This Sunday marks the start of the sixth season of AMC’s The Walking Dead. Rick and the group have come a long way over the past five seasons and this one promises to be no different. The wolves are not far. However, as much as we may sometimes simplify our favorite zombie series, there is a lot more going on in the world of the The Walking Dead than questions like, “What is the best way to kill a walker.”-Hint: It’s not fire. If you set a zombie on fire than all you have is a flaming zombie.- After all, surviving in the apocalyptic wasteland requires a lot of things, but sometimes you have to wonder, “Is morality one of them?”
Moral universalism is the idea that there exists a right and a wrong outside of our own judgements and decisions. Basically, it means that the universe has a static right and wrong to it independent of human thought and circumstance. As the show opens, way back in season 1, this was Rick’s view of the world. To a young and beardless Sheriff Grimes there was a right and wrong, and he walked that line as best as he could. There is even a moment in that first episode when he apologizes to a zombie for what has happened to her. He then wastes a bullet from his gun to “kill” her out of “mercy.” These are the actions of a moral man. Rick also goes back for Merle after he was abandoned on the roof, and in season 2 he pleads and negotiates with Hershel to let them stay on the farm. The idea is that the ends could never justify the means.
Rick’s foil throughout the first two seasons is Shane, his best friend. Shane could be said to represent a sort of moral relativism. Shane’s morals are guided by the situation, the environment, and by his own need to survive. There are several types of relativisms and in the beginning we see Shane acting more in accordance with what you might call contractarianism, or social relativism. He bases his decisions and actions on what is right for the group, and what is dictated by the society he inhabits. It’s why he demands that they storm Hershel’s farm instead of asking to use it. The ends justified the means. However, as Shane becomes more isolated from the group he slides toward ethical egoism. Right and wrong become about what is best for him. It’s why he kills Otis and why eventually he plots to kill Rick.
You need to remember that both Rick and Shane were sheriffs, but maybe for different reason. As uniformed officers they were expected to uphold the law and to Rick that made sense. His universalism was reinforced by being and agent of justice. Shane, however, upheld the law because it gave him a position of power in a world of social relativism. As he saw it, the law dictated the morals of civilized society and he helped execute those rules. When the civilizations and its laws collapsed he abandoned his sheriff persona, as he believed those rights and wrongs no longer applied. Even physically he opted for more practical and comfortable clothing. On the other hand, Rick’s first action in the new world was to put on the uniform that he believed represented law and order, because his morals were universal. Civilization or no civilization he saw the uniform as representing something more. The Walking Dead has since taught us that law and the uniform do not represent morality, as demonstrated in the first half of season 5 by the rulers of the Atlanta hospital, but it is a lesson our favorite sheriff had to learn after many hard decisions.
Rick killed Shane because he had to. Morally right or wrong, the situation necessitated that Shane die and Rick live. There was a significance in that action. Rick changed forever after being forced to run a knife through his friend. It was not the first human he killed on the series but it was a threshold of sorts. In essence, he kill the character but the moral relativism of Shane endured, infecting Rick as sure as any zombie virus. Over the next three seasons we then watch as Rick’s actions change. He claimed dictatorship of the group, he turned away Tyreese’s group, and never hesitated to kill any cannibal or threat that came along. People were no longer someone he had to help. They were either part of his family, -not just Judith and Carl, but the whole group- or a threat to that family. You are with us or against us.
It is not a coincidence that as Rick’s actions became more extreme so did his look. He shed his sheriff’s uniform piece by piece, literally losing parts of himself as the series progressed. He did give his hat to Carl as if trying to bequeath his son his last bit of morality, and as he lost those ideas of law and order he also let his facial hair grow. It started as a dark stubble before becoming a respectable and even attractive beard. Yet, by the mid point of season 5 the beard and Rick’s actions had taken on a life of their own, obscuring the truth of what lay beneath. The thing about morality and beards is that if you let either of them become extreme you sometimes just come off looking like a crazy person, as Rick did when confronted by Aaron and his offer of haven in Alexandria. Michonne was right when she pointed out that they had been in the wild too long. Rick’s facial hair certainly seemed to agree.
Maybe that is why it was so shocking and so interesting when The Walking Dead once again presented us with a clean shaven and clipped Rick Grimes. Even better he was put back in a uniform and given back the responsibility of upholding law and order. Except this time, it was not the same. Those words meant different things in the new world. This time the dichotomy of the two law enforcement officers was not Shane and Rick, but Rick and Michonne. In that grouping Rick becomes the extreme one. There was no hesitation when he was finally let off the leash to kill Pete, Alexandria’s doctor and resident wife beater. The show was giving us a very stark symbol of how far Rick had come. Visually and even responsibility wise he appeared as the same person as he did from episode 1, but personality-wise he was still the survivor and the killer his experiences had made him. Yet, is he really a different person?
The Dilemma of Moral Compasses
The Walking Dead never gives us bad characters, not really. -The Governor had a small shred of humanity, the cannibals had their reasons- but we do get very good characters, Dale, Hershel, Tyreese, and even Noah and Beth. In some way they represented moral compasses or an innocence. They also did not last long. The argument can be made that Rick is the group’s ultimate moral compass, not because he does immoral things to survive but because he still recognizes the immorality of them. Rick’s journey has been long and hard, but maybe he has not come as far as one might think. The difference between him and people like the Governor, Shane, or Gareth is that they have embraced their new ethical standing. They no longer feel the guilt that comes with the acts they commit, but most of Rick’s struggle comes from his unwillingness to do so. In essence, he is sacrificing his morality, and a part of him recognizes that, because to fully relinquish those old ideals would be to become something else.
In the world of The Walking Dead, it is not the zombies who are the monsters. Becoming a zombie means becoming a creature without thought. You have no desire, no honor code, no drive other than basic hunger. No, it is the people like Rick and the group who are left to worry about ideas of morality, heroes and monsters, and that is the point. It is no coincidence that every writer on AMC’s The Walking Dead is required to read psychiatrist Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. It is a narrative about a true-life account of a concentration camp survivor and how he must reconcile civilized morality with an uncivilized situation. How do we stay human in a dehumanizing world? What even is morality in a world without civilization?
In truth, all the characters follow some form of morality. Carol may be more on the “ends justify means” spectrum but she still feels for Jessie and her kids when they are faced with a problem she can personally relate too. Glenn finds it in himself to forgive a man who shot him and got Noah killed. Even Sasha with all her PTSD refuses to pull the trigger on Gabriel. We tend to label some characters as “moral compasses” because they embody a morality closer to what our modern society considers ethical, but maybe that says more about us than about Rick and the gang. Our concerns about what action is just or right are not always the same as the show’s characters. They do what they need to in order to survive. That means the real judgment of morality is purposely left for us to judge, because what would any of us do in their situation?