The Post-Apocalyptic Politics of Ethics in AMC’s The Walking Dead
“We are alone, with no excuses.”
—Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism (416)
Introduction: Body and Soul
Images of the end of the world abound in film, television, and video games. Global disasters and the dystopias that emerge in their wake have long been staples of the science-fiction film genre in particular. A (very) short list of examples includes Planet of the Apes, Outbreak, Twelve Monkeys, Armageddon, The Day After Tomorrow, and Deep Impact. Similarly, video game franchises such as Fallout, Metro, and Darksiders set players loose in post-apocalyptic wastelands. Within the umbrella category of disaster narratives, the zombie genre has recently emerged as a dominant force in film and gaming.1 In just the past ten to fifteen years, we have seen 28 Days Later and its sequel 28 Weeks Later, as well as the long-running Resident Evil franchise, and even zombie parodies such as Zombieland. The recent trend is prevalent in video games as well, with titles such as Left 4 Dead, Dead Space, Dead Rising, and Dead Island seizing headlines during the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 console generations.
Amid the clamor, AMC’s The Walking Dead—adapted, of course, from Robert Kirkman’s graphic novel series—has set itself apart and redefined the zombie genre for television.2 Focusing on AMC’s version of the Walking Dead story, I am interested in this vision of a post-apocalyptic dystopia in which the characters struggle to survive not only in a literal, physical sense but also in a spiritual-ethical sense. My argument is that the TV series stages a debate among tyrannical, democratic, and theocratic philosophies of political and moral governance. For the purpose of this essay, I am focusing on three central characters who dominate the storylines throughout the first three seasons: the protagonist and sheriff’s deputy, Rick Grimes; the farmer, Hershel; and the Governor, the maniacal despot of Woodbury.
Each character embodies a philosophy that is both political and ethical in scope. The zombie-infested wasteland of Georgia takes shape as a Darwinian dystopia governed by one law: “survival of the fittest.” This dystopia acts as an arena in which the beliefs these men profess are tested, when the groups of survivors face the zombie hordes, and pitted against each other, when the groups find themselves in competition with each other. Rick haltingly attempts to form a pseudo-democracy and serve as its reluctant leader. His most forceful antagonist during the first three seasons is the Governor, whose rule over the “utopia” of Woodbury is tyrannical. Yet, Rick also faces pressure from Hershel, whose Georgia farm offers a pastoral sanctuary grounded on Hershel’s Protestant religious principles.
The stances these men take can be traced back to the Reformation and Enlightenment thinkers John Calvin, John Locke, and Thomas Hobbes. In Leviathan, Hobbes asserts that the only way for humanity to emerge from the violent chaos of nature is for people “to confer all their power and strength upon one man . . . that may reduce all their wills . . . unto one will” (136). What Hobbes is describing, of course, is tyranny, precisely the sort of all-powerful rule by one man that the Governor endorses. Rick, in contrast, struggles to preserve a Lockean notion that a leader’s power is purely fiduciary and is derived from the consent of those he/she leads. The third alternative that the series entertains is that of a theocratic state: Hershel governs his family farm as though it were a miniature theocracy whose centralized authority manifests the will of God in the world.
In the following section, I review Darwin’s principles of evolutionary survival and then demonstrate how The Walking Dead presents a world ruled by such violence. I begin with Darwin because the scenario of violence for the sake of survival predicates the series’ debate over tyrannical, democratic, and theocratic modes of governance. From there, the essay proceeds through sections on Hobbes, Locke, and Calvin, in that order. Each of these sections first reviews the concepts central to each thinker’s theory of political and ethical governance and then proceeds to apply those concepts to The Walking Dead. The essay concludes with a short reflection on the existentialist tone of the series. The overarching trajectory of the series suggests that while human beings might struggle, even admirably, to cling to the vestiges of the social order and moral value system that once defined their humanity, their failure is as irresistible as gravity. All the characters eventually end up in the same situation: having to choose between the survival of the body and the integrity of the soul.
