probably fueled by Shane and company’s eventual breaking of the rules…which will inevitably be complicated by the Glenn and Maggie’s liaison).
The one highlight for me was Daryl–Norman Reedus has been doing great things with this character and his performance shone as a beacon of light in this episode’s sort of lame melodrama.
One quick note on the whole, “this farm is too serene” complaint – I have had similar thoughts since we first arrived at the homestead, but I have at least mitigated my issues with it a little bit by putting the serenity down to the relationship being built between urban, rural and small-town life in the show.
Zombies flock to the cities because that’s where the people tend to flock. Medical supply sites where FEMA sets up shop are crawling with zombies because humans over-access them. Pharmacies on Main Street USA remain relatively untouched by the undead because no one even knows where they are. What attraction does a farm in the middle of nowhere have? Why would zombies even think to go to such a mildly populated spot?
This is, of course, undermined by the grotesque water zombie (although I have to say, I almost threw up at that splitting in half scene). But what this all points to, I think, is the issue around the guns that came to a head in this episode. No shots have been fired on this farm – whereas shots are frequently fired in the more densely populated regions. We are repeatedly told that gun-shots will be the survivors’ downfall because they attract too much attention. I’m left wondering if something symbolic is going on as well around the idea that violence begets violence. The farm dwellers don’t even know what it’s like to kill a zombie – and they have been left alone. There’s much going on around this question of escalating violence, and I tend to interpret the serene farm as some manifestation of that theme.
I guess this all comes down to the fact that I really loved this episode and didn’t see it as filler at all, Martin – indeed, given Travis and my reflections on religion in it, I guess I thought this particular episode had more to offer in terms of religious/theological analysis than most any show running on tv right now.
I’m still pondering Maggie’s injunction to Glenn last week that somehow he has to make it right. This seems to me a kind of key to the whole spiritual/religious symbolism. If there is a god whatever vestiges of divinity have power in the world, it is going to come through human action and connection. Like Martin, I was also mesmerized by Daryl and saw him, maybe strangely, as a kind of opposite to Dr. Greene. There was something really disturbing to me of Dr. Greene’s meditations on the natural world. When he takes Rick to the hillside and revels in the natural beauty around him and even conflates that beauty with God, I kept thinking how isolated he was from the violence and suffering of the world beyond his boarders. How easy to find God in a serene country landscape when you are not wandering that landscape desperately searching for a lost child or evading flesh-eating zombies. Daryl on the other hand is also the character most immersed in nature. Carrying is crossbow, reading the signs of the earth, in touch with native folklore and methods – sure it is all a bit stereotypical, but also very compelling. Both Daryl and Dr. Greene have a pretty fatalistic attitude toward what is happening – both read it in their own ways as the new state of nature. But Daryl is actually out there trying to restore hope and peace in small ways while Dr. Greene is pretty much holed up in his own private sanctuary, waiting for nature to “correct itself.”
That is why I can’t help but feel like there is something sinister going on at the farm. It is an interesting thought, Natalie, that the farmstead is relatively serene because it eschews violence to keep itself safe. The farm is something like a modern Noah’s Ark, keeping a remnant safe until dry land appears for repopulating. But even in that metaphor, lines are being drawn. Why do they have a strong policy about not taking other people in? Rick’s point is blunt but oh so true: only someone who has no real idea what it is like out there could suggest with any ease that any group choose to go back into that wilderness. And for what? To simply keep wandering around? Why not all hunker down together and try to start rebuilding civilization right there on the serene farm? There is definitely something else going on and we got two subtle hints of it. 1) when Dr. Greene tells Rick that if the group obeys his rules he will at least consider letting them stay (and I agree completely that Shane and Andrea are front runners to breaking those rules), he prefaces his little speech with the enigmatic phrase “there are aspects of this that I cannot and will not discuss, but…” What in the world does that mean? What are the dimensions of the farm situation that cannot be discussed but that make it complicated to invite strangers in? 2) When Shane asks the small group preparing the search for Sophia what they will do if they find her and she has been bitten, Rick says they will do what they have to – namely, kill her. Maggie asks, kind of in disbelief, what they will tell her mother and Andrea says “the truth.” For a split second, Maggie is about to say something else but Dr. Greene catches her eye and very slightly shakes his head. What is that about? Maybe it is simply a sign not to meddle in these people’s affairs, but it seemed loaded to me. I know this is going to sound like a long-shot, but what if the farm is harboring some kind of cure or possible cure? Which would make Dr. Greene a kind of god-like figure, doling out new life to those he deems fit, while letting “nature” do the dirty work of purifying a world that had grown too grim and horrible for his pristine vision. That might be too melodramatic or sinister a read, but there is definitely more than meets the eye in that situation.
