Reprise: Made for this world
We are all mourning the long hiatus of The Walking Dead and in the interim we’ve kept adding to this final conversation. Read on for our extended discussion of the mid-season finale.
Well Moth Chasers, this “mid-season finale” really tied together so many of the themes we’ve been exploring in our conversations: what constitutes a new normal and new norms in this apocalyptic world, relationships between family bonds and care for strangers, and the models of leadership that will survive/allow others to survive. And we finally got to the bottom of what happened to Sophia (more or less), meaning that at least one of the reasons for staying on the farm is now gone.
The central question of the episode was the one they’ve been exploring all season: what does it mean to be made for this new world? What new order is really required and who is capable of living in it? What I loved about this episode was how each answer to this question, represented by a different character, was pushed to its limits and found wanting.
Obviously, Shane is the great foil to this question, with his drive toward martial law and his eager insistence that they leave the farm now that it is unsafe. The open road with its constant danger, its life-and-death ethics, and its challenge to normal domestic relationships suits him far better than the bizarre diplomacy Rick tries to engage in order to keep up some kind of middle ground at the farm. Unleashing the walkers in the barn was Shane’s attempt to introduce the chaotic element of the open road into the life of the farm. Whether or not the barn walkers posed an immediate threat or not, we were clearly meant to feel the brutality of their massacre. Which, I think, gives the lie to Shane’s whole argument. This is not really about safety; it is about creating a world that conforms to the person he began to become the moment he shot Otis. Shane needs the violence and chaos to keep his own guilt and madness at bay.
In a similar way, Rick needs the diplomacy and order of the farm just as much. We see just how far Rick is willing to go to keep the peace, wrangling a walker into the barn, which again, whether or not you agree with Herschel, seems like a pretty foolish idea as the walkers almost escape on more than one occasion. Rick stepping forward to shoot Sophia was the limit point of his model of diplomacy. He wants to stay on the farm and cling to the normality he thinks it represents so badly he is willing to do just about anything. But once the barn is clear and Herschel is in pieces, there is no point in diplomacy and whether for safety or as mercy, he is going to take a walker down.
As Maggie said last week, Glen is the third leader, the one no one seems to notice. But his rationale was the most poignant to me. He doesn’t need the world to descend to utter chaos and the rule of might. Nor does he need to cling to old notions of safety and normality. He wants to keep those people he cares about safe. And he is expansive in his care, allowing new loves to claim him but also accepting the responsibilities that come with caring. Thinking of walkers neither as sick people to be cured or demonic dead, but simply as a threat to be avoided and survived is not likely to be the path chosen, but I loved Glen for his articulation of it.
I am running on far too long, but I have to say something quickly about Herschel because I have been so suspicious of him. Throughout most of the episode my disgust only grew – sitting there eating his mild lunch reading the bible and lying to himself and everyone else about the state of the world as it exists now. But watching him break down as he confronts the new order actually stirred pity in me. Herschel has been deluding himself – about the walkers, about the world – but that has been his means of survival, his means of hedging against the trauma that now, it seems, is about to overwhelm and undo him.
So much more to say, but I can’t wait to hear your thoughts and also how in the world we should pass the time until February 12?!
So I’m at a conference on Teaching and Learning today, and our keynote speaker on “Leadership” argued that in the contemporary world, true leaders are not the ones who can make a decision and charge it down, but are those who can articulate a middle path that draws on the best of each option and creatively integrates their goods. And then I read your post, Kathryn – and wow, what timing! Since his first joyride appearance in season 1, Glenn has had my heart, but I would absolutely love to see what could happen if the group transferred to his leadership in the latter half of this season. His leadership seems, to me, to have the most promise inherent to it, precisely because, as you say, all the other forms of “being human” and, by extension “being leaders” seem to have tapped out in this episode.