A Darwinian Dystopia: Survival of the Fittest
The world the characters inhabit in The Walking Dead is plainly Darwinian. This is partly dictated by genre: both the disaster genre and the zombie genre hinge on the premise that some form of civilization-ending catastrophe is occurring or has occurred and the survivors are faced with one primary objective: to stay alive. In this sense, the world of The Walking Dead is dictated by one supreme natural law, which Darwin is most famous for articulating: the “survival of the fittest” (318). Throughout its first three seasons, the series repeatedly probes the Darwinian proposition that only those individuals who are strong or smart are able to overcome when they are attacked by zombies—or by other humans. Both major and minor characters alike are constantly challenged to think creatively and act swiftly in order to survive, and often the difference between a major and a minor character is that the former possesses greater dispensations of these abilities, while the latter possesses less.3
One passage from Darwin’s Origin of Species rings with special clarity and urgency regarding The Walking Dead. Darwin writes about contemplating “a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds” and reflecting on the fact “that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us” (325). The deterministic nature of evolutionary biology is evident here: the laws of nature, such as reproduction and competition for available resources in the name of survival, dictate all the variations of life forms on the planet—including humans. Darwin concludes, “Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows” (325, my italics). What I wish to stress here is the Darwinian concept that the condition of nature, prior to the establishment of human societies, was essentially open and never-ending warfare. The use of physical violence in attack—to procure food or territory—and defense—to guard territory or to prevent oneself from becoming food for another organism—would have been a daily necessity.
One especially unnerving moment in The Walking Dead illustrates this point, and it occurs when Lori and Carl are feeding grain to chickens on Hershel’s farm. Interrupting a rare lighthearted moment between mother and son, Carl suddenly grows serious and observes, “Everything’s food for something else” (WD, S2, E6, “Secrets”).4 The scene then cuts to Patricia, a relative of Hershel’s, breaking the legs of several chickens and feeding them to a barn full of captive zombies.5 Carl intuits (and the subsequent shot of Patricia underscores) a central trope of the zombie narrative: that humans, who have existed at the top of the food chain for millennia, suddenly are rendered prey on which another predator is designed to feed. Humans are then placed in the vulnerable position, alongside other prey animals, of having to defend themselves from predators in order to survive. Herein lies one attraction of the zombie narrative: seeing our ontological position as the pinnacle of evolution get overturned and then watching characters wrestle with the social and moral ramifications of being cast back into the “war of nature.” In this light, Darwin’s assessment of the “grandeur in this view of life” (325) is ironic. As grand as the system of evolutionary biology is, the experience of being subject to the natural law of survival, with no sociological and political barriers in place, is nothing short of brutal.
Despite the seriousness and pervasiveness of the zombie threat in The Walking Dead, it is by far not the only threat Rick’s group faces throughout the first three seasons. Other humans are a continual problem in the first two seasons, and by season three, with the introduction of the Woodbury community and the Governor, other humans have become even more dangerous than the zombies. This fits with Darwin’s description of the “survival of the fittest”: “As the individuals of the same species come in all respects into the closest competition with each other, the struggle will generally be most severe between them” (317). After establishing a sanctuary inside a Georgia prison, Rick’s group discovers that its new home neighbors the town of Woodbury. Its leader, the Governor, refuses to share territory and resources with another group. The ensuing conflict dominates the last phase of season three and ultimately results in the slaughter of many of Woodbury’s citizens as the Governor leads them in a disastrous assault on Rick’s group, which by that time is entrenched in the prison.
