When It Comes to Zombie-Killing, Father Knows Best

‘The Walking Dead’ is arguably one of the more conservative shows on television.

Katherine Don April 1, 2014

Andrew Lincoln, who plays Rick Grimes on 'The Walking Dead,' reaffirmed his Alpha Male status after getting a taste for human neck-flesh in Sunday's finale. (Gage Skidmore / Wikimedia Commons)

In Sun­day night’s fourth-sea­son finale of the wild­ly pop­u­lar hor­ror-dra­ma The Walk­ing Dead, belea­guered pro­tag­o­nist Rick Grimes rein­stat­ed his iden­ti­ty as a man who will do any­thing to pro­tect his friends and fam­i­ly, up to and includ­ing rip­ping out the necks of his ene­mies with his teeth. Such blood-and-guts hor­ror is fair­ly typ­i­cal for the show, which details the mis­ad­ven­tures of a group of sur­vivors try­ing to avoid zom­bie bites in a relent­less­ly humid post-apoc­a­lyp­tic Geor­gia. But The Walk­ing Dead isn’t just the most-watched dra­ma series in basic cable his­to­ry; it’s also arguably one of the more con­ser­v­a­tive-mind­ed shows on tele­vi­sion, some­thing Sunday’s finale reaf­firmed right along with the throat-eat­ing action.

Nettlesome questions like 'I wonder what caused the zombie apocalypse?' or 'Do you think scientists in D.C. are solving the zombie apocalypse?' are irrelevant. What’s relevant is making sure that one of zombies doesn’t take a bite out of your son.

Since its incep­tion, The Walk­ing Dead has made a point of exam­in­ing how indi­vid­u­als and com­mu­ni­ties adapt to the con­stant threat of immi­nent death via undead horde. In the show’s uni­verse, the humans who man­age to sur­vive the recent­ly deceased’s attempts to eat them clus­ter into small com­mu­ni­ties. With­in these com­mu­ni­ties, labor is fre­quent­ly divid­ed accord­ing to gen­der roles: The men hunt food, fix car engines, patrol the perime­ters and pull water-logged zom­bies from wells, while the women plant gar­dens, clean clothes, tend to the chil­dren and occa­sion­al­ly under­go dead­ly C‑sections.

The gen­der-based divi­sions with­in The Walk­ing Dead aren’t inci­den­tal; the char­ac­ters even occa­sion­al­ly com­ment on them, such as in Sea­son 2, when then-cen­tral (now-dead) women Lori and Andrea duke it out over Andrea’s refusal to cook and laun­der. The show’s writ­ers seem to be explor­ing whether tra­di­tion­al gen­der roles can with­stand a zom­bie apoc­a­lypse. And as the series pro­gress­es, the answer has become increas­ing­ly ambigu­ous: Sweet-faced Beth gets down with a cross­bow when it’s her sur­vival on the line, and the bland Tyreese finds him­self burp­ing an infant when he’s the only sur­viv­ing adult to care for it.

But even in the face of the undead mass­es, the tra­di­tion­al fam­i­ly unit — or its clos­est approx­i­ma­tion — ulti­mate­ly tri­umphs. When char­ac­ters find them­selves with­out rel­a­tives, their best chance of sur­vival is to be effec­tive­ly adopt­ed. Michonne, the katana-wield­ing war­rior, is induct­ed into Rick’s inner cir­cle in Sea­son 3, when Rick’s son Carl says that she might be one of us.” Inter­est­ing­ly, Michonne has tak­en on more stereo­typ­i­cal­ly fem­i­nine qual­i­ties since then. Flash­backs have revealed her pre-apoc­a­lyp­tic posi­tion of girl­friend and moth­er — all dressed up and serv­ing the men food — and recent episodes present her as the moth­er fig­ure in the new Rick, Carl and Michonne unit. Mean­while, in a moment of heart­warm­ing dur­ing Sun­day night’s trau­ma­tiz­ing-all-around finale, Rick tells once-lon­er Daryl that he is now Rick’s broth­er.” Thus, even as actu­al genet­ic rela­tion­ships dis­ap­pear due to everyone’s rel­a­tives get­ting eat­en, char­ac­ters still divide up into pater­nal­is­tic fam­i­ly patterns. 

