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'Walking Dead': What makes this life worth living

“The genre is not about making you feel good, it is about making you face your fears…. To me, the horror genre is the genre of non-denial. It's about admitting that there is evil in the world, and recognizing that there is evil within us, and that we're not in control, and that the things that we are afraid of must be confronted in order for us to relinquish that fear. And I think that the horror genre serves a great purpose in bolstering our understanding of what is evil and therefore better defining what is good. And of course I'm talking about, really, the potential of the horror genre, because there are a lot of horror films that don't do these things. It is a genre that's full of exploitation, but the better films in the genre certainly accomplish, I think, very noble things.” 
~ Director Scott Derrickson (Hellraiser: Inferno, The Exorcism of Emily Rose) discussing the value of horror with film critic and interviewer Peter Chattaway in a 2005 interview in Christianity Today

In general, I am not a fan of horror but I am hooked on AMC’s The Walking Dead, which arguably has some of the best writing and storytelling on television. This gritty and unsettling series is based on the same-titled graphic novels that focuses on a group of survivors during a zombie apocalypse. The series is a thought-provoking example of Derrickson’s observations, confronting us with the evil without and within (Shane deserves his own series of posts), what it means to live in a world outside of our control, and confronting us with our fears. But I am particularly struck by how the third episode of this season confronts us with the question of what, if anything, makes life worth living in the midst of overwhelming suffering and horror—and that brings God talk into these open spaces.

Save the Last One” isn’t the first episode to deal with this theme. In fact, it runs through the entire series. But this episode is one of the best bringing this theme to the front burner. It is most poignantly explored in the relationship between Rick and Lori Grimes, whose son Carl has been accidently shot and lies on death’s door waiting for essential medical equipment in order for a doctor to perform surgery to remove the bullet fragments. Both characters have seen unimaginable horror, death, suffering and loss, but facing the death of their son has reduced a usually strong and determined Lori to wonder aloud to Rick if their son wouldn’t be better off dead:
Lori: Why do we want Carl to live in this word? To have this life? So he can see more people torn apart in front of him? So that he can be hungry and scared for however long he has before he… 
She trails off. 
Lori: So he can run and run and run and run? And then even if he survives he ends up—he ends up just another animal who doesn’t know anything except survival? If he—if he dies tonight, it ends for him. Tell me why it would better another way. 
Rick asks what’s changed to make her feel this way. She remembers her friend and fellow survivor Jacqui who committed suicide last season. 
Lori: She doesn’t need to be afraid anymore. Hungry. Angry. It hasn’t stopped happening, Rick. It’s like we live with a knife at our throats every second of every day. But Jacqui doesn’t. Not anymore. 
Rick refuses to accept that philosophy. 
Rick: You really think Carl would be better off dead? If we just gave up? 
Lori: Tell me why it would be better the other way. (She pauses, desperate.) Please.
By this point, we realize Lori is begging for a reason to live—a place, if we are honest, not uncommon in human experience. Far too many of us have found ourselves in a dark season where suffering and fear lurk and assault us like “a knife at our throats every second of every day.” This is a genius of horror: the zombies give our suffering and fears—that sometimes feel as if they surround and come at us relentlessly, hungrily, ruthlessly, ready to devour our very lives—physical form. The question Lori asks is a deeply human one, a question we hear throughout history, from the grief of Job, the psalmist’s cries, and Jeremiah’s laments to the griefs, cries and laments we hear from those around us today (and maybe even ourselves). A scene like this confronts us with an all too real place we get to in the midst of suffering: Give me a reason to live, to keep going.

Andrea is another character who struggles with this in “Save the Last One.” Her younger sister was bitten by a zombie, leaving Andrea to shoot her reanimated corpse. The experience devastated Andrea and she would have committed suicide if another member of their group hadn’t stopped her. She’s still struggling to find a reason to keep going. While looking for a missing member of their group, she and survivor Daryl come across a zombie hanging from a noose in the middle of the woods. Daryl bluntly observes that the man wanted to “opt out” but was too stupid to shoot himself (the only way to prevent a dead body from reanimating as a zombie). Watching the rotting and dangling reanimated corpse try in vain to grab them deeply unsettles Andrea and gives her pause—and gives us a horrifying but thought-provoking contrast to Lori’s idea of suicide as a release.