The series’ most sustained exploration of this notion of competition between individuals of the same species lies in its development of the “love triangle” among Rick, Lori, and Shane. Their increasingly tense and complicated relationship dominates much of the storyline for seasons one and two. Darwin writes, “With animals having separated sexes, there will be in most cases a struggle between the males for the possession of the females. The most vigorous males, or those which have most successfully struggled with their conditions of life, will generally leave the most progeny” (317). After having been told by Shane that Rick is dead, Lori consummates a sexual relationship with Shane, only to be subsequently reunited with Rick when he finds their group’s camp outside of Atlanta. While Shane and Lori publicly retreat from each other in the wake of Rick’s return, the tension among the three main characters only increases over the course of the next season and a half as Shane privately insists to Lori that he, not Rick, is the one who saved her and Carl and he, not Rick, is the one best suited to keep them alive now. While the affair is not discussed openly until late in season two, Shane repeatedly questions Rick and challenges his authority, and this conflict between the two men (which is mostly verbal but does erupt into a fistfight at one point in season two) is clearly expressed as a contest to determine which male is most “vigorous,” to use Darwin’s terminology, which of them will “have most successfully struggled with their conditions of life” (317). The conflict between the two men gets resolved only through violence, when Rick finally kills Shane in what amounts to a Wild West-style showdown (WD, S2, E12, “Better Angels”). What I wish to stress here is that the Darwinian conditions of the post-apocalyptic dystopia dissolve the sociological obligations of friendship and marriage that these three characters formerly honored with respect to each other and replaces them with the law of “survival of the fittest.”6
While the struggle to survive is a generic commonplace in zombie narratives, my argument here is that The Walking Dead does far more than take this Darwinian premise as an excuse to indulge in excessively gory action. Instead, the series establishes these Darwinian circumstances as an environment in which to interrogate the conditions of political governance and socialized morality.7 The series’ philosophical interrogation revolves around the use and necessity of violence in what Darwin calls “the constantly recurrent Struggle for Existence” (317). In the Darwinian dystopia of The Walking Dead, the universal need for survival makes violence universal, and violence erodes the characters’ humanity.
The pessimistic philosophical position that the series (and the graphic novels on which it is based) takes constitutes a significant break from the tradition of the zombie genre. Kyle Bishop observes that the traditional zombie narrative revolves around “one key premise: the monsters represent humanity” (73). What this means is that the zombie genre is predicated on a stable set of binaries between zombies and humans: humans are good, zombies bad; humans are the protagonists, zombies the villains; humans represent what is good about humanity, zombies what is bad about humanity. Bishop asserts that The Walking Dead, in contrast, “present[s] the otherwise sympathetic protagonists as monstrous creatures” and has essentially “flipped the original allegory: humans are truly monstrous” (73-4, author’s italics).8 He goes on to argue that the main characters’ “slow, tragic loss of humanity develops into the most important subject of the story” and that the story “engages with the barbaric transformations that befall its protagonists, especially those in positions of authority” (78). Indeed, The Walking Dead raises difficult questions about the human potential for inhuman behavior once the political and moral guardrails built into modern society have been dismantled.
The series speaks poignantly to the dehumanizing effect of violence in the final phase of season two, in which Dale, who serves as the voice of moral protest throughout the first two seasons, argues with the group about executing Randall, a man who was taken prisoner after his group attacked Rick, Glen, and Hershel (WD, S2, E11, “Judge, Jury, Executioner”). Dale is the lone voice of dissent in this instance, and he pleads with Andrea to join with him in voting against the execution. He accusingly tells her, “You were a Civil Rights lawyer” before the apocalypse, but she dismisses his pleas with the pointed question, “Who says we’re civil anymore?” Dale points to the power of violence to erode the group’s collective humanity when he subsequently asserts, “The world is gone, but keeping our humanity . . . that’s a choice.” When the group does, indeed, vote to execute Randall, Dale concludes, “This world is ugly, harsh. It’s survival of the fittest” (WD, S2, E11, my italics).9 The series reflexively underscores this point about the unmitigated use of violence in the quest for survival. Dale, repulsed by the group’s decision, states that he does not want to live in such a world. Only moments later, while he is wandering outside, alone and disillusioned, he is attacked and killed by a zombie. This ironic turn of events suggests that modern morality is out of place in a Darwinian state of nature.