The thing I’d like to highlight relates to Herschel’s lunch, however – did you all notice he was reading Luke 8 in his Bible? This chapter is filled with a number of well known Biblical stories. It opens on Jesus curing Mary Magdalene of her 7 demons, and closes on Jesus bringing a dead little girl back to life and healing another woman from disease. Throughout the chapter, Jesus promises “restoration” of humanity – from demonic influence, death and disease…all the themes of this episode. How could we not think of poor Sophia as we read this passage of the dead girl saved?! What I’m left wondering is whether we are to interpret Herschel as blinded by his faith (note he used the precise language of “restoration” used in the Luke passage), or whether we are to continue to wonder if there is some truth – albeit, misguided and misperformed, perhaps – to Herschel’s madness and even, as we’ve all noted, cruelty. I can’t help but keep resonating with his desire to stop asking questions about whether or not the walkers are human and, instead, to treat them as if they are. There’s something beautiful in that, even if, as you point out Kathryn, also misguided.
I was also intrigued also about the parables nestled between these healing narratives in the Luke passage – the parable of the sower and the parable of the lamp on a stand. I’ll leave the sower to others to interpret if they want – but the lampstand story resonates clearly with last week’s episode as it states, “nothing is hidden that will not be disclosed, nothing concealed that will not be brought into the open.” I’m just saying – wow, the writers must have been thrilled when they stumbled upon this subtle framing device! Or, I wonder, did they have it mind all along to use as the season’s framing device? If that’s the case…wow, I’d like to go back, rewatch, and search for more subtle clues like this – this would be yet another easter egg that puts Lost to shame!
Finally, I was struck by Shane’s assertion about the walkers: “They killed Amy. They killed Otis” – no they didn’t! That was Andrea and Shane. And so once again we’re faced with the realization that in the post-apocalypse, humans – not zombies – might just be the greatest threat of all.
Oh my, it’s going to be tough to wait till February!
First, I’m dying to ask: Did anyone think that someone (Rick?) was going to shoot Shane as he was storming the barn, ripping the chains off the door? I was thinking, in that instant, about what the show would be like without Shane. (I find Daryl a much more complex and textured figure than Shane and found his interactions with Carol to be interesting.)
What codes or commandments guide “this” world? Is this Conrad’s Heart of Darkness or the wilderness journey of Hebrew scriptures? Are the writers playing those off of each other? The Bible and biblical teachings have been featured throughout, and it’s not surprising that the actual text shows up in this episode. (I thought I caught a quick glimpse in the preview for next season of Herschel in the old church). And Natalie, I wonder what you think of Maggie invoking the love commandment, especially given your keen attention to the Lukan passages that Hershel was reading. How does that commandment translate into ‘this world’? I did think again about Hershel’s motivations when I saw Sofia emerging from the barn. Was Hershel trying to push the group on to Ft. Benning in order to spare them the news about Sofia? Was this an act of protection, believing that it would be better to have Sofia’s fate a mystery than to have them face her in zombied form? It was only right for Rick to fire the shot, as he seems to be the one who ultimately decides the good of the group. He may not be made for this world (as Shane says), but he still remains the person to whom the group turns for direction. Kathryn, I do think the emergence of Glen as the third leader is an interesting thing to ponder. (Does Dale function similarly?)
I’ll stop there. It’s been a good season and I want to express my thanks to each of you for inviting me into the conversation.
Wow…I’m really disappointed that we will not only have to wait until February to watch more episodes, but also that we will thereby have to postpone our conversation. To begin, Shelly, I totally thought that Rick was going to shoot Shane. And I also agree about Dale. The Dale character seems really to capture certain Cavell-ian themes quite well (e.g. the “avoidance of love”).
I want to expand on a few things that y’all have brought up:
(1) The last scene–obviously intended to be a sort of bloodbath, complete with slow motion, zippy camera angles, and flying bullets. What strikes me about this last scene is how much we–as viewers–in a sense *desire* it. I’m not arguing that we’re all bloodthirsty, but in a sense, the way it is stylistically presented and shot and deployed, it seems obvious to me that we as the viewer are meant to mimic Shane, and to a large extent participate in what is Shane’s madness. This is especially true given the pacing of the past two episodes until this point. I find this very fascinating because it suggests an added dimension to the show (and, Travis, from last week, I agree…perhaps not all of these themes make sense).