Aca­d­e­mics and philoso­phers have long argued that a fam­i­ly-based moral­i­ty with­in a chaot­ic, Hobbe­sian world is fun­da­men­tal to con­ser­v­a­tive philoso­phies. In 1995, George Lakoff, a cog­ni­tive sci­en­tist at Berke­ley, posit­ed the Strict Father Mod­el” as a metaphor for the con­ser­v­a­tive world­view. The Strict Father, accord­ing to Lakoff, pro­tects his fam­i­ly from an out­side world that is fun­da­men­tal­ly dan­ger­ous and antag­o­nis­tic. He val­ues self-dis­ci­pline and believes that while chil­dren must be taught, they must then be left to their own devices rather than cod­dled. Lakoff notes that the ide­al form of the con­ser­v­a­tive father is restrained in show­ing affec­tion and emo­tion overt­ly, and prefers the appear­ance of strength and calm” — in oth­er words, pret­ty much a char­ac­ter sketch of Rick Grimes at his most effective. 

In the first sea­son, Rick, who was a sheriff’s deputy before the rean­i­mat­ed corpses took over, strug­gles to weigh the exi­gen­cies of com­mu­ni­ty coop­er­a­tion with the need to take care of his imme­di­ate fam­i­ly. Amidst these com­pet­ing pri­or­i­ties, Rick’s son Carl has always ranked first — in Sunday’s finale, Rick explains his increas­ing­ly bru­tal nature to Daryl by say­ing that keep­ing Carl safe is all that mat­ters.” And apart from all the zom­bies, the con­flict of the first two sea­sons cen­ters on a love tri­an­gle among Rick, his once-best friend Shane, and his then-liv­ing wife Lori. Ulti­mate­ly, the clash boils down to Shane’s attempt to steal Rick’s fam­i­ly to become the pri­ma­ry pro­tec­tor of Carl and Lori. In the cli­mac­tic face­off between the two of them, Shane insists that he must replace Rick as the father fig­ure. I’m bet­ter for Lori than you!” he says, and it’s because I’m a bet­ter man than you are … you got a bro­ken woman, you got a weak boy, and you ain’t got the first clue how to fix it.” But in the end, Shane’s fail­ure to adhere to the strict father” mod­el is his undo­ing: His emo­tions get the best of him, allow­ing Rick to take the open­ing and put a knife through Shane’s abdomen.

Rick emerges as the Alpha Male after killing Shane, yet Shane’s asser­tion that Rick is actu­al­ly too soft to pro­tect his fam­i­ly remains Rick’s great­est poten­tial char­ac­ter flaw. In order to defend his fam­i­ly, after all, the pater­nal­is­tic father must prop­er­ly dis­cern the harsh real­i­ty of a fun­da­men­tal­ly antag­o­nis­tic world. The Atlantic’s Jef­frey Gold­berg has fre­quent­ly argued about Dead’s obvi­ous polit­i­cal con­ser­vatism,” writ­ing that Con­ser­vatism, as I under­stand it … means in part that you grap­ple with the trag­ic real­i­ty in front of you, rather than make believe that the world, and human nature, are things that they are not.”

From this con­ser­v­a­tive view­point, life is inher­ent­ly dan­ger­ous, and men in par­tic­u­lar must be on con­stant guard to shel­ter their fam­i­ly from exter­nal threats. Net­tle­some ques­tions like I won­der what caused the zom­bie apoc­a­lypse?” or Do you think sci­en­tists in D.C. are solv­ing the zom­bie apoc­a­lypse?” are irrel­e­vant. What’s rel­e­vant is mak­ing sure that one of the zom­bies doesn’t take a bite out of your son.

