The Walking Dead has reached its mid-season hiatus, and pretty much everybody is now dead (well, okay, not really, but the television series remains true to the spirit of the graphic novel series on which it is based, and, thus, not even beloved major characters are safe). Although the episode aired over a week ago, perhaps this is a good time to note that there will be spoilers for anyone who is still catching up on the season.
As noted in earlier blog posts, what The Walking Dead shares with a more traditional western is an interest in observing humanity in a “state of nature,” in returning to a time before the institution of the laws of civilization in order to examine what is essential about human nature outside of the influence of society. The frontier setting of the western provides a “state of nature” environment where that investigation can take place. Different westerns suggest different philosophical positions as to what human existence would be like in a state of nature.
In The Walking Dead, different characters suggest different philosophical positions. Rick, especially the Rick that consults with a committee before making decisions, has become (like Herschel) someone who seems to follow John Locke in believing in a social contract (based, more or less, on notions of property, even as both Herschel and Rick also believe in—or are at least open to—sharing property). The Governor (or Brian or whatever name he’s currently using) is thoroughly Hobbesian— believing that in a state of nature every person is out for himself, and that without the order of government (or another type of authority), we are in a state of continual warfare. In this state of nature, it is kill or be killed (or, in Walking Dead terms, kill or be eaten).
The property in question is the prison, which Rick and his group currently occupy and thus possess. From the Governor’s Hobbesian point of view, it’s perfectly acceptable for him to take the group’s property—if that is what is necessary for the survival of his group. The Governor’s speech to his followers doesn’t quite put it that way, but he convinces them to follow along.
The episode’s most explicitly western moment occurs when the Governor and his “army” drive up to the gates of the prison and the Governor tells Rick that he has “until sundown” to get out of town—or to get out of the prison.
Rick offers to include the Governor’s group in the social contract, to take them in and let them share the prison. This is a compromise the Governor is unwilling to make. Rick tells him, however, if he insists on taking the prison, Rick’s group will fight back. In Lockean terms, no one has the right to take your property from you, and you are well within your rights to fight and kill someone who tries to do so, as such an act would be a violation of the most fundamental—most natural—element of the social contract. And, as Rick notes, if the Governor chooses to act in (from Rick’s perspective) a savage manner and reject the civilized offer of inclusion in the social contract, the only result will be deaths on both sides, the destruction of the prison’s defensive properties, and the subsequent incursion of zombies, making the prison uninhabitable for either party.
If there is any doubt that the Governor is not “too far gone,” he ends it by beheading the captive Herschel. That act sparks a battle, and the body count is high on both sides, although a group from the prison escapes on a bus, and the last we see of Rick and Carl, they are fleeing on foot from the zombies (attracted by the noisy battle) who have flooded through the prison’s breached defenses. The final shot is a nice visual nod to the graphic novel series, filmed from a point and view and angle that replicates the drawing of the pair fleeing from the prison in the comic book’s version of the fall of the prison.
The problem with the Hobbesian world view, the episode seems to suggest, is that is too optimistic. A philosophy of kill or be killed suggests that someone will survive. “Too Far Gone” suggests that enacting that philosophy means that, instead of producing winners and losers, everybody dies.