The series only deepens the characters’ loss of humanity in season three. While on a mission to find a cache of weapons with which to defend the group at the prison against the imminent onslaught of the Governor, Rick discovers an acquaintance from the series’ pilot episode. This man, named Morgan, had already lost his wife to the zombie infection by the time Rick originally met him, and he has since lost his son, who was killed by his own zombie-infected mother. When Rick, ever sympathetic to the plight of others, tells Morgan, “I can help you. You can heal,” Morgan dismisses Rick’s gesture by telling him, “If you got something good, that just means that there’s somebody else who wants to take it. . . . You will be torn apart by teeth or bullets” (WD, S3, E12, “Clear”). Morgan articulates the inevitability of violent competition for resources in nature. He realizes not only that he has valuable resources which Rick needs, but also that Rick possesses something, in this case shelter and territory, to which another natural competitor desires access. Morgan’s Darwinian epiphany—that individuals or groups will always end up fighting for the same finite resources—is ironically underscored by the fact that, despite their former friendship, Rick is in fact taking a large portion of Morgan’s cache of weapons, and he is doing so by force, without Morgan’s consent (at least initially). Unlike Rick, Morgan further acknowledges that in a Darwinian state of nature, violent death is all but inevitable, and if it does not come at the teeth of zombies, it will come from the triggers being pulled by other humans.
The final episode of season three capitalizes on this notion. The episode opens with the Governor torturing Milton, his former right-hand man, because Milton attempted to sabotage the Governor’s plans to destroy Rick’s group at the prison. The Governor instructs Milton in the Darwinian reality in which they are all caught, telling him, “In this life now, you kill or you die. Or you die, then you kill” (WD, S3, E16, “Welcome to the Tombs”). While the Governor is in no way the moral voice of the series, his point is essentially correct: in a Darwinian state of nature, individuals inevitably are forced to kill, whether that be zombies and/or other humans, in order to preserve their own lives. The irony of which the Governor is all too aware is that when people die, they metamorphose into zombies and are then a danger to any human they encounter. The Governor’s actions illustrate the dehumanizing effect of this endless violence when he subsequently kills Milton and leaves him locked in a room with Andrea, the Governor’s former lover, who has also betrayed him. Milton, of course, transforms into a zombie—a mindless, inhuman predator—and Andrea is bitten and infected in the process of fighting to protect herself against him.10
Hobbes: Power Is Law
According to Enlightenment political philosophy, human societies formed in response to the incessantly violent and unstable conditions of nature. In his groundbreaking treatise of 1651, Leviathan, or the Matter, Forme, and Power of a Common-wealth, Thomas Hobbes establishes his theory of social formation: the “final cause, end, or design of men . . . in the introduction of that restraint upon themselves, in which we see them live in Commonwealths, is the foresight of their own preservation, . . . that is to say, of getting themselves out from that miserable condition of war which is necessarily consequent . . . to the natural passions of men” (133). The reason that individuals gather themselves together and restrict their behavior within social boundaries is that their existence in nature is inherently precarious, due to the desires of others (desires, presumably, for resources, or what John Locke will later call “property”). John Locke, in his Second Treatise of Civil Government (1690), concurs with Hobbes. Locke asks, “If man in the state of nature be so free . . . why will he part with his freedom?” (162), and he answers his rhetorical question as follows: “though in the state of nature he hath such a right [to freedom], yet the enjoyment of it is very uncertain, and constantly exposed to the invasion of others” (162). Hobbes and Locke both reason that the need to defend oneself, or preserve oneself, from constant threats from other human beings is the fundamental reason for societal formation.