Great thoughts – this conversation is really interesting. Martin, I’m actually in agreement about this episode – dramatically and narratively, I found it wanting and I’m beginning to have really serious doubts about a lot of the characterization (I seem to be in a grumpy viewer mode lately, as I’m feeling the same way about a lot of shows). Part of the reason I posed the question about the farm is that the implausibility has been bugging me, as much as I like the symbolism of it, which I’ve read somewhat similarly to you, Natalie. However, in line the rural-urban theme, during this episode I found myself thinking how well this show deals with the horror trope of enclosure – to really feel threatened, you have to be in a place where you’re trapped, potentially or really, where things can creep up on you, and where there are limits to what the outside world can offer in assistance, or really even know your plight. So despite the fact that most zombie attacks have happened in urban settings, Natalie, we see them in the wild as well – but always in thick forest, which invokes a sense of enclosure and entrapment, or in the isolated tent/church/house in a rural setting. But because the show has established that the zombies wander the wild as much as the city, the farmhouse still bugs me. As some of you have said, I’m thinking that the explanation has to be that something concealed and potentially sinister is going on at the farmhouse as well. Indeed, the “water zombie,” its symbolic status aside (“from beneath you it devours”!), raises this question: is it not possible that the groundwater is contaminated, or being contaminated? Speculatively, is it possible the virus might still be spread that way? Has it already? And if the show is dwelling on competing notions of the “state of nature,” as you suggest Kathryn, or so I took you, a thought with obvious deep political implications, is there also an element of the weird American fascination/fear of the “wild” and those who dwell in it going on here?
On the rural/urban/small town theme – I in no way mean to imply that I think this theme is being set up in any stable way. Indeed, I think our dissatisfaction actually points to the seed of the undoing that is inevitably coming – at least, the undoing I trust is coming. And my hunch is we’re going to see that undoing next week. The water zombie is most certainly a harbinger of things to come! And so I love your insights about the possible unfolding of the homestead narrative, Kathryn. I’m not sure if they are harbouring a cure (although I’m intrigued by the thought). But I also wondered about the strange “I can’t say…” statement from the doctor. The amount of order required to keep a society – albeit this small society – free from the violence that circulates it might itself entail some form of violence. Like you guys, I’m eager to see what that violence – or something like violence – will be, and how Rick’s looming exhaustion at being the leader of his own troop will allow Dr. Greene to step into power over everyone.
I will note that for a supposedly meh episode, it sure has generated a lot of conversation!
All this nature talk brings me back to the huge revelation we haven’t even talked about yet – Lori’s pregnancy! You’re right, Travis, that the children are giving the plot its structure – creating the circumstances for our characters to make the choices they are making, offering them some kind of greater purpose for which to struggle. Endangered children become a metaphor for civilization itself: what will our characters do to protect it/them? At Otis’ funeral, the whole community (both the farm clan and the street clan) gather around a common story that his death had meaning in securing the life of a child, the symbol of promise and future. Of course, we know, with Shane, that this future was secured through murder and betrayal. One can imagine, then, that Lori’s pregnancy will become a kind of rallying cry for both groups, or possibly a major point of contention. Will this become the reason they have to stay on the farm? Will it lead to a confrontation between Shane and Rick? I’m a bit confused on the timeline, but I suppose it is going to have to be at least plausible that the baby could be either man’s, because when is pregnancy in such a conflicted sexual history not the tipping point for revelation or more deceit? It also, since you mentioned it, Travis, reminds me quite a bit of Children of Men, where pregnancy can be a sign of incredible hope in the face of despair, but can also just act to point out how far beyond creating a livable society for new life these survivors have become. Other thoughts on what we are supposed to think about giving birth post-apocalypse?