Season 6 of “The Walking Dead” begins with more zombies than ever as Rick Grimes and company work together to keep their home safe from a massive horde that threatens Alexandria. As Rick sets his plan in motion, everyone continues to struggle with one of the ongoing themes of the show—staying human while fighting to survive.
This theme and its corollary commentary on overcoming violence and abuse (domestic abuse, in particular) is what makes “The Walking Dead” special—even more so than the awesome special effects and the intense action that marked the season premiere—and it’s what I’d like to highlight here.
This focus on real issues people face in their everyday lives is what sets “The Walking Dead” apart from other shows in this genre and makes it more of a work of art than just a typical high-action zombie drama. It’s also a testimony to the actors’ powerful performances, especially Melissa McBride (Carol Peletier), who brilliantly portrays a victim of domestic violence.
Last season ended with Rick killing an abusive husband and setting in motion his plan to take over the community in Alexandria so it can be better protected from the walkers and humans who threaten it. Domestic violence has been a recurring theme on “The Walking Dead” for a reason. In a profound way, the characters on the show all represent people who are being abused. The people they love have transformed into monsters who don’t just want to kill them, they want to eat them alive. Even worse, when their lives have been taken, they turn into zombies themselves.
Abusers Are the Walking Dead
One of the most difficult things to deal with in abuse is that someone you’re close to has turned on you. There is nothing more horrifying than to witness the person you love suddenly transform into a monster, his tenderness turned to cruelty, his hands, once so gentle, now hard and unyielding. One moment you’re in his arms in a loving embrace—he’s everything you ever dreamed of—and the next, you’re on the floor, bleeding because you said something thoughtless or looked at him a certain way, unleashing his rage.
This is exactly what the zombies (walkers) represent in “The Walking Dead,” and it’s what fills us with dread. Family, friends, neighbors—people who were once good and loving transform into monsters that want to consume other people. This is what happens in an abusive relationship, and it’s probably why abuse is a thread that runs through the show, both in subtext and in the lives of the characters—Carol, Daryl, and now Jessie.
Theirs is a haunting, but very real, picture of what it’s like to be abused. The abuser is so empty of life, of a sense of himself (or herself), that he has to suck the life out of the person he says he loves. Abusers control their victims with fear and consume every aspect of their lives so they aren’t even themselves anymore. They become food to feed the abuser. They get to the point that they can’t even relax around regular people in everyday settings. They’re always on guard, living in fear, their life dictated, even remotely, by the abuser and his unpredictable rage.
So many people who have been abused can testify to this sense of losing themselves, as if they don’t even exist any longer. They can’t develop relationships with other people, make plans for the future, dream, or enjoy life. They can’t even delight in the little things, the innocent moments that happen every day, because they’re always looking over their shoulder, always living in fear.
They never know what will set the abuser off, what will bring the hand across their face or yelling, name-calling, and explosive rage. So they try to be everything the abuser wants them to be, anticipating as best they can that next violent outburst, but when they live with an eye always looking for that next attack, the abuser is controlling them—more than that, he is killing them, eating their souls, until they’re empty shells, becoming, in a sense, the walking dead.
Showcasing the Struggles of Abuse Victims
All of the characters in “The Walking Dead” struggle with the same emotions a victim of abuse deals with. One of the primary struggles is the need to not lose themselves as they try to survive. Life should be about living and loving. That’s a theme we hear over and over again in the show: Don’t let the walkers turn you into animals. Don’t stop being human. Don’t just survive, killing anything and just moving on, but live, make connections, build community, and love others. Most of all, remain your true self and don’t let the violence all around you rob you of who you are. Don’t become one of the walking dead. Like Carol said to Daryl last season when he was shutting down and closing himself off, “Let yourself feel.” If you stop feeling, you stop being human.
As we’ve seen in the past seasons of the show, the real threats are coming, not only from the walkers, but from other humans, people who have survived but have become abusers themselves—monsters, just without the rotting flesh. They’ve lost themselves in the fight to survive. They take life without a thought.
This is the journey we’ve watched Rick take. He began the series as the idealistic good guy, not willing to kill unless absolutely necessary—and feeling terrible afterward—always taking the high road (even to the point of going back to Atlanta and risking his life to rescue the racist Merle Dixon), always making the dignified choice—the “human” choice.
