WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS
So I've been reading this comic book, The Walking Dead, by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, and Cliff Rathburn. The geist of the narrative is the realistic dramatic depiction of the lives and loves of a group of survivors of a zombie apocalypse. It is gritty in its realism and generally (surprise) very depressing. The protagonist is white-boy small-town-hero cop Rick, who is shot in the line of duty, falls into a coma, and wakes up alone in the hospital a month after Z-day. He sets out for Atlanta, hoping against hope that his wife and child have survived and are in hiding there. Miraculously, he finds them, intact and in the care of his partner and best friend, among a group of survivors camped outside of the city awaiting government rescue. In his absence and based on the presumption of his death, Rick's partner has begun to move in on Rick's wife, and Rick's unexpected return initiates a power struggle between the two friends that culminates in the breakdown of the partner and, ultimately, in his death in a defensive shooting by Rick's young son. The remaining survivors take Rick as their leader and, realizing that no one is coming to rescue them, set out across the countryside in search of a safer place to live. They have several false starts and lose many of their party in heart-wrenching ways before happening upon a maximum-security prison, which they all recognize immediately as an ideal survivalist encampment, assuming they can clear the zombies out frist. In the process of doing so, they discover four surviving prisoners holed-up in the cafeteria: Dexter, a big scary black guy who killed his cheating girlfriend and her lover; Axel, a big scary white guy who looks a little like a Hell's Angels Santa Claus; a forgettable-by-design skinny black ex-junkie who is Dexter's punk lover; and, lastly, a wimpy bespectacled nonthreatening balding middle-age white guy who admits conviction for "tax fraud." The outsiders join forces with the prisoners and secure the rest of the prison for safe habitation. Things seem to be going well until one of our favorite female characters turns up decapitated. Immediately suspecting the convicted murderer, Rick and his party lock Dexter up again in his old cell. Two little girls are decaptiated and another woman mutilated before the killer is revealed, somewhat predictably, as the nonthreatening "tax" criminal. The murders raise an archetypal problem in survivalist fiction, viz. the re-establishment of law and order. Rick steps to the fore and, like Moses, declares the new law: "You kill, you die." The killer is thrown to the zombies outside the prison gate.
Meanwhile, with the assistance of his lover, the embittered Dexter breaks out of his cell and into the heretofor-sealed-off "A block" of the prison, where he raids the armory. Brandishing a shotgun, he corners Rick and his party by the gate and demands: leave the prison or die. Unfortunately, Dexter and his lover forgot to close the A-block door behind them when they left, and the standoff is interrupted by the flood of hungry zombies they unwittingly released. The ensuing battle pits all the survivors--Dexter and his lover included--against the walking dead. During the course of the firefight, a zombie ambushes Dexter from behind and Rick--perhaps acting reflexively--shoots it in the brain, thus saving Dexter's life. Dexter glares at him and says "Don't mean shit. That don't change a fucking thing. Smart man woulda let it get me."
Upon which Rick, after thinking it over for a second, calmly shoots Dexter through the head. Subsequently, he blames Dexter’s death on anonymous and accidental "friendly fire" during the pitched battle with the zombies.
This decision on Rick's part, to kill Dexter in more-or-less cold blood, eventually precipitates a moral crisis amongst the survivors and, by proxy, amongst the book's real-world readership. As a result of it, Rick is demoted from his position as sole leader and a voting council of four men (on which Rick himself has a seat) installed in his place. Rick is not upset by the demotion, but is, rather, by the judgment against his character which devolves from his killing of Dexter.
Which is really what I went through all of that to discuss. Although clearly in contradiction to Rick's rather simple-minded you-kill-you-die edict, my own emotional reaction to Rick's decision is that it was prudent, both from the point of view of personal self-defense and, especially, from the special position of authority and responsibility which is Rick's as designated leader of the group. Dexter's attitude, words, and actions clearly indicated that he regarded and would continue to regard Rick and his party as enemies, and that as soon as the immediate threat of zombie attack was met, his assault on Rick, Rick's family, and the group under Rick's protection would be renewed. Given the life-or-death consequences of expulsion from the prison, Rick's decision is clearly justified. His biggest mistake is trying to cover it up by blaming the killing on "friendly fire," which he justifies later by claiming he did not want so openly to contradict his own edict and thus potentially undermine the group's faith in him as a leader. This, of course, is the ultimate result anyway, but it might not have been--indeed, I would argue, it SHOULD not have been--if Rick had come clean about the killing at the time. His first and most fundamental mistake was to establish a homicide law with no provision for justified self-defense, which the killing of Dexter rather clearly constitutes.
