The last three or four episodes of The Walking Dead have introduced a complicated new theme, one that has been handled in a way that is typical of the series, which is to say, it is almost too subtle to be noticed at some moments, and at others, almost unforgivably on the nose. The Walking Dead is not an understated series, but at times, it’s so clumsy in trying to get its point across that viewers may not get it even when it’s being bludgeoned into us.
That theme right now is that Rick and his people may no longer be the “good” guys, and several of the characters — most notably, Carol — are having problems processing that fact. Morgan may be the only character who can see clearly what’s happening with the Alexandrians, and the judgment of the viewers at home is similarly compromised by the fact that we are quick to reward the bold and proactive. Fearless characters who kill to survive are treated as heroes, while reluctant men like Morgan, who place a premium on life, are seen as misguided fools whose pacifist beliefs endanger the lives of others.
There ought to be a middle ground, and that’s where the writing on The Walking Dead often falls short. The characters bounce between the two extremes, and we don’t often get a glimpse into the gray area in between, except in rare moments like the scene last week when we saw Glenn wrestle with his conscience before killing a sleeping man in cold blood.
Meanwhile, the once timid Gabriel — who refused to kill — is killing with Bible scripture and without mercy now; Heath can’t pull the trigger, so to speak; Maggie goes all the way to one extreme and only regrets it after the fact; and Daryl either believes in the best of everyone or is inherently suspicious of all outsiders. Rick, meanwhile, is a leader to his own people, but from the perspective of anyone outside of Alexandria, could just as easily be seen as a villain. Take away The Governor’s trophy case full of zombie heads, and there’s not much separating him from Rick.
There is even less separating Rick from the Saviors. Take, for instance, this week’s episode. Maggie was interrogated about the whereabouts of Alexandria, and when she refused to provide details, her interrogator not only spared her life, but shared intimate details about her own. However, when Primo refused to compromise the safety of his own people by revealing how he came into Daryl’s motorcycle, Rick shot him in the head without hesitation. Meanwhile, Negan and the Saviors demand half of what the Hilltop Colony produces in exchange for letting them live, while Rick demands half of what the Hilltop Colony produces in exchange for murdering the Saviors. There is a slight moral difference, but the line is getting harder and harder to see.
Right now, it’s Carol whose character progression is on the fast-track between extremes. Once brutally pragmatic, Carol is suddenly under the spell of Morgan. “We can be better than them,” Morgan told Carol not four episodes ago. “We are better than them,” she shouted back. After killing Polly — the Carol of the Saviors — Carol is not so sure. After 20 some odd kills, Carol is wondering if she’s become the monster she sees in others.
The fact that she’s questioning herself and that she finally feels remorse at least proves that she still has a conscience and that she is not that monster. The same cannot necessarily be said of Rick. A day of reckoning is coming for Rick’s camp on The Walking Dead. It’s hard to argue right now that they don’t deserve it.