His goodness was a point of conflict with his friend Shane, who quickly abandoned principles to survive. We have seen, over the seasons, Rick become more like Shane. At times, he has almost lost himself, allowing the fear, the constant attacks, the pain of loss to destroy his humanity.
Many of the characters have had this same struggle—Sasha most recently, even to the point of lying on a bed of dead walkers as if she were one of them. Her only salvation came when she finally let go of her pain, reached out to another who was also in danger of losing himself (Father Gabriel), and found her humanity again. Now, in Season 6, she is fighting, joining with others to defend her home.
The Struggle to Survive
Last season ended with Rick killing Jessie’s abusive husband and telling the peace-loving people at Alexandria that they would have to toughen up and make hard choices to survive. The world has changed. It’s violent and abusive, and if they’re going to live, they will have to adapt—to be on guard, be strong, and make hard choices. This message could just as easily be directed to victims of abuse: you can’t pretend the abuse isn’t happening. You have to be strong and protect yourself, something one can’t do alone. Just like the characters in “The Walking Dead,” victims can only overcome when they have help, when they stand together.
The question surrounding Rick, however, is has he gone too far? Has he lost too much of himself in his struggle to survive—or is this the cost of protecting those you love and escaping the monsters who want to take your life?
At the end of Season 5, Morgan, the only person besides Carl who has known Rick since the beginning, arrives at Alexandria. Morgan saved Rick from the walkers in the series’ first episode, and they bonded as two men of principle who wanted not only to survive, but to live and care for their families. But the fight to push back against the walkers has taken its toll.
Morgan’s arrival reminds Rick of who he is and how he has changed in his struggle to survive. This is why, in the season premiere, Morgan, acting as Rick’s conscience, often reminds him of who he really is. “That’s not who you are,” he tells Rick when he refuses to bury Pete, the abuser husband, in their graveyard, choosing instead to treat him like one of the walking dead and bury him outside the walls.
In the midst of blood and gore, “The Walking Dead” provides a meaningful portrait of abuse and how to overcome it. From the particular example of Carol, who has become her own woman after being abused by her husband, to all the characters who have to live with the walking dead constantly victimizing them, we see the damage abuse does. It not only causes physical pain, but also steals away a person’s soul, a sense of themselves and their own identity as happy, healthy, loving human beings. The only way to keep from becoming one of the walking dead is for them to rely on others, to refuse to be isolated, to reach out and be a part of a community—to stop allowing the abuser to control them.
Victims of abuse need a safe place where they can rely on others who can help them and where they can step out of survival mode and really start living. Sometimes that involves leaving the abuser altogether, something that is not always easy to do. Sometimes it means opening up and talking to a trustworthy friend. Victims can’t overcome if they’re alone. Isolation weakens them and makes the abuser stronger.
Help for Abusers and Their Victims
“The Walking Dead” is one of the most popular shows on television, and, no doubt, abusers and victims alike are watching it. If you’re an abuser, take a moment to consider that you’re just like those zombies who use fear and force to eat away at those you say you love. You’re not a human being—you’re a monster, so empty that you have to constantly use other people to prop up your sad, pathetic life.
Think of those you victimize, how you drive them through life with fear, drawing them close momentarily because they think you’re the person they love, but then you turn on them, attacking them when they least expect it, feeding off of them to empower yourself. Your life is no life at all. It’s a lie. You’re a lie—empty and as revolting as those rotting zombies on the television screen. If you want to change, if you want to stop being a monster, then make that choice. Get help, get the counseling that’s available, and commit to being a better human being.
For any victims of abuse who watch the show, see what community means, how isolation is the danger as you struggle alone to survive, and how important it is to connect with other people who can help you. Like many of the characters on the show who have had to let go of the person they love because they have become a monster, you need to see your abuser for the monster he (or she) is, not the person he used to be or who you imagine him to be. Through tears, you need to let go, because the longer you believe he is really a human being who loves you, the longer you will be subjected to abuse. You can’t change him. He can only change himself.
Most importantly, his actions are not your fault. You don’t deserve what he’s doing, and you can be free—you just need to take safe steps to make sure you protect yourself. It’s time for you to stop surviving and start living, but you can’t do it alone. You need help, and there are people who can give you the support you need so you no longer have to live in fear.