A Much Bigger Step Away From Humanity
The Walking Dead
Season 6, Episode 12 - "Not Tomorrow Yet"
Andrew Lincoln, Melissa McBride, Steven Yeun, Lennie James, Lauren Cohan, Danai Gurira, Michael Cudlitz, Norman Reedus, Merritt Wever
Regular airtime: Sundays, 8pm
US: 6 Mar 2016
The showdown that’s been building in some ways since the very beginning of The Walking Dead has arrived in almost Biblical proportions. Then again, things have become increasingly Biblical in the last few episodes with the arrival of “Jesus” and a war against “the Saviors”.
The twelfth episode of this season, “Not Tomorrow Yet”, begins with Carol (Melissa McBride) in full “mother” mode, a carefully chosen floral blouse beneath her apron as she works contentedly baking cookies and delivering them in Tupperware containers to various citizens in Alexandria. We’ve seen Carol adopt this front in Alexandria before, but somehow it feels more genuine this time.
In many ways, these cookies help to set up the episode in a symbolic sense, made up as they are of such disparate ingredients including acorns, beets, and water chestnuts. It turns out these various ingredients work well together; it remains to be seen whether the same will hold true for the people of the town.
The inhabitants of Alexandria, including our heroes Rick (Andrew Lincoln), Glenn (Steven Yuen), Maggie (Lauren Cohan), Michonne (Danai Gurira) and the rest, have gained a new kind of unity in the absence of regular attacks, a unity based on trust and understanding. Unexpected relationships have begun to develop, such as that between Rick and Michonne, or between Daryl (Norman Reedus) and Denise (Merritt Wever).
Yet simultaneously, beneath that unity, or perhaps because of it, individual characters have begun to develop new thoughts and views of their own about this post-apocalyptic world. Without the pressure of a perpetual enemy, they no longer need to think as a single “unified” entity. And while some relationships are developing, others are collapsing under this sort of freedom. As Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) explains to Rosita (Christian Serratos) before walking out on her: “When I first met you, I thought you were the last woman on Earth. You’re not”.
As I suggested in my last review, The Walking Dead’s beginning to focus more on human issues, rather than simply offering up a series of desperate attempts to stave off walkers. It turns out that’s been the plan all along. In fact, the deepest fracture at the moment, the face-off that always seems on the verge of exploding, was set up in the first episode of the series, when Rick encounters Morgan (Lennie James), the man who teaches him how to survive in this new world. Ironically, though, after setting Rick off on the path that would make him the leader of this band of warriors, Morgan winds up on a very different path himself, so that now they find themselves at odds in a struggle that ultimately throws everything, past and present, into stark relief.
We’ve seen versions of this struggle all along the way. Initially, Rick balked at killing walkers, unable to let go his definition of “human”. Next, several characters had to let go of loved ones who’d turned, sometimes unwilling to accept that these walkers were no longer “human”. Then came the governor, Philip Blake (David Morrissey) who forced the group for the first time to kill other actual humans. In another of these defining moments, Rick himself banished Carol from the group, arguing that her thirst for violence had grown too dangerous, that she had lost her “humanity”.
Now, however, Rick himself has taken one more step in the direction of inhumanity, making the decision to mount a pre-emptive strike on the Saviors. Although there remain some justifications for this strike—the need for food and the belief that the Saviors are dangerous thugs—those justifications are far different from the “rescues” and “defense” Rick mounted against the governor. If the need for food alone can justify attacking other humans, then killing humans must necessarily become a way of life; a very different proposition than these characters have faced up to now.
Morgan, of course, stands in direct opposition to this philosophy, as he has since he rejoined the cast at the beginning of this season. Here, he pleads with Rick to threaten the Saviors into submission rather than simply mount a surprise attack. And though he is essentially ignored and voted down by what seems to be the entire community, there are suggestions that his ideology is beginning to take hold in some corners. As we watch Glenn kill humans—defenseless humans asleep in their beds—we can see on his face that some line has been crossed, a line he has great trouble accepting.
Meanwhile, Carol’s relationship with Morgan has grown increasingly complex, and her own attitudes towards killing have begun to shift. We watch her in the opening scenes lay a cookie at Sam’s (Major Dodson) grave, a reminder that the two had formed a bond, which itself serves as a reminder of her several past relationships with children, each one of these relationships its own commentary on the nature of “humanity”.
Later in the episode, her conflicted feelings take the form of a concern for Maggie’s unborn child, when she insists on remaining behind to guard Maggie, and then tries to prevent Maggie from rushing in to help the others. If she isn’t yet willing to denounce killing, she’s deeply concerned that their actions not jeopardize this child’s chance to live.
It might seem like the central question here is which side will eventually win out—which side will be proven right. If this show had aired ten years ago, it might be easy to predict an answer. On this level, The Walking Dead is another in a series of post 9/11 arguments about the balance between freedom and security. Battlestar Galactica, for instance, explored similar ground, and demonstrated effectively the arguments for both sides of this divide. But ultimately Battlestar Galactica‘s most transcendent moments were withering indictments of the Bush administration’s willingness to defeat terrorism at any cost. The answer to the problem of security vs. freedom—and importantly, there was an answer—was freedom.
The stakes here are quite different. The Walking Dead begins, after all, with a world that’s already lost. “Freedom” has never really been a luxury anyone could afford, so by default “security” became everything. As that security has been won, bit by bit, the possibility of freedom has finally arrived, and the question can finally be asked. The show’s most recent phase has made that question its central concern.
And yet, I think the show—and likely the United States itself—has already given up on the notion that freedom might win out in the end. It might finally be part of the conversation, and might ultimately play a part in some uneasy balance, but it started out at far too great a disadvantage to ever truly win.