(2) Glen as a leader. Don’t get me wrong–I like Glen, but I think Maggie’s idea here ought to be thought through. I don’t see Glen as a leader, at least not in any traditional sense of the word, because, while he can navigate amidst other people’s normative claims (much in the same way he is the most adept at navigating amidst obstacles), he does not seem capable of creating or proposing his own. Now, perhaps this is changing with his care for Maggie, but I think we’d need to see more. What’s striking to me about Glen is a certain refusal to take a position–something that I believe his inability to keep secrets ultimately reveals. I don’t want to get to down on Glen, but , doesn’t it just come down to Maggie being right? After all, if he hadn’t told everyone about the barn, then perhaps Rick’s route of diplomacy may have worked. Furthermore, I’m not as pessimistic about Herschel’s proposal. After all, if we agree that Glen’s suggestion that the walkers are just “dangerous” (I realize my invoking Glen here might be in tension with what I just wrote, but I don’t think it need be) then storing them in a barn is not as hopeless as Shane makes it out to be (we regularly store all sorts of dangerous things in a barn, no?)
(3) Sophia emerging from the barn, especially in light of your comments about the Luke passage. First, let me say that I thought this concluding scene was just perfectly shot and acted. There was really a morbid sort of beauty to it. I found this last scene (a revelation of Sophia–something that’s been “guiding” the group for so long) quite interesting. To me, in conjunction with the Luke passage and with the show thus far, it seemed to suggest, *with* Shane, a sort of reversal of values: yes, everything will be disclosed. But that disclosure may have better been kept undisclosed: the only true fact about this world is that divinity is revealed only through the non-existence of divinity (an aporetic conclusion we discussed earlier). Sophia’s emergence from the barn is a disclosure, but the disclosure that all notions of disclosure (and hope) are void and empty.
OK, jumping back in for a second. I agree we’d have to see more, Martin, to know if Glen could really function as this group’s leader in the way Rick does – everyone does everything he says and he bears the existential weight of survival. But if we think of leadership as setting the moral tenor of the group, giving them their guiding attitudes and dispositions as they all have to act in various ways, I think he was offered to us as an alternative to either Rick or Shane this week. And it is precisely his agile negotiations, both moral and physical, that qualify him to be this alternative. He has grounded his ethics on relationships and the ad hoc negotiations they require. While Shane and Rick are trying to build worlds to fit more absolute structures. That, by the way, is also something I loved about the episode: how it explored the way characters try to make a world to fit their moral dispositions. We’ve talked about how norms and attitudes and assumptions deeply interact with practice to make selves and what happens when all of this is in flux. Well, one thing that happens is that shaping the world to one’s desires (something we all want to do and are mostly thwarted in attempting) seems more possible in this world.
And Natalie, wow, hadn’t caught the Luke 8 reference but yes, tons going on there!
Also jumping quickly back in – it’s precisely because Glen isn’t a leader “in any traditional sense of the word” that makes me wonder if he’s going to emerge as one. Sorry to make another Lost comparison – but it’s precisely the alpha male domination of “here’s my vision – everyone get on board” that kept the leadership shifting between, well, the alpha males, and which made themes of leadership, quite frankly, un-inventive. I guess I’m trusting TWD to do something more interesting here – as K notes, to reveal the relational ad hoc nature of leadership when the world is recreated. We see this in our culture – “staying the course” with any sense of dogmatism, whether the course is the insanity of constant warring or the illusion that pure diplomacy will work, just can’t cut it for the complexity of our existence…and I’m curious to see if TWD can realize it’s not gonna cut it in their world either. Now that would be an interesting commentary to watch unfold!
