You Can’t Be Afraid: Reflections on Season 4, Episode 2 of The Walking Dead

CarolWhen a zombie takes a chomp out of your throat there’s no screaming for help, there’s no warning others, there’s only silently dying. The opening scene in episode two is terrifying. Patrick slowly wanders D Block turning one person after another into a zombie. Walkers have penetrated the prison, and their emergence on this side of the fence is accompanied by a deadly virus. Fear strikes our survivors. If I may be cliché, however, I think this episode raises another important concern. The greatest fear that some of our characters have is of fear itself.

*Spoiler Alert*

To say that the subject of fear permeates an episode of The Walking Dead is like saying that it’s also full of zombies. That is to say, fear is both rather obvious and ubiquitous in the show. Yet there was something unique about last night’s episode and its use of fear. The fear was often self-referential; the episode was very self-aware in that sense. Carol in particular is afraid of fear. She sees it in the children among them and she aims to drive it out. For weeks she has been secretly training the children on how to handle a knife, how to kill a zombie, where to stab someone who is going to turn. Carol’s own story is marked by an evolution, from fear to fierce. She was the docile wife of an abusive husband and a worried mother. Both her husband and her daughter are dead now, and seemingly so is the Carol that lived with them. Carol 2.0 is not afraid. Perhaps her own evolution informs her training of the children. Or perhaps she believes she failed Sophia, whose fear ended up getting her killed. Either way Carol won’t allow for the children to be afraid.

Lizzy is Carol’s special project. Having been forced to kill their father before he turned, Carol promised to take care of his girls like they were her own. But Lizzy is weak, Carol even tells her this. “If you want to live,” she says, “you have to become strong.” Fear gets people killed.

There is a certain amount of truth to Carol’s perspective. The people most prone to being bitten were the weak, the terrified, those most unprepared and unwilling to kill a walker. Many of our main characters have survived this far precisely because they have hardened. Rick, however, seems to have lost his edge. It’s an intentional decision to be sure. He has chosen to lay down his gun, to spend his days farming instead of killing walkers. He has chosen not to make decisions, not to be on the council, not to be in charge. When pressed to return to leadership by Daryl, Rick responds saying: I screwed up too many times. Those calls you gotta make…you start down that road…I almost lost my boy, who he was. There’s a real legitimate fear in Rick’s heart.

In his classic work Fear and Trembling Kierkegaard defines anxiety as a peculiar kind of fear arising from our awareness that we have the freedom to choose our own fate, to define ourselves with our choices. Such is the kind of fear that is beginning to cripple Rick in the opening of season four. As he rushes into the prison to rescue the residents of D Block he refuses a gun. As he goes to help at the fence he hesitates before killing walkers. But then something changes in Rick. He takes initiative. “Get the truck,” he says to Daryl. He knows what to do. It starts with rejecting the farm. Kierkegaard might call this Rick’s “infinite resignation.” He throws down the gloves, he sacrifices the pigs. Eventually he’s going to give Carl his gun back and he’s going to strap his own on around his waist. Eventually he’s going to burn the pig pen. Their symbolic representations of Rick’s reconciling himself to his loss. He can’t be the simple farmer, not in this world, not after what he’s seen and what he’s done. Not knowing what’s on the other side of that fence and has already made its way in. Not when there’s an invisible, unstoppable, virus moving through the prison killing off people one by one. Rick must surrender.

It’s unclear yet whether we can speak of Rick as also embracing Kierkegaard’s “second movement,” the movement of faith. What we can say is that he is refusing to be afraid. He is refusing to sit by and let others make the tough calls for him. In many ways Rick and little Lizzy have both been living in fantasy worlds these first two episodes. Lizzy is naming the walkers, crying when “Nick” is killed. Rick has been playing house, even drowning out the sound of the walkers with his earphones. At the end of episode two, however, both recognize that their fear will get them killed. Lizzy takes the knife from Carol’s hand and sticks in her belt. Rick straps on his gun. Though they have much to fear, it’s clear that they are more afraid of what their fear might do to them and to those they love, than anything else. Being afraid of fear just may keep them alive. It has certainly worked for Carol.

There’s a lot to fear in the post-apocalyptic world. There’s a lot to fear in our own world. Many people are willing, like Rick, to walk into the “infinite resignation.” The world is a terrifying place and you can’t hold onto your dreams here. You must reconcile yourself to the reality of loss, impending or already realized. But in our own world far too many people get stuck in the “infinite resignation.” For Kierkegaard the second movement was necessary for finding true happiness. The Movement of faith is the belief in the absurd, it’s the moment at which one finds all you have resigned regained in relationship with God. Many reject fear, but they never move on to happiness. I am thankful for the testimony of Scripture which embraces the second movement. Paul writes to Timothy saying, “For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.” Believers may reject fear, but they may also find happiness. I hope Rick and Carol do too.

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