In my last post, I made the claim that the underlying question posed by The Walking Dead is this: What does it mean to be human? Over and over again, faced with death at every turn, the main characters (the true “walking dead”) must maintain their humanity when the world has twisted and is twisting the answer to that question.
Near the end of the first season, a group of survivors makes their way to the CDC, assuming that they will find a cure or, at the very least, some answers as to why bodies are coming back to life. The only answers they get come from a solitary scientist and a brain scan of a victim. The scene is oddly spiritual, as the light of human life – “everything that you are, and everything would be” as Jenner puts it – provides the only light for the dark room.
Jenner never says that those neural impulses or firing synapses ARE life, only that “somewhere in them” is life. Rather than defining this in a deterministic, naturalistic kind of way, that which is human is somewhere in all of that light. It is this light which goes dark, leaving only flesh and instinct to drive the walkers.
Whatever this light is, it separates the humans from the walkers. Those of us who accept the viability of a spiritual dimension of life might even go so far as to call this the soul. But the underlying premise, and the partial answer this episode provides, is that there is something more than flesh and blood to being human. Whether that is called the soul or the “something in the synapses,” whatever it is, it is not physical.
And this is why the gore and violence of the walkers is so important to the show. The antagonists of the show’s plot, the walkers are all body, to a greatly exaggerated extent. Some may see this as just a grab at the shock value for the sake of ratings, but I’m of the persuasion that writers do things with more intention than we usually give them credit for. Where nearly every walker is killed in some bloody, ridiculous way, the deaths of the human protagonists are (with a few exceptions) almost understated in their violence and gore. Throughout the show, the walkers serve as a foil to the humans, their presence serving to reveal the true nature of the main characters.
In their extreme gore, they draw us to consider that the death of a human character is somehow different than the “death” of a walker. Their intense physicality contrasts with the spirituality of the relationships and life of the main characters. In hyping the gore, the writers have actually shown us that we are more than our bodies and more than our instincts. We are spiritual. And what becomes of our souls when faced with the pursuit of death becomes the central driving question for the main characters of the show.
And for us. As we consider Lent, and embrace our mortality, what will we allow our souls to become? As we embrace the bodily nature of our spirituality through fasting and penitence, we are reminded that we are more than flesh and blood, and that we are in need of a spiritual resurrection just as much as we are in need of a physical resurrection.