For Lori, however, the turning point is an image of beauty, grace and life: a deer—in particular, her son’s recollection of encountering one he talks about during one of his brief moments of consciousness. This particularly affects Rick, who tells his wife how the encounter occurred just before Carl was shot:

Before it happened, we were standing there in the woods and this deer just crossed right in front of us. I swear it just planted itself there and looked Carl right in the eye. And I looked at Carl looking at that deer and that deer looking right back at Carl. And that moment just… 
He sighs, looking over at his son unconscious on the bed. 
..slipped away. It slipped away. That’s what he was talking about when he woke up, not about getting shot or what happened at the church He talked about something beautiful, something living, There’s still a life for us, a place maybe like this. It isn’t all death out there. It can’t be. We just have to be strong enough after everything we’ve seen to still believe that. Why is it better for Carl to live even in this world? He talked about the deer, Lori. He talked about the deer.
Rick’s story and her son’s recollection of the deer gives Lori hope, the ability to see beyond the horror and suffering—beyond death. It calls her to something more.

It’s worth noting that in choosing a deer the writers reference a deeply symbolic, supernatural and mythological image throughout literature—one even connected with Christ in Christian writings. It is an image that invites wonder, grace, beauty and awe and calls us to something beyond ourselves.

Images and stories have great power to help us see beyond our current circumstances, to remind us of the larger reality we live in. Ultimately, a good story or image can call us to the Author and Creator himself.

Interestingly, I find this series allows for that. The first half of this season has been peppered with direct references to God, and it’s bookended by scenes of desperate prayers uttered at the feet of an image of Jesus on the cross in a church in the first episode and ending with a quote from Jesus by Maggie in the most recent episode: “A new command I give to you. Love one another as I have loved you” (a reference to John 13:34-35).

In my experience—and perhaps even in The Walking Dead itself—it is ultimately this love that answers Lori’s question. When we reach beyond the darkness to the larger reality we live in, we remember that we are loved. We remember God loves us so much that he goes to the greatest lengths to ensure our Story comes to an amazing, breathtaking end. And in that Story, we, in all our capacity for evil and destruction, are worth saving simply because he loves us. And that—even in the face of the most insidious darknesses—gives us the best kind of hope. It reminds us that, even in the midst of struggle, all will be well. That, no matter what happens in the middle of the Story, we are worth fighting for and saving—and our Story ends good. That can be overwhelmingly difficult to maintain when witnessing or experiencing the overwhelming power of suffering and the evil, but trusting that Story is true makes all the difference.

And that kind of love changes us. Part of being human means each and every one of us knows how to love—deep and desperately. As a follower of Jesus, I can only exclaim, how can we not? If we are created in his imagean image John describes as Love itselfhow can we not know how to love? Yet when we experience God's love, our capacity to love grows and deepens. We learn to love as we were created to love. We learn to love with the love we are loved bya love that conquerors fear, longs for right-ness, and sets out to right the world.

At one point, Maggie comes upon Glenn praying for his friends on the porch. It is his first time praying. Maggie admits she’s questioning her faith, but as she leaves Glenn to finish his prayer, she tells him:
I know it’s not my business, and feel free to believe in God, but the thing is you’ve got to make it okay somehow, no matter what happens.
Later, Glenn takes her words to heart when he finds her weeping over the loss of one of her friends. He reminds her of her advice to him, and he invites her talk about those she’s lost in order to help comfort her. He acts to help make things better for her—to make things okay.

Maggie’s words remind me that, in a dark and deeply broken world, we need to work with God to make things okay. We must love as we are loved. This kind of love, like the best of images and stories, calls us to something more. It reminds us of the larger Story in which we live. It transforms us. It gives us hope in the dark.

The Walking Dead is not for everyone. It is very hard to watch at times, both in its graphic depiction of violence and gore, but perhaps even more, in its depictions of the horror in suffering. And knowing where the graphic novels head, I’m not sure I’ll be able to go to all the places the series might take us. But this series does bear out Derrickson’s observations about the noblest efforts of the genre: The Walking Dead invites us to face our fears, define what it is good and, ultimately, remember what makes this life worth living.