For both Hobbes and Locke, the insecurity and instability that individuals experience in nature results not from inequity, as might be expected, but from equity. Hobbes explains that nature has “made men so equal in the faculties of body and mind as that, though there be found one man sometimes manifestly stronger in body or of quicker mind than another, yet when all is reckoned together the difference between man and man is not so considerable as that one man can thereupon claim to himself any benefit to which another may not pretend as well as he” (129-30). In other words, in their natural state, individual humans are roughly equal in terms of physical and mental ability, and even though some individuals are somewhat stronger or smarter than others, these differences are negligible and do not produce any scenario in which an individual could realistically enforce any sort of undisputed superiority over all others.11
The resulting situation is not a natural order among individuals but, rather, a constant struggle. According to Hobbes, the result is that “From this equality of ability ariseth equality of hope in the attaining of our ends. And therefore if any two men desire the same thing, which nevertheless they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies; and in the way to their end . . . endeavor to destroy or subdue one another” (130). When two or more individuals (or groups) of roughly equal ability find themselves in need of the same finite resources, the inevitable result (as Darwin argues some two-hundred years after Hobbes) is conflict. Richard Tuck observes, “conflict arises as a result of men’s differing beliefs about their own power, and in particular about the means by which they might come to preserve themselves—self-preservation being . . . the aim that can most plausibly be attributed to them” (185). This conflict gets resolved in one of two ways, according to Hobbes: either one party subdues, or intimidates, the other into relinquishing claim to the resources, or one party destroys the other through the application of physical violence.12 Hobbes’s theory is revolutionary on two counts: one is that he (and Locke like him some forty years later) asserts the inherent equality of individuals, and two is that he (and Locke) views equality not as the key to natural order but as the engine of anarchy.
Without a self-evident hierarchy among individuals of the same species, decisions about the use of life-giving resources are settled by what Hobbes and Darwin both call “competition.” If all individuals are equal and all are obligated to resort to fighting for resources, then, in Hobbes’s view, “we must preserve our lives, and . . . we have an absolute right to do whatever conduces to that end” (Ryan 223). Tuck observes that, for Hobbes, “Self-preservation was indeed an extremely plausible candidate for a universal principle” of human behavior (188).13 The “absolute right” to self-preservation results in what Hobbes famously calls war: “Hereby it is manifest that during the time when men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man” (131, my italics). I wish to draw a link between what Hobbes here calls the “war . . . of every man against every man” and what Darwin calls “the war of nature” (see above). Both thinkers use the term “war” to characterize the natural, pre-societal condition in which different species, and the individual members of the same species, preserve their existence through violence. Hobbes laments, “In such condition there is no place for industry . . . and consequently no culture of the earth . . . no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death” (131-2). What Hobbes describes is a markedly Darwinian existence in which the cultivation of higher forms of human expression has no place and in which the only priority is self-preservation.
This Hobbesian “war . . . of every man against every man” is precisely the post-apocalyptic scenario that The Walking Dead sets in motion. Hobbes famously describes this natural state as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (132), and it is no coincidence that the series virtually quotes this passage from Hobbes on more than one occasion. In the climactic episode of the first season, Rick’s group has succeeded in finding the CDC (Center for Disease Control) in Atlanta, Georgia. However, the CDC proves not to be the sanctuary they had assumed it would be. Instead, they find the military cordon around the building overrun, only one surviving scientist (Dr. Edwin Jenner), and no hope for a cure to the zombie pandemic (WD, S1, E6, “TS-19”). Rather than a cure or at least the hope of finding one, the only option Jenner offers is mass suicide. In fact, he initially makes the unilateral decision on behalf of everyone in Rick’s group that mass suicide is preferable to that Darwinian “struggle for existence.” When the group understandably protests, Jenner explains to them, “You know what’s out there. A short, brutal life and an agonizing death” (WD, S1, E6, my italics). A similar moment occurs in the middle of season two, when Rick discovers that Lori is pregnant. Before notifying Rick, Lori privately debates with herself whether to abort the pregnancy. In fact, she attempts to do so by taking a handful of “Morning After” pills, but she immediately makes herself expel them. Rick finds out, nonetheless, and confronts her about the pregnancy. Still torn over the issue, Lori fears they would be condemning the child “to live a short, cruel life” (WD, S2, E6, “Secrets,” my italics). Her statement suggests that having the baby would be tantamount to imposing the death sentence on another human being.
