The Choice to Risk: Reflections on The Walking Dead Season 4 Episode Three

HershelBethNowhere is safe anymore. Whatever our characters kept at bay for the last six months has now made its way into their home. They’ve enjoyed their peace and quiet for a while, but, as Carl points out in this episode, “It can’t be like that all the time.” Not in this world. With danger at every turn these characters must constantly risk. They risk because they must. They risk to stay alive. The choice to risk, however, is what keeps them human.

There’s always risk involved when your neighbors are zombies. But from season one risk has happened not simply because life happened. It happened by choice. Glen chose to risk his life for Rick when he got pinned down in the tank. He stuck his neck out for him, partly because he hoped someone would do the same for him. And some have. Daryl and Rick went for him and Maggie when the Governor had them locked up. They’ve risked because they cared. In episode three, however we are seeing a tension arise.

*SPOILER ALERT*

The characters are constantly taking their lives into their hands; at every corner they are conscious of the possibility of death. No one can choose not to risk. Hershel’s speech to Maggie and Rick really encapsulates the theme of this episode. He tells them:

You step outside you risk your life. You take a drink of water, you risk your life. And nowadays you breathe and you risk your life. Every moment now you don’t have a choice…

Risk is everywhere. They are literally and metaphorically in a prison, they have no freedom now. You can’t choose to play it safe, you can’t choose not to get sick and die. You can only choose one thing, Hershel says. “The only thing you can choose is what you’re risking it for.” Hershel can save lives, and that seems a good enough reason to risk his. He chooses to risk his life to save others.

It’s different for Beth. For Beth risk is the obligation. “We’ve all got jobs to do,” she says. It’s obligation that compels her. We will see in the future what she is willing to risk, at the moment she’s hardly willing to risk loving others. To love them opens her up to the possibility of more loss, more heartbreak. That’s something she has made very clear she is unwilling to endure. “We don’t get to get upset,” she tells her sister. She risks because she has to, nothing more.

The rest of the characters fall somewhere on the spectrum. Daryl and the crew willingly go out to get antibiotics, but they don’t have the personal connection that Hershel does. He sits with the dying victims like Mother Teresa, getting blood coughed on his face. Tyreese is more driven by his own needs than by the needs of others. He wants vengeance. He will go with the party to get medicine, but only because he can’t lose Sasha too. It’s still very much about him. It’s clear what Carol is willing to do for the group. She is so desperate to stop the spread of this disease that she kills Karen and David. She will do anything, but she seems, like Beth, moved less by emotion and more by obligation. she seems cold and distant. She does what must be done – risking her life to clear the hose line. But it’s clear as Rick asks her point-blank about the burned bodies that she is not the same person she used to be. She has changed, and the obligation to risk has changed her.

The choice is the difference between doing what’s right and doing what’s human. That is, the choice reminds them, and us as viewers, what it means to be human. Obligation can be valuable, but love is human. In the post-apocalyptic world maintaining humanity is key to survival. It’s not enough just to exist, to do the right things, they must exist as human beings. They must be part of this world, and yet distinct from it. To exist, to simply do what must be done, to follow impulse is to exist as a walker. The choice to risk for others makes the difference, it reminds them of who they are, it reminds them that they are really alive. The choice to risk is what makes them human.

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