Top 5 Takeaways From ‘The Walking Dead’

Welcome to Issue No. 14 of Listicles, the feature that presents the Top 10, Top 5, Top 3, Top 100 or Top 1,000,000 of whatever it is you want to know about. Email your Listicle suggestions to johnagliata@gmail.com.

‘The Walking Dead’ came to an end Sunday with a tear-jerker series finally that rewarded those who have stuck with the series through all its ups and downs. Enough has been written about where TWD went off the rails and why so many viewers abandoned the show. Here, we’re going to talk about the overarching themes of the show.

Let’s get to it.


No. 5: Self > Government

The entire arc of TWD is essentially about a group of survivors trying to put things back together into some semblance of society. In the process, they make several failed attempts to join other societies that have managed to advance further, faster.

And every time they do, it’s a shitshow.

Whether its Terminus, Woodbury or The Commonwealth, every community our loveable band of misfits finds turns out to be rotting and insane. The message is clear: The survivors can’t rely on others like they can rely on themselves. Joining isn’t nearly as good as leading.

The only successes these survivors have in putting society back together again is when they do it themselves, and even then there is internal fighting and squabbling that is all too reminiscent of the world before. That only serves to reinforce the message that the self — and your small tribe — is more important to survival than being in a part of what would seem to be a safety-in-numbers larger group.


No. 4: The Real Enemy is Within

This theme builds upon what we learned in the item above. It was stated quite boldly and clearly by Daryl in the season finale. There might be a virus that turns people into flesh-eating zombies, but that’s not the real enemy. The real enemy is within.

As Daryl is lambasting Pamela for becoming everything bad the world once was while consolidating her power, he says, “We’ve got one enemy: The Walking Dead.” Now, admittedly, when I first heard that line, I thought he said, “and it ain’t The Walking Dead,” but the way it was actually delivered hammers home the point ever more. That after all this time, Daryl needs to remind the people of the true enemy shows who is the biggest threat to community: Government and unchecked charismatic leaders who use their charm to sway otherwise good people to either participate in their crimes or turn a blind eye to them in the name of comfort and security.

By the way, did anyone else pick up the parallels between Pamela leading a brainless horde to the capital, which leads to mass chaos, and the Jan. 6 insurrection? Just me?


No. 3: Family, Redefined

It makes sense that, in the end, Judith is being cared for by no one close to blood relatives. That’s the way life is after the fall. Children become the community’s responsibility.

Judith’s blood parents are Lori and Shane. Rick is her dad only in that he’s married to Lori. When Lori dies, eventually Michonne becomes the person whom Judith calls Mom. But as the curtain falls, it’s Daryl and Carol who are her parental figures.

All throughout the show, you see non-combatants (or at least less-likely combatants) being the caretakers of the children. It’s an important message for us in the now, that our family are those who love us, not merely those with whom we share blood.


No. 2: Redemption Isn’t Always Possible; Try Anyway

There is perhaps no greater villain in television history than Negan. When he bursts upon the scene as leader of the Saviors, the extremely messed-up world reaches levels of messed-up never seen before.

The arc of Negan’s attempts at redemption is my favorite in the series. We spend episode after episode after episode wondering if the emerging goodness in him is real or just another plot. Is Negan lying in wait until he senses an opportunity to strike? Is his kindness to Judith real? We’re left to think that perhaps none of it was real at first, but in playing the part, something clicked.

This all comes to a head when Negan finds himself in the same position he had Glenn right before he bashed his head in. He’s on his knees, begging for his wife’s life to be spared. That leads to the emotional scene in which he is able to offer what he admits is a hollow apology to Maggie. That Maggie cannot accept it is the right response in the story. She tells Negan she can never not see Negan as the man who mercilessly attacked her husband while she begged him to stop — and who mocked her for doing so.

There is an understanding in Negan that this is his fate. He desperately wants redemption, but he fully recognizes it likely is out of his reach. In that, the moral of his arc is clear: We might change, we might want to put our horrible acts in the past, but redemption isn’t always possible. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

One of the biggest criticisms of The Walking Dead was when Rick shows Negan mercy and lets him live. In these final Negan scenes, we see that Rick was right, that living was a worse punishment for Negan than death. Of course, yes, that’s a convenient plot device, but it works. Negan is, indeed, a changed man. Yet no matter how hard he tries and how much he wants it, he’ll never outrun his past. But he’s going to keep trying anyway.


No. 1: Compromise Your Morals Or Die

No one who survives from Season 1 through Season 11 does so without compromising once deeply held beliefs. In fact, all of those who survive from any point to make it to the end of the show have done things they would never have conceived of doing before the fall.

There is no more clear example of this than Rick, who early in the series holds the belief that he will not kill a human being. By the time he disappears from the show, he has — depending on which website you believe — between 54 and 96 human kills notched on his gunbelt.

Carol verbalizes this truism in the final episode when she is confronted by Pamela, who is trying to impress upon her the burden of leadership. Carol tells her that they are used to doing the hard things. “We’ve all done things. We’ll figure it out. We’ll make sure of it.” In fact, in that very scene, she said the hard thing is not in killing but rather, “We’ve already had to make an ugly decision; kept you alive after everything you’ve done.”

TWD has a clear message: Principled people don’t survive when the shit hits the fan. Everyone has to get their hands dirty. There are no true survivors in a fallen world.

Look around. You don’t need a horde of zombies to see that today.


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