If the incident in which Dexter scorns Rick’s saving of his life had not taken place, the issue would not be so clear-cut. In shooting the zombie threatening Dexter, Rick has diverted his attention, his efforts, and his ammunition from the defense of himself and his allies. Things being as they are, he would have been perfectly justified in not doing so; even Dexter himself acknowledges this. That he does so in spite of their prevailing conflict is evidence of the goodness of his character—-he still hopes that Dexter’s relationship to the group can be repaired and, perhaps, believes that life in and of itself is worth saving. Dexter’s ingratitude at the gesture is infuriating in its vulgarity and its stupidity; smart man, we are tempted to chastise him, woulda kept his mouth shut. From a legalistic perspective, moreover, it provides all the evidence Rick needs that Dexter is a continued threat and should be eliminated as a matter of rational self-defense. This is the important point: Dexter’s statement is evidence of his ongoing hostile intent.
So offensive is Dexter’s ingratitude, in fact, that in itself it might seem grounds for Rick’s action. It is tempting, along this line, to argue that Rick’s saving of Dexter’s life entitles him, for at least a short of period of time, to renege on that decision and end it. This is in keeping with the tradition, in many cultures, that a person whose life is saved by another is thereby indentured to that person, in a sense, and is obliged to serve his or her savior until death or the return of the favor. Consider the following twist on the situation: Dexter is in the act of staging a public suicide, with a gun to his own head, when the zombie attack breaks out. Rick then saves his life exactly as before, and Dexter responds, again ungratefully, weeping, “Shoulda let it get me, man. Shoulda let it get me.” Would Rick then be justified in killing him? Most folks, I think, would say “no.” Therefore we reject the notion of a special “license to kill” that devolves upon Rick on his saving of Drexel’s life, and likewise of the “aesthetic” argument that Drexel’s ingratitude itself justifies the homicide.
But, given that the killing-as-told is clearly justifiable, why is Rick judged? Certainly he made mistakes, as mentioned above: He established an overly-simplistic law and then tried to cover up his own violation thereof. But overall his actions were entirely well-intentioned if not, perhaps, as well-thought-out as they might be. Rick is a cop, after all, not a lawyer or an intellectual. Why then does Tyreese, in particular, hold him to blame for Dexter’s killing? The answer, in keeping with the general direction that many of the book’s subplots are moving, is racism. Tyreese, a strong black man who, up to this point in the story, has been Rick’s best friend, made a brief living as a pro football player before Z-day. Although, by his own admission, he was not very good and did not last very long in the pro league, he made enough money during his brief stint to establish a comfortable middle-class living for himself and his daughter, who, in one of many tragic subplots, dies in a suicide pact with her white boyfriend early on in the story. Tyreese understands, in a way that Rick probably never can, the anger Dexter must’ve felt at being wrongly imprisoned for a crazy white man’s crimes, and surely he must wonder, if Dexter had been white, would Rick still have pulled the trigger? Dexter, as I’ve already hinted at, was (probably deliberately) drawn by the book’s authors as the prototypical white suburbanite’s nightmare nigger: physically powerful, none too bright, extremely angry, and prone to violence. Although Rick, unlike some of the book’s other characters, is not consciously racist, he is a white police officer from a small town in Georgia, and the other survivors-—who were probably not privy to the brief dialogue that precipitated the killing—-must surely wonder to what extent Rick’s subconscious fears might’ve motivated the shooting. Rick’s hypocrisy in the application of his own moral code, by which he himself should be killed for killing Dexter, also invites racist suspicions when compared to the treatment of the “tax criminal.” Although their crimes are not really comparable, the code that justified the execution of the murderer clearly justifies Rick’s own execution, and the fact that such reciprocation isn’t even briefly considered by any of the parties concerned seems to suggest that, while killing a white woman will get you thrown to the zombies, killing a black man elicits little more than a slap on the wrist. It’s somewhat of a manufactured crisis that can be dispelled with a bit of rational thinking, but as any reader of the book must understand, people, and these characters in particular, aren’t always rational people. Clearly, a storm of racial tension is coming in book 5.
Whew. That was a lot of high-minded speculation over a comic book, but it felt good to do it. Although I was somewhat disappointed with the 4th and most recent volume of The Walking Dead, the fact that it elicited so much moral speculation on my part indicates that it’s still an effective and engaging story. My disappointment on finishing the 4th volume was really the disappointment of a junkie who, having waited three months to score, finds that he has not bought enough dope to satisfy his craving. The storyline of TWD is incredibly engrossing, and, because of the nature of the comics medium, it can be consumed orders of magnitude faster than it can be produced. Although it’s an ideal situation in terms of sales and marketing, it’s not really enjoyable, as a reader, to be constantly strung out. I have the option, of course, of buying the individual monthly issues instead of the bound quarterly volumes, but that is somewhat of an affront to my compulsive side, which wants my entire TWD collection to be in a consistent format. Maybe I’ll buy the monthly issues and then sell them back when the quarterly volumes come out, if I can find a place that will buy them from me.
If you managed to stick with me through all that, all I can say is “Thanks.” :) If you feel inclined, you might do me (and yourself) a favor: go out and buy or borrow the series, read it for yourself, and let me know what you think. John Gardner has called fiction the art of “concrete philosophy;” if that’s so, then arguing about books and their meanings is one of the best things we can do to better ourselves as philosophers.