Wow, I did not experience the barn burning as a projection of Shane’s perspective at all…or rather, what captivated me in the scene was how frantically my emotional investment in it leaped from chararacter to character. When Sophia walked out (and yes, Martin – I thought it was perfectly acted, paced and shot…and the sound was amazingly done too!) I went through every emotion possible, and the camera panned to catch them all. Carol’s collapse, Amy’s recognition, Laurie’s frantic desire to shield Carl who just floundered in panic…I had the time to process how unjust it would be to kill Hershel’s family zombies but let Sophia live (and Hershel’s face through the whole scene won me over to at least sympathy with him), even as I had this glimmer of hope that she was not beyond saving (last out, slow movement but not awkward – she didn’t yet seem fully zombie!), and I had the time to think, no – no just do it! Shoot her! And then the time again to get into Rick’s head, feel his hesitation and his decision and almost move through it with him. The madness of the whole barn burning scene, all the way to Sophia’s bullet was much less about a performance of Shane’s psyche, in my view, and much more about the chaos of experiencing all their psyches at once.
But I agree; it was absolutely brilliant!
TravisAll,OK – I’m going to jump in quick also. Mostly just to clarify my position. Natalie, your point about the alpha male sort of leadership is well taken, and I didn’t mean to suggest that Glen need to be more like Shane or Rick to be considered a leader (not that you suggested this, either). My hesitations about Glen being a leader center around the claim that I don’t see him negotiating relationships in any meaningful way (until the last encounter w/ Maggie). He puts off making any sort of decision, or attempts to put the decision off on someone else. I guess what I mean to say is that, yes, of course, I agree he implicitly presents a better course of action (better than Shane or Herschel, for sure, and perhaps also better than Rick), but I don’t see this as occurring because of any sort of reason-governed activity–it’s sort of a default that he stumbles upon. Indeed, the only time Glen gives a reason is the aforementioned talk w/ Maggie.
And in that sense, why aren’t we talking about Maggie as a leader? If you really think about it (and I’m only doing so now), Maggie is the only one that’s staked any sort of normative claim beyond say, utility or survival. And, in this sense, it’s doubly interesting that the claim she invokes is actually one from a world long lost.
Before I sign off, I have to defend the show a bit, Travis. While I tend to agree with you that not much has happened, and there’s been a lot of “telling” going on, it’s also been showing us quite a lot exactly by suggesting how difficult life would be in such a world. I feel like (and perhaps I’m giving the writers too much credit), but the writing has taken on the tone of being on a farm, of being isolated and having time, but all in the context of a zombie apocalypse (as the frequent missions to look for Sophia–and in this sense, we ought not to neglect the symbolism of her name–make clear).
I have to agree with Martin – I interpreted these episodes’ pacing to be shaping our experience of life moved from the outside world to the farm. That might not be as exciting as life on the road, but it is a more reflective, time-to-do-laundry kind of space. And as Kathryn (and most of us) have noted a few times, the slowed down farm is surrounded by a sinister feeling that is heightened by the punctuated moments of action and tension. I guess I’ve found the fake serenity stressful, more than boring, (not sure if that says more about me than about the show?), and I’d defend it with Martin as an interesting side-step from what is likely to become once again the overarching narrative of fleeing to nowhere. I wonder, even, if moments of stressful tranquility are necessary in post-apocalyptic narratives? Compare this one with the bunker dinner scene in The Road (book or film). It’s a chance to eat, rest, connect with others, etc., before you get back out there. And in both cases, we the viewers have the sense that places that seem safe to us might constantly be threatened by something unseen.
On Glen, I’m struck by what a badass survivor he was before Rick showed up, and we’ve been seeing those skills return since Maggie arrived (frequent pharmacy trips, for example). I’m intrigued by your thoughts on Maggie, Martin, and would love to hear more!