Hobbes’s solution to the problem of living a “nasty, brutish, and short” life in nature goes beyond that of instituting a society or commonwealth. Hobbes prescribes that the authority of government be structured in a particular way: “The only way to erect such a common power, as may be able to defend them from the invasion of foreigners, and the injuries of one another . . . is to confer all their power and strength upon one man . . . that may reduce all their wills . . . unto one will . . . and therein to submit their wills, every one to his will, and their judgements to his judgement” (136). Tuck observes that Hobbes proposes a way “that we should successfully coordinate our judgments about what conduces to our preservation” (191) and that the best way to ensure this mutual self-preservation is for a society to have a single, all-powerful ruler decide what the terms are on which everyone is to agree (193). What Hobbes describes is, of course, tyranny, not necessarily in the modern sense of cruel and arbitrary power but at least in the original Greek sense of rule by an individual who singularly possesses absolute power. I take Hobbes’s point to be that bringing together a plurality of equals is not sufficient to sustain the social order since the collective will be left with basically the same problem it faced in nature: the constant struggle among equals. Hobbes’s solution is that all the members of the society must relinquish their free will to a single individual, who is then entrusted with absolute power to dictate how society runs. This arrangement constitutes a hierarchy in which power ensures order.
The Walking Dead takes up this Hobbesian philosophy of tyranny in the form of the Governor. By the time he is introduced to the series in season three, the Governor stands in absolute control of the town of Woodbury: he controls the town’s militia, all final decisions about how the town is run belong to him, and he even marshals the town’s resources in service to his own secret imperialistic agenda. On the surface, Woodbury appears to be a utopia in the sense that it provides safety and security to its citizens, along with the homely comforts to which they all had grown accustomed prior to the zombie apocalypse. Even the name “Woodbury” evokes an aura of white picket fences and suburban contentment. In one sense, this is precisely what the creation of the town was meant to accomplish. Early in season three, the Governor’s militia “rescues” Andrea and Michonne, who are then given shelter within the town. While treating the cautious pair of strangers to their first hot meal in months, the Governor tells them he will inform them of the “secret” of Woodbury, after which he proudly announces, “We’re a community” (WD, S3, E3, “Walk with Me”). The Governor subsequently declares, “We’re going out there and taking back what’s ours: civilization.” I take his use of the words “community” and “civilization” to be synonymous with Hobbes’s “commonwealth” in the sense that what the Governor envisions Woodbury to be is a self-contained group of individuals who provide for their mutual care under the leadership of one all-powerful individual (himself).
If this were the extent of the socio-political arrangement in Woodbury, it would be a happy example of Hobbes’s idealistic vision of tyrannical rule. However, the negative potential of tyranny gradually becomes evident in the Governor’s behavior. Still relatively early in season three, tensions arise among Andrea, Michonne, and the Governor over the fact that while he tells them publicly that they are free to leave when they wish, contingencies repeatedly and mysteriously arise that prevent them from actually doing so. Even prior to this, their weapons are removed without their consent—weapons that, outside the walls of Woodbury, mean the difference between life and death. When Michonne is caught trying to steal back her sword, the Governor lectures her, telling her, “People follow the rules. . . . It keeps them alive” (WD, S3, E5, “Say the Word”). In one sense, the Governor could be said merely to be fulfilling the function of the Hobbesian tyrant: that being to bend all other wills and judgments to his will and judgment. After all, Hobbes goes to great lengths in Leviathan to assert that the sovereign ruler can, in effect, do no wrong to his people: “there can happen no breach of covenant on the part of the sovereign; and consequently none of his subjects, by any pretence of forfeiture, can be freed from his subjection” (138). Hobbes’s reasoning suggests that power precedes morality, not vice versa. Indeed, MM Goldsmith argues that Hobbes “denies that laws need be just, right, moral, or good in order to be laws” (275). Instead, all a law needs in order to be a law is to be “perceptibly signified as the legislator’s command” (275). In such an arrangement, “no authority can declare a law beyond the sovereign’s jurisdiction. So the sovereign’s authority is unlimited” (Goldsmith 279). According to Hobbes’s logic, if absolute power is truly absolute, then no boundary exists to mark when the tyrant could be said to transgress in his behavior.
