The killer within
At one level, this is a really difficult episode to write about. The new and improved The Walking Dead (2.0) continues to demonstrate excitement, creativity, and the ability to raise the stakes. Somehow, we’ve gone from dramatic stasis to genuinely terrifying, gripping peril and the brutal deaths of major characters; and not only does “The Killer Within” not feel manipulative, like it’s going for cheap shocks by killing off dispensable cast members, but it pulls off this week’s deaths after three episodes’ work in reinventing two poorly written characters by making them resemble something like actual people. I don’t mean to sound cold. This week’s episode was visceral (no pun intended), unendurably tense, and revoltingly bloody. It leaves you shaken and winded. I’m just impressed with the discipline the writers have shown in recognizing the weaknesses of their show, and systematically addressing them one by one. Taking the time to craft your cannon fodder well – that takes a lot of care. I’m impressed.
The theme of the episode is right there in the title: the killer within. Ever since the big reveal from last season, when we learned that everyone is infected, and everyone turns when they die, TWD has been exploring the idea that the true danger lay within. It’s there in Rick’s megalomania, there in the Governor’s genial malice, and in the exploitation of the prison system for security at the cost of its occupants. So this week we got the literalization of that idea: the true enemy is within. We saw this in three distinct contexts: first we have the rogue prisoner deep in the heart of the prison, carefully and systematically drawing the walkers in to wipe out Rick’s group. Then we have Woodbury, which we know to be rotten from within, its apparent security notwithstanding. And of course, Lori’s baby, who kills its mother from within.
The best in postapocalyptic fiction operates from a kind of dialectic: the degradation of order and invasion of a threat from without exposes the flaws in social cohesion within. A breach in the defenses really just gets the poison within flowing. It’s pretty much what a zombie does: it’s not the bite that kills you (well, sometimes it does – sorry, T-Dog), but what the bite introduces from within. Lori showed remarkable prescience when she wondered if the baby within would kill her a few episodes ago, and she wasn’t far off.
Thanks for getting us started Travis, because yes, whew, what an episode. My husband and I were both emotional and psychological wrecks by the end of the episode. Despite mewing about Lori’s annoying manner, behavior, and awful scripts, I was very impressed by her performance and horrified by her bloody end.
There was something brilliant about pairing Lori’s sacrificial death with Andrea’s growing temptation to stay in Woodbury. In season 1, it is the presence of hot showers and good wine in the CDC bunker that pushes Andrea over the edge and to her attempted suicide. These vestiges of civilization drive home to her how irrevocably that civilization has disappeared. But her choice to take her own life is foiled by Dale, who refuses to give into or support what he considers to be her despair. Now, approximately a year later, Andrea is being taken in by the slice of civilization she finds at Woodbury, and, since we know Michonne’s gut is right about the Governor, we know that she is falling into the moral trap that Lori warns Carl about: if it feels easy, don’t do it. Lori, on the other hand, was none too sure she wanted to bring new life into this world and contemplated terminating her pregnancy last season, only to be talked out of this choice by Rick, who insisted that life, at any cost, should be fought for. In her final moments, Lori takes that bet and chooses her child’s life over her own. I am intrigued by the idea that what it might mean to recapture some remnant of the Time Before (stolen from Justin Cronin’s masterful post-apocalyptic fantasy which I am currently re-reading) is this power to choose life or one’s own death and why it is, in this episode, Lori might have made the biggest prophetic act of the entire series: to choose the entirely helpless, fragile life of an infant who will add nothing of utilitarian value to the group, but will probably endanger it gravely. Does this make her, more than Rick, an antitype to the Governor, who also likes to deal in life and death while pretending to rebuild civilization? Given T-Dog’s sacrificial dismemberment (and Carol did get away, right?), do we see the emergence of sacrifice as the ethical marker of a new order to counter the false order of Woodbury?
All this said about Lori, there was something very problematic to me about her dying speech to Carl and all it implied about her continued sense of guilt over what happened with Shane. Does the adulterous woman have to die in childbirth to redeem herself? Is this what will finally give her the right to be the moral compass of the group, in death not in life?
I too loved this episode! And yes, Kathryn – I was struck by Lori’s death-bed morality speech. And while I share the discomfort that her character finally came to life in death as a sort of sin-purge redemption, what struck me more was that she chose to make a speech about morality at all! We’ve noted in the past few weeks how Lori functions with her own highly subjective moral code – and in a way, that was affirmed as she basically told Carl to follow his gut and do what he feels is right (not easy) to be a good man. That this morality would work is based in the idea that Carl is, at his core (?), good – and so following intuition means following that goodness within. Now, of course this mother is going to think her child is fundamentally good – but haven’t the events of the past year or so, and the image of her son becoming a killer in many ways made her question that even a little bit? Is there no moral code in this new world beyond the gut, beyond what feels right? And isn’t it possible that the new world itself – one marked by fear and aggression – creates gut feelings that aren’t exactly moral?