And yes, I’ve been meaning to mention Sophia’s name all season, but keep forgetting – it’s obviously a little obvious, but the characters have spent the first half of the season searching wisdom (for our readers who might now know: Sophia is Greek for wisdom, as in philo/sophy=love/of wisdom; if anyone’s Greek is better than mine, please do nuance my translation), not knowing if wisdom has survived, if she’s on the run, or if she’s been made undead. And so if the half-time finale ends with the death of undead wisdom, where does that leave our band of survivors? Is this the ultimately nihilistic move, or is it liberating? I’m curious to hear what you all think!
I should probably clarify – although I have heard a lot of complaints about the “slowness” of this season, I haven’t really found those compelling, as those are usually the same kind of complaints people make about, say, Mad Men, which is one of the most enthralling shows out there, at least in my opinion. So my worry about the show isn’t about the fact that “nothing happens,” (although, to be honest, it’s really kind of true). It’s that when things do happen, it’s not grounded in strong characterization, with the result that most of the discussions we get week to week have an air of arbitrariness about them. I get the enforced pastoral idyll as a tacit situation of tension – but I’m not sure the show does. Perhaps an example will help – the character of Dale. He develops suspicions about Shane, and acts as a self-appointed guardian of Andrea, and an arbiter of Glen’s revelation, but we really don’t have a clue about what really motivates this guy, what his past is, and why these things matter to him. The showdown with Shane over the guns was this problem at its weakest – while the argument about the possession of guns over the last few episodes could be a chance for TWD to really delve into some of the complex mechanisms underlying this ersatz neo-pastoral society, instead we have Dale hiding guns because he’s divined certain things about Shane (which he really has no way of knowing) all the while removing our groups’ means of defense, even as he knows about the group of walkers in the barn. There’s just no consistent character at the heart of these plot-motivated mechanisms to make sense of that. The closest we’ve gotten to the heart of Dale are his interactions with T-Dog, who is such a cipher that he’s no more than a foil at best.
I guess I’m just wanting to highlight how often this show has introduced interesting situations, only to fail to use them to show something interesting about any of these characters. It has brilliant moments – the slaughter at the barn is one, of course; Herschel reading Luke 8 (and I didn’t say – fantastic reading of that scene, Natalie); the revelation of Sophia; Carl’s encounter with the deer. But those are so few and far between – despite the great personal and social canvas a postapocalyptic scenario offers, I find this show continually projecting a poverty of imagination to show us a world that feels lived in with real people.
OK…so I’m slow as molasses with these response, but I figured I’d chime in now that the swarm of academic related obligations are waning. On the wisdom bit, it’s a great question, Natalie.
Wisdom also was lost before it was found, and when found, it was transformed, like everything else in the world by the undead, and in that sense had to be eliminated and discarded. I would be tempted to say something like the very notions of nihilism and liberation are somehow irrelevant, since they presuppose some sort of content (say, political, economic, legal, normative, whatever) to which one can take an attitude (say liberated from or nihilistic towards or about), but the zombie apocalypse has voided all content, called into question all laws and all norms. In this way, I’d be tempted to read the undead death of sophia as just another metaphor for this strange situation. (And if this is right, I really have to give the writer’s a lot of credit for coming up with something *really* clever).
As far as Maggie, I sort of am tempted to re-watch the episodes in mind with this thought (but don’t have time right now), but I think the most remarkable thing about Maggie is that she is able to interact with all of the various inhabitants of the two groups, and do so, without backing down to anyone. And she does it without in any way compartmentalizing her personality (she’s totally badass, wielding baseball bat on horseback one scene, complete sensual counterpart to Glen’s awkwardness the next, easily able to speak to Herschel in his own language later, while unafraid to lay the verbal smackdown on Laurie, etc., etc.) In this sense, she is able to be all things to all people, but without somehow becoming less than herself or more than what she actually is; in this way, she forms an interesting counterpart exactly to the sort of normative empty space that we’ve talked about.
What think y’all?