If you didn’t catch my rambler about last season’s finale of this fantastic AMC drama, you can check it out here, and if you haven’t seen the show at all, flog yourself immediately, apply some ointment, then settle down with someone you care to share the darkness with and watch it straight through.
You know the darkness I’m talking about, of course?
Yes, that one. We all know that darkness. The one you’re hurdling towards, the one you lurched out of, the one Johnny Cash sings about–used to such great affect in this season’s trailer. The same darkness that sends you to the mall to forget and the morgue to rot, the one that brought Basho to whisper on his death bed, “Fallen ill mid-journey. / All about the fields / Fly my broken dreams.” The one I go on and on about, because I don’t know any other way to deal with the stupid animal terror that grips me at 2 o’clock in the morning and throttles my noblest ambitions to nothing–just passing gases and foolish postures.
This zombie tale, unlike every one before it, has moved beyond the genre’s penetrating but limited insights into mindless consumerism, and the universal but blunt terror of mortality, to confront the only real question faced by men and women of conscience: devoid of meaning, is life worth living? This question, though most recently and famously formulated by Camus, has a long lineage–Epictetus and Herodotus, for example. When there is no chance the world will improve, does hope belong to the fools, or are the fools our only hope?
The show once again uses the good cop, bad cop routine to play out this question. Shane, who reveals once and for all the cold-blooded inhumanity of Utilitarian philosophy, has joined the company of such amoral realists as Qin Shi Huang and every-man-for-himself Libertarians, in order to show everyone what it takes to succeed in this world. (On a side note, if any philosophy buffs out there balk at my conflation of Utilitarian and Libertarian philosophies, I will only say that though antagonistic, both philosophies mistake actuarial calculations for moral approximations, and are thus on the opposite sides of an equation falsely premised.) His rousing incitement to slaughter was, like all righteous and terrible judgments, based on the facts. It’s a fact that most violent crimes are committed by black men, so let’s racially profile them. It’s a fact that suicide bombers are dick-swinging, lonely Muslims, so let’s enhance our interrogation techniques and bomb them ’til the sand comes off their swarthy hides. Certainly we are the upright and just.
Don’t mistake me–we need the facts; without them, we join the ranks of Holocaust deniers and limousine liberals the world over, who love maps but not the territory. Facts, however, are the beginning of wisdom, not its end. In The Walking Dead, it’s a fact that the world is over-run by the dead, and that you cannot reason with the dead, or ignore the dead, or lock the dead in a barn and pretend they can be rehabilitated. But is this not ever the problem? Are we, the living, not the measly few struggling atop the unaccountably lost? So many before us, and so many after us, that we dress up the present to magnify our importance. Go ahead, raise a crusade, smite every philistine: what’s left but our own wickedness?
Rick, the good cop, however, unlike Shane, the utilitarian bad cop, understands the power of the fool. How ridiculous it is to lead the dead around on a leash, and stuff them in a box, but also how necessary. The heavy-handed Christian references in this episode were, by the way, not simply character driven. They had a philosophical purpose. When Christ rose from the dead and told Mary, “do not touch me,” the phrase in the original Greek is actually better translated as “do not cling to me”; haptou, the Greek word, translated as tangere in Latin and touch in English, is closer to “cling,” or “hold on to.” In other words, “let me go; I am gone.” Again, however, the fact of Christ’s absence is just the beginning of the fool’s play, not its summation. In the Christian story Christ is gone, and because of this, all things are again possible. The balance is wiped clean, and the living can start again. The living can always start again, and indeed, must always start again in spite of all the dead surrounding them.
This new beginning is, however, always a foolish one, because we know the ending. It doesn’t change. Ever. There is no progress. The dead only increase, and the living can never outstrip their number: sum all the worlds and all the suns seducing life to the surface, and still, Death’s kingdom is larger by far and will always be. Yet, we soldier on. We saddle our donkeys and move out, and hope and pray that maybe, “one fine day…”
The truth is, there is simply no end to suffering until the end. Depravity and emptiness are not contingent on variable conditions as Shane believes: the world didn’t become this way; it was always this way. What Shane misses, and Rick understands, is that, “If you want to be a knight, be a knight,” and if you want to be a villain, well, there’s plenty of room for that too. Suffering is ontological, not historical, so you might as well play the fool along the way, because hope is a survival strategy, not a luxury.