The fourth sea­son has fol­lowed Rick’s tra­jec­to­ry toward ful­ly embrac­ing these bru­tal real­i­ties. In the sea­son pre­mière, Rick’s group of sur­vivors has set­tled com­fort­ably into a large prison com­plex. The tall walls and wire fences keep the zom­bies out, and Rick has become com­pla­cent as a result. In the open­ing scene, Rick tends to a gar­den with head­phones in his ears, will­ful­ly ignor­ing the menagerie of Walk­ers” leer­ing at him from behind a fence. But Rick’s depar­ture from the pro­tec­tor” role is by no means framed as an expan­sion of his skills. In last night’s finale, flash­backs to this time peri­od empha­size that Rick’s rel­a­tive­ly free time would have been more prag­mat­i­cal­ly spent show­ing Carl how to shoot a gun than how to grow cucum­bers. The Rick of these quaint mem­o­ries seems espe­cial­ly naïve when con­trast­ed with the hard­ened, jugu­lar-chew­ing man of the present day, who has indeed resumed teach­ing Carl how to hunt and shoot.

Fit­ting­ly, The Walk­ing Deads most reviled char­ac­ters are those who don’t accept the real­i­ty of the zom­bie apoc­a­lypse. Such is the case with the Gov­er­nor, the series’ cen­tral vil­lain to date, who oth­er­wise pos­sess­es many of Rick’s sto­ic char­ac­ter­is­tics. The Gov­er­nor want­ed to keep his fam­i­ly togeth­er — that’s good — but when they got zomb­i­fied some­time pri­or to meet­ing our heroes, he could­n’t accept their loss, instead let­ting his emo­tions rule over log­ic and neces­si­ty. Rather than killing his zom­bie daugh­ter to con­tain the threat, the Gov­er­nor keeps her locked up and tries to read her bed­time sto­ries. He also tries to find a replace­ment part­ner in Andrea, who looks remark­ably like his dead wife.

Char­ac­ters like these, who don’t accept the real­i­ty of an antag­o­nis­tic world, are a dan­ger to their fam­i­ly. In The Grove,” for exam­ple, which takes place halfway through Sea­son 4, the young Lizzie believes that the Walk­ers are friend­ly, mis­un­der­stood humans, lead­ing her to mur­der her bio­log­i­cal sis­ter and ruin Car­ol and Tyreese’s rosy plans to set­tle into a domes­tic unit with the two girls.

And with­in these fam­i­ly-first con­structs, The Walk­ing Dead also treats those that put com­mu­ni­ty” inter­ests above the indi­vid­ual and their imme­di­ate kin with great sus­pi­cion. Joe, the leader of a group of homi­ci­dal bik­ers, reserves the right to mete out beat­ings in the name of com­mu­ni­ty order — he’s the one who meets a gory end in the finale, cour­tesy of Rick’s neck-eat­ing. Sim­i­lar­ly, the Governor’s dystopi­an com­mu­ni­ty of Wood­bury forces indi­vid­u­als to donate their guns to the com­mu­ni­ty stock­pile. Rick, mean­while, allows the mem­bers of his group to keep them­selves and their fam­i­lies safe; in return, they’re incred­i­bly loy­al to him.

In Sun­day night’s finale, Rick is back to dom­i­nant sta­tus once again after sav­ing Carl, Daryl and Michonne from Joe’s clan. But his crew will now face down anoth­er poten­tial foe: Ter­mi­nus, where they end up, is either pop­u­lat­ed by lov­ing hip­sters or night­mar­ish can­ni­bals. Either way, the out­side groups in The Walk­ing Dead have rarely proved to be harm­less. Rick’s group doesn’t just need to fight zom­bies to stay alive; they need to fight any­one who isn’t part of the family.

Kather­ine Don is a free­lance writer and edi­tor based in Chica­go. She edits books at The Book Don and tweets about books, repro­duc­tive jus­tice, and the media @KatDon1.
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