The final episode (“Beside the Dying Fire”) of The Walking Dead‘s second season wrapped up a sequence of episodes that have drawn heavily on the series’ roots in the genre western. From the shootout in the saloon in “Nebraska” (episode 8) to the playing out of the consequences of that shooting (and Rick’s decision to bring one of the strangers back to the farm) to the final showdown between Shane and Rick, these episodes have been full of western references. The meeting of the survivors in “Judge, Jury, Executioner” to discuss the fate of the stranger Randall—as to whether or not his knowledge of the farm’s location constitutes a clear enough danger to justify executing him—could have taken place in The Ox-Bow Incident, or any other film where the frontiersmen debate the ethics of extralegal violence (aka, a lynching).
“Beside the Dying Fire” centers on a western staple—the massive attack by a savage enemy on the homestead (in this case, Hershel’s farm). The template for such attacks, as much a staple of the zombie genre as the western one, goes back at least as far as D. W. Griffith’s The Battle of Elderbush Gulch (1913). Many of the same conventions (and even the same camera shots and editing sequences) that are in Griffith’s silent film continue to be present in the zombie film, with the primary differences that the Indians of Griffith’s film are replaced by zombies, and the cavalry that rides to the rescue in the 1913 film are usually nowhere to be found in the zombie flick. We could go back even further to the captivity narrative of the 17th-century, which consistently portrayed Native Americans with a similar sense of alterity as the contemporary zombie. Mary Rowlandson, for example, describes an attack on her village: “At length they came and beset our house, and quickly it was the dolefullest day that ever mine eyes saw.” Of one of her neighbors, Rowlandson writes, they “knockt him in the head, and stript him naked, and split open his Bowels.” Her description foreshadows by several hundred years the modus operandi of the zombie attack. In making this comparison, it should be understood that representations of Native Americans in captivity narratives, and especially in Hollywood cinema, have little relation to actual Native American people. Griffith’s Indians are shaped by the imagination and cultural unconscious of their creator and represent the embodiment of savage otherness. Since zombies reflect a similar (and greater) alterity, it’s not too difficult to make the leap from one form of representation (the Hollywood Indian) to another (the walking dead).
The attack on Hershel’s farm in “Beside the Dying Fire” draws on a century of heroic last stands, of desperate settlers attempting to fight off attackers with superior numbers (be they outlaws or Indians), defending the home, the last outpost of civilization, from the savage assault. There’s more than a little of Mad Max II: The Road Warrior in the staging of the attack and defense as well.
The survivors are vanquished, the farm lost, and the still living members of the group once more on the road. In the showdown with Shane, Rick is forced to kill him, and the full effect of that killing is still to be seen. In Rick’s final speech of the season, he chastises his fellow survivors, and declares that the group is no longer “a democracy.” That Andrew Lincoln’s performance and Rick’s speech channels the performance and speech patterns (and thought processes) of Jon Bernthal’s Shane suggests that Rick may have lost more in the fight with Shane than his best friend.