Every community becomes its own kind of cult. We don’t need The Walking Dead to tell us that, but I doubt if any television show has been so thorough in examining how the process happens. Every high school drama and fish-out-of-water comedy relies on cliques and other ad hoc social groups for its conflict, but those groups never seem to evolve; it’s more like they’ve always been there, and their occupants aren’t people but seat-fillers for whatever the communal philosophy happens to be. Even in adventure films like Guardians of the Galaxy, where we see the evolution from ragtag, motley crew to fully functional team, the group is defined more by their goal and their individual eccentricities than any overarching ethos. The camaraderie of shared experience can only explain so much.
We could easily say that the strictly defined groups of The Walking Dead are similarly bound by a single goal: survival. But while that’s certainly not untrue, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Whenever the series becomes dependent on a centralized location to anchor the group—the farm, the prison, Woodbury, Alexandria—the business of day-to-day survival becomes a matter of course. This is how life in the civilized real world operates: yes, we must do certain things to survive, but the relative ease (in general) of survival—the lack of immediate threats, the comforts of a dedicated living space—allow us to spend our energies elsewhere. This is when we develop opinions, interests, beliefs, personal philosophies. The world of The Walking Dead is never comfortable, but there is downtime between its epic battles, and it’s during that time that the show’s intermittently warring factions unconsciously hone their belief systems.
Consider the Wolves, the newest crew of sadistic derelicts to show up in the periphery of our beloved heroes. It would be one thing if the Wolves were simply a nasty-ass group of hunter-murderers prowling the Virginia countryside for new recruits to their army of the undead. That’s bad enough, but the killers also bear the same mark as their prey—the ubiquitous W on the forehead—suggesting that they’ve evolved from a group with a sick way of doing things to a cult that brands its members with Manson-like scars. The Wolves have taken the act of tactical killing to the level of ritual; they’ve allowed their personalities to be erased in the service of the group’s philosophy, what Lacanian psychoanalysts might call the big Other.
This is a shared quality of every fringe group we’ve encountered in The Walking Dead, and we can’t pretend as if the Grimes group is immune. The Ricktatorship flourished in earlier seasons because Rick seized power through the force of his zero-shit-taking personality. This isn’t an unheard of method for establishing dictatorial authority (see: John Fogerty) but what happened in the season five finale, “Conquer,” was more interesting. A good portion of “Conquer” was devoted to Rick’s followers offering testimonials to his righteousness around a highly unnecessary campfire. (We know Alexandria has electricity, fer crissakes.) It was half party convention, half premature funeral. Anyone with enough gumption and weaponry can ascend to office by force; it takes a true dictator to convince the populace of his own holiness and have them swear by it, regardless of their own best interests. (See: Machiavelli.)
Is it in the best interest of the group to stand by Rick’s side amid the rising discomfort in Alexandria? Maybe the better question is: What even constitutes “best interest” in a post-American nightmare world? The havoc and horror have trained our heroes to cut down their reaction time for big decisions. That may have benefited them in the wild, but here in Alexandria things are slower. We have tribunals for open debate and personal living spaces where we can sit with our thoughts without jumping up to kill walkers or being interrupted from our reverie by not-so-distant gunfire. Carol calls the Alexandrians “children,” but the truth is that they simply have more time to think than does our band of traveling survivalists. That means more time to reflect, to develop moral compasses guided by something other than suspicion and paranoia. The Alexandrians are just as adapted to their environment as our people are; the difference is that their environment doesn’t involve constant, immediate danger. Abstract concerns make plenty of sense when there’s little else to worry about.
Despite all the flaws that have been parceled out to our heroes, the show ultimately has little interest in portraying them as anything other than (generally) moral. This is why Rick’s disciples stand with him when his reputation is put on trial. As with all controversies, we know that the point of all this isn’t the accused himself; it’s what he represents in the immediate context. In this case, Rick isn’t just a loose canon, but a defender of the victims of abuse. If his followers were asked to really sit down and think about the dubious virtues of their fearless leader they might have come to some more complicated conclusions, but that isn’t what this is about. A vote against Rick has become a vote in favor of spousal and child abuse. You’d think a politician like Deanna would have seen this campaign strategy coming three states away.
“Conquer” plays with our ideas about crime and punishment so deftly that, by episode’s end, we feel as if we’ve done something wrong. I couldn’t have been the only audience member begging, begging the television screen to let me watch Glenn kill Nicholas, to let me pump my fist as Pete’s brains exploded in the firelight, to at least give me the satisfaction of seeing Gabriel take one in the balls. None of those wishes came true, of course, because this episode was about restraint. We had to be reminded that, as much as we’ve lost on the long road to faux Xanadu, our people still possess the capacity for forgiveness.
Though he was mostly relegated to the role of deus ex machina in “Conquer,” Morgan was the episode’s spirit guide, a stoic warrior who refused to kill even those who would kill him if given the chance. Morgan’s appearance in the episode’s final moments was perhaps the most emotionally grounding moment of the series thus far. Our love for our heroes had previously blinded us to the moral ambiguities of capital punishment; we’d been conditioned to hate Pete and rightly so, but we’d also been conditioned to call for blood before reason because that’s what our steadfast, courageous leader had wanted. Morgan is the pious priest we run into on our way out of the brothel; we don’t feel bad about what we did, but we’re ashamed of ourselves, and the shame forces us to question our dark impulses. We couldn’t even enjoy the moment of Pete’s death; director Greg Nicotero shielded us from the sight of his dead body to show us something even more jarring: the arrival of a person who might have offered a more levelheaded solution.
Morgan’s return offers new possibilities for The Walking Dead going forward. No outsider could ever rival Rick for supremacy within the group, but Morgan’s moral code—or the fact that he even has a moral code—makes him attractive as a possible new guru, a gentle sage whose strength in battle is tempered with humanity, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the life and times of Dale. Morgan may not pose a physical threat to Rick, but his ideology—“all life is precious”—may come as a welcome salve for a group that is war-weary and exhausted. Group lifers like Rick, Carol and Daryl like to believe that their dark sides have aided and enabled their survival, but Morgan has gotten all the way to Alexandria on his own without any such bloodlust. (True, he was far off the deep end back in season three, but that’s also when Rick was talking to his dead wife on a rotary phone.) Whatever humanist epiphany revealed itself to Morgan, it didn’t weaken his will to survive, and the combination of his survival skills with his peaceful attitude might lead him to outshine Rick in future episodes. Rick devotees like Glenn and Sasha found it in themselves to forgive, to treat all life—even despicable, wasteful life like that possessed by the coward Nicholas—as precious. They didn’t know it, but they were part of Team Morgan all along.