I’m intrigued by how the show plays these themes out – we’ll remember that it was Dale last season who tried to call us back to legal morality…and then got killed. It was T-Dog in this episode who started pushing for a greater ethic than survival…and then got killed. So what needs to happen in a society for a shift that allows morality without death?
I wonder, if the kind of stability that allows it, in fact, is the creepy stability of Woodbury. I loved the full focus on the little suburb last week, but loved even more watching it interspersed with the prison this week – each demonstrating its own architectural and social confines on its population. The morally ambiguous trade off of Woodbury is that citizens have time to reflect, I imagine – make their moral decisions outside of panic…but the social contract required to hold that ‘freedom’ in place is terrifying!
I guess you got the answer to your question from last week, Kathryn – yes, Glenn and Maggie do have sex. Apparently, a lot. Up in the guard tower! (sidebar: I want to see that guard tower now in comparison to the Gov’s head tanks…both broken, strange architectures of surveillance…but I think we’ll get to think about that more in the weeks to come).
And yeah, I think Carol is still alive. But more so – am I the only one who feels just a little ripped off that we didn’t get to see zombie-Lori?! I think that would have been cool!
Travis and all….
I am re-entering TWD conversation after a couple weeks, so my gait is a bit off. I have struggled to be invested in the show this season, because I find the characters uninspiring. I am drawn to shows largely for their character development, something that we have always said is lacking in this show. As usual, I am more inspired by your reflections than by what the show offers. I have been reading about the Eucharist and about dismembering and remembering, so the ideas about fragmented and multipliable bodies, were swirling in my mind as I watched the episode. In Jean-Luc Nancy’s philosophical reflections about his heart transplant he asks questions about what it means to have a foreign organ living on inside of you–what does this mean for understanding the ‘I’? TWD is working with this foreign germ/disease within; perhaps the baby is going to reveal something more about the emergence of the post-apocalyptic ‘I.’ I actually don’t think the writers offer any elevated reflections on dismemberment or the killer within–the dismembering felt very gratuitous, and while I naturally moved towards the sacrificial (like Kathryn), I again lost faith that there would be any substantial offering there. Whether Lori is a good or bad mother was lost on me, because the mother-son speech depended on some previous connection between Lori and Carl. But the family ties are interesting when Merle and Andrea enter the picture, and we have a revival of the Shane shadow when the ‘outsider’ is reminded that they have been left behind, that they don’t matter. ‘Kin’ is a different category in TWD, and it seems to assume that violence constitutes the relationship (we are ‘blood’); as the ‘pure’ nuclear family dies (Lori), another constitution arises that resembles the animal kingdom rather than the ‘evolved’/civilized family unit. And, Andrea, it’s time to wake up, to get back to the wild instead of flirting with creepy man, or your head will be floating in a tank. What’s in the tea in Woodbury? My partner, Michael, keeps speculating about the effects of the tea. Thoughts?
I don’t, unfortunately, have much to add. I found this episode mostly OK, and not particularly impressive. Elements of it felt formally contrived to me (music, dwelling on certain shots); I am finding Andrea’s actions difficult to comprehend; ditto with Micchone–why can’t she just be frank with her suspicions about the town. I find this highly puzzling. Given their history, would Andrea not believe her?
The only thing I have to say is that I found the conceptions of temporality implied in this episode interesting. One way view to something like the zombie apocalypse is as closing off an important dimension to human existence: the future. One’s relationship to the future is, at best, highly different and complex in the zombie apocalypse, and, at worst, is non-existent. But something like the baby and the theme of sacrifice, carves out a space for the future. Similarly, the zombie apocalypse threatens the past, not only because traditions and authorities have broken down raising questions of which and whose past, but also (perhaps more hopefully) because what is chosen to be remembered in the zombie apocalypse is open to chance (in this way, surprisingly, I’d say, the zombie apocalypse makes the past richer). It’s fascinating to think of the prison and the town in this context (and I think our talk of bio and necro power is related to this issue).
All of this is to say, I suppose, that I am exceedingly curious to see how having a baby plays out in this world.
Until next week,
So, as one of the non-parents in the group, I can’t help but notice (giggle? marvel?) at the possibility that having a baby is going to imprison the characters – quite literally, keep them in the prison – housebound, in a sense, in a way with which many young parents might resonate. Unlike Carl, this kid isn’t going to be able to lose it’s childhood right away – it can’t just ‘grow up’ prematurely like he could and had to do. Much as this show plays with our understandings of institutions like marriage, healthcare, prisons, etc., in the world in which we live (not just the world in which they live), I’m eager to see what they do with the institution of parenting.
And yeah, I’m with you on the Andrea/Michonne thing – it drives me nuts in these shows when tension is built through people behaving, frankly, not how people behave! I can’t imagine Andrea would never just say: what exactly is it you’re worried about, rather than just having the same debate again and again over whether M’s gut is trustworthy. As for Andrea, I think my sister said it best in a text she sent me while watching the episode: “why is it this woman looks like she’s about to have sex with whoever she’s talking to?” I like a little heat as much as the next guy, but Andrea kind of strips the heat from desire in that she always seems to be right in the thick of resisting doing the do.