After a four-month hiatus AMC’s hit show The Walking Dead returned to television on February 10. The more than 10 million people who tuned into the midseason finale spent the holiday season eager to see what horrors and challenges will next face the show’s band of Atlanta-area survivors of a zombie apocalypse.
If you aren’t familiar with The Walking Dead, which is inspired by and draws many of its characters and storylines from the comic book of the same name, the series takes place in Georgia in the aftermath of an epidemic that has turned much of the population into animated corpses, known as “walkers” or “biters,” with an appetite for human flesh.
The story begins when Rick Grimes, a sheriff deputy in fictional King County, Georgia, is shot in the line of duty and slips into a coma during his stay at a local hospital. Grimes wakes, alone in the hospital, and emerges to find the outside world in disarray. He eventually finds his wife and son among a group of survivors—including mainstays Glenn, Andrea, and Daryl—and joins them on their ongoing quest for security and stability.
The Walking Dead is a story about zombies. It’s also a story about hope, something that the characters badly need but often have trouble finding.
Hope doesn’t fare well on The Walking Dead. The hope that the CDC will be able to develop a cure dies in a season-ending explosion. The hope that Fort Benning (an army post outside of Columbus, Georgia) will be a refuge disappears as the survivors realize that they will not be able to get there. The hope that loved ones who have turned into walkers will one day live normal lives again fizzles as the characters become more familiar with the epidemic. The hope that the zombie threat will ever be eliminated ends when the characters learn that every human has been infected and will turn into a walker shortly after his or her death.
Multiple characters on the show contemplate suicide. A couple even go through with it. The question, “Why not suicide?” comes up often. Each time it gets harder to answer. Any Walking Dead viewer who makes it through the first season will have a hard time imagining a happy ending for Rick Grimes and company. Instead of a grand, emotional M*A*S*H-style finale, one suspects that The Walking Dead will end when all of the primary characters are dead. (Ideally all of these primary characters will have been shot or stabbed in the head to prevent them from turning into walkers; but circumstances do not always allow for such luxuries.) The characters’ counterparts in The Walking Dead comic books have been dealing with the zombie outbreak since 2004 and haven’t seen any marked improvement to their situation.
Despite their bleak prospects, our protagonists do find hope and reasons to keep living. They find hope in the birth of a child, in a budding relationship, in a fortified prison, in an undiscovered reserve of food or medical supplies. Hope exists, even when despair is overwhelming.
Perhaps The Walking Dead’s zombie apocalypse is just an exaggeration of something we all experience. We know that we will die. And we know that, as we avoid death, the likelihood that we will fall into ill health or watch loved ones die increases. And for some people—such as those who struggle with debilitating ailments or food insecurity or who live amid war or famine—the stark reality of The Walking Dead isn’t that much of an exaggeration at all. Everyone loves a happy ending, but a happy ending is just the product of wrapping up a story before the protagonist faces another bout of grief, sadness, illness, or pain.
Yet, people find hope. We look forward to time spent with loved ones. We cherish new opportunities and experiences. We marvel at human spirit and ingenuity. We see beauty in the natural world. We find enough value in life to keep going, even in a world marred by sickness, violence, and death.
Christians look to a greater hope: hope that death doesn’t have the final say; hope that Jesus, by his resurrection, has defeated death, allowing us to live eternally with God. We have hope that God, through Christ and the Holy Spirit, will redeem a broken world and make us whole.
Christians also have hope in the resurrection of the body, a belief we affirm every time we recite the Apostles’ Creed. This belief hits a snag in the world of The Walking Dead, where resurrection of another sort is afoot. But the resurrection bodies that we look forward to cannot be put down by a knife to the brain. We have faith that we will one day be resurrected into much more than an animated corpse. A walker will die again; a resurrected body will not.
As the third season of The Walking Dead moves forward, I’m curious to see where the characters find hope, even as the world they know decays and disintegrates.