The best works of art, the best novels and films and TV series, come at us from many directions at once, offer up many ways of seeing. Not just in terms of theme or plot, but in terms of expression: inventive camera angles, unusual shifts in point-of-view, syncopated plot rhythms. The Walking Dead offers many pleasures, but one of those is the depth and richness of its production techniques. I might put it this way: The Walking Dead rewards close and multiple viewings.
The series’ use of sound is but one illustration of this richness: the silence of the first scene in the first episode, in which Rick searches for gas; the many haunting sounds of the walkers, so almost human, each one an individual expression, the echoes of gunfire. This week’s episode, “East”, begins with a kind of silence as well, although one broken by the insistent drip of blood. Behind this we can hear distant dialogue — we recognize Carol’s (Melissa McBride) voice, but not the man she speaks to. This confrontation, the visuals argue, is less important than the blood itself, pooling beneath the car. There’s a cry of rage and a gunshot, but louder than all of this, placed in the foreground of what we can hear is the steady drip, drip, drip.
As the episode continues, sound remains essential, providing a layer of commentary on what we see. In some cases, that “sound” is an absence: we see Tobin (Jason Douglas) whisper something to Carol, but can’t make out what it is. At other times, as in the opening, the reverse is true: sound dominates visuals, so that it controls what we perceive. A musical montage occurs early in the episode (unusual placement in most television episodes), set to Johnny Cash’s “It’s All Over”. The montage highlights relationships: Glenn (Steven Yeun) and Maggie (Lauren Cohan) in the shower, Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and Michonne (Danai Gurira) in bed. We’re given a visual sense of where everyone is emotionally at this particular moment in the series; it works as a sort of breathing space after the recent action involving Carol and Maggie’s capture and Denise’s (Merrit Wever) unexpected death.
It’s the song that tells us more than anything else. In one sense, the song speaks of obsessive, clinging love, connecting us to the way in which some of these desperate relationships have sprung up in Alexandria. More specifically, though, it speaks of love lost, love disappeared, connecting us to Carol: “I was all torn up and nervous ’cause I knew that you’d be gone”. It also sets up for Daryl’s (Norman Reedus) pursuit of vengeance, vengeance driven by his feelings of guilt: “Stop your cryin’ turn around and let her go, let her go boy, let her go”.
Once Carol shoots the Saviors on the road, we “hear” from a different perspective than we did in the opening scene; this time, it’s the machine gun turning in place after it has spent itself. Later, we see Maggie in distress with her pregnancy, screaming out, a sound that is matched with Glenn, now a captive of Dwight (Austin Amelio), calling out to Daryl through his gag. Finally, we end as we began, with the sound of gunfire and confused voices, the action taking place just beyond our sight.
In terms of theme, “East” continues to push Biblical references, a motif that seems to suggest the survivors have arrived at a new “place” in this post-apocalyptic landscape, one in which the walkers seem to have receded and the survivors seem to have an opportunity to create a new world. This week, for instance, we’re reminded of Eden, with Rick and Michonne sharing an apple in bed near the beginning. This reference is reinforced by the episode’s title, “East”, which suggests Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden. If we’re to think about Eden here though, how are we to think about it? What is Eden? Who are Adam and Eve? What will be their fall from grace?
Much like Steinbeck’s novel, The Walking Dead is too richly complex to settle for easy answers to these question or cheap one-to-one symbolism. On one reading, we might see Carol as having left “Eden” to wander in the wilderness in search of meaning. In another, we might see Daryl as having left “Eden”, tempted by the possibility of revenge. We find Maggie suffering the “pangs” associated with childbirth, supposedly a punishment for Eve’s transgressions in the garden. Or are we simply to see Alexandria as an “Eden” that our heroes have transgressed by attacking the defenseless saviors? Are we witnessing their banishment from a temporary paradise?
The “fall from grace” relates most to acquiring forbidden knowledge, a loss of innocence that has to do with learning truths about ourselves. Adam and Eve eat from the “Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil”, which has the effect of rendering them self-conscious. They’re ashamed of their own nudity. Of course, many characters in the series are confronting these sorts of truth: Carol, who leaves behind a letter saying she can no longer kill people, but who must then kill Saviors on the road; Daryl, driven by what Denise said just before she died. Perhaps the most important “revelation” — at least in this episode — occurs for Rick, who, while searching for Carol, must face Morgan (Lennie James) and his philosophy of non-violence in a way he hasn’t been forced to up until now.
Rick has maintained control over Alexandria, pushing aside Morgan’s concerns, but Carol’s departure springs from feelings very much like Morgan’s, forcing Rick to consider them more directly than he has had to when they simply came from Morgan himself. As they search for Carol, Morgan begins to work steadily on Rick’s thinking, reminding him that he too once banished Carol because he saw her bloodlust as dangerous. Rick easily deflects this argument by admitting he was wrong to do so, but Morgan has another idea in mind altogether. He points out that, had Rick not banished Carol, she could not have saved the group from the Terminus cannibals. In short, his argument is deeper than “thou shalt not kill”. Rather, he has in mind a larger connection between all events, explaining to Rick that all things are connected and allowing humans to live can bear unexpected fruits.
Morgan’s most persuasive argument, however, is his discussion of the “W” outlaw he saved and secretly kept captive, an outlaw who ultimately saved Denise’s life, who ultimately saved Carl’s (Chandler Riggs) life. The message is simple: you can’t know how your actions will impact future events, so you must be cautious in your actions. To drive this home, Morgan responds to Rick’s worry that the attack on the Saviors compound “didn’t end it”, by which Rick expresses regret that they didn’t go further; Morgan changes the entire perspective: “No. We started something.”
Morgan’s revelation about Carl has a clear effect on Rick’s thinking, an effect we can see written on his face. This knowledge, of how events are connected, changes his thinking; he’s no longer innocent about his actions. Just what fruit that knowledge might bear, however, remains to be seen.