However, Locke articulates a dramatically different understanding of tyranny. He states, “freedom of men under government is, to have a standing rule to live by, common to every one of that society, . . . and not to be subject to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown, arbitrary will of another man. This freedom from absolute, arbitrary power, is so necessary to, and closely joined with a man’s preservation, that he cannot part with it” (158). The Governor is guilty of precisely what Locke fears: that absolute power wielded by a single individual inevitably becomes arbitrary and self-serving—not power applied equally to all members of the society, not power used for the good of the society as a whole. The Governor allows himself exceptions to “the rules” that are mercilessly applied to all other citizens of Woodbury. The arbitrary and self-serving way in which the Governor administers his authority is made clear when it is revealed that he is keeping his own zombie-infected daughter alive in a cage (WD, S3, E5). In this light, the town of Woodbury is merely a façade allowing the Governor to marshal the vast resources needed to perform the scientific experiments necessary to seek a cure for his daughter. Richard Ashcraft argues that, according to Locke, “Tyranny occurs, . . . ‘when the Governour . . . makes not the Law, but his Will, the Rule’” (228). By Locke’s definition, then, tyranny “is the ruler’s use of his political power ‘not for the good of those, who are under it, but for his own private separate Advantage’” (228). This line of reasoning clearly distinguishes Locke from Hobbes. Unlike Hobbes, Locke perceives singular, absolute power as being inherently arbitrary and, therefore, at odds with the good of the people. Consequently, tyranny, in Locke’s view, is inherently antithetical to proper government: “not only will the common good always take precedence over self-interest but, also, government will have to be constituted in such a manner as to rule out a Hobbesian Sovereign . . . who retains an interest that is distinct and separate from that of his subjects” (Ashcraft 228). While The Walking Dead spends much of season three exploring the nature, and even the allure, of a Hobbesian tyrant, the series ultimately takes a Lockean view of this type of ruler. As season three marches towards its climax, the Governor only becomes increasingly maniacal, and he abandons the good of Woodbury in favor of his obsession with revenge against Rick and Michonne.14
The Governor’s fateful actions in the second half of season three confirm his corruption of purpose—and his mastery of Hobbesian political philosophy. Rick’s group runs a covert mission to free Glen and Maggie, who have been taken prisoner by Merle, who has become the head of the Woodbury militia. The resulting firefight throws the town of Woodbury into panic. Sensing both the threat to his rule that Rick’s group poses and the opportunity to consolidate his power further, the Governor plays upon the people’s fears. With the streets of the town still smoking from the firefight, he gathers the people together and gives a rousing speech in which he recalls “the fear we all felt then” when the zombie outbreak first started (WD, S3, E8, “Made to Suffer”). He goes on to compare that fear to what they are all feeling now, and he admits, “I’m afraid of terrorists who want what we have, want to destroy us.” Therein lies his rhetorical strategy. He plays on the people’s fear of violent attack from an outside entity, and he casts this threat in the Darwinian terms of a struggle for limited resources, a struggle for existence itself.
Fear is a key component to Hobbes’s political philosophy. Reflecting on the societies of Native Americans, Hobbes writes, “where there were no common power to fear,” the members of the society live “in that brutish manner” (132). And he asserts that “fear of punishment” is the primary factor motivating members in “the performance of their covenants” (133). Ryan comments on “how important fear is in explaining the causes and character of the ‘war of all against all’ in the state of nature, in motivating persons in the state of nature to contract with one another to set up an authority to ‘overawe them all’ and make peace possible” (209). This is precisely the Governor’s intent: to use fear to consolidate his power and to motivate the citizens of Woodbury to embark on an extremely dangerous enterprise, that of attacking Rick’s group at the prison. Such an objective offers no benefit to the citizens of Woodbury, as Rick’s group in fact has no plans of threatening them anymore. It merely expands the Governor’s “empire” and gratifies his ego and his desire for revenge—at the expense of the people’s lives. The Lockean notion that absolute power creates a hierarchy in which the ruler’s will is opposed to the good of the people is fully realized in the climactic episode of season three. After their attack on Rick’s group at the prison gets repulsed, the members of Woodbury’s militia flee in fear for their own lives. The Governor stops them on the road and, without warning, murders them all (save one woman who survives by hiding under a dead body) for disobeying his orders.