Recently I’ve been thinking about cannibalism…This is a rather odd thing for a vegetarian to do, but as I started watching Z Nation I got to thinking about the use of cannibalism within zombie narratives and the greater meaning and purpose it can have within the context of a story beyond being simply horrific.
I’m a huge fan of The Walking Dead, and zombies in general, and this week I’m beginning a series looking at some key themes that crop up in zombie narratives beginning with cannibalism. This week we’re looking at cannibalism in The Walking Dead, next week we’ll be discussing it in Z Nation...
Cannibalism in The Walking Dead
Episode Run: 4
First Appearance: Us (S4 Ep15)
Last Appearance: Four Walls And A Roof (S5 Ep3)
Lead Up: The final four episodes of Season 4, starting with Alone (S4 Ep13).
Key Players: Carol, Rick, Bob, Mary and Gareth
In the penultimate episode of Season 4 (Us), Glenn, Tara and the peculiar threesome of Abraham, Rosita and Eugene are reunited with Maggie, Sasha and Bob and finally arrive at Terminus. We can hardly believe the cheerful optimism of all the bright sunflowers and surrounding, and we’re very briefly introduced to the seriously creepy Mary (played by Denise Crosby, best known for her role as Tasha Yar on Star Trek: The Next Generation). The episode cuts out and we’re left with the distinct sense of trouble, but it’s vague, lurking in the dark, ready to pounce. This lends some much-needed momentum to the season finale (the oddly titled A), which would otherwise have been extremely slow right up to the point Daryl’s new motley crew crashes into Rick, Michonne and Carl. The teaser does nothing to help A, consisting of a flashback that’s nostalgic but utterly irrelevant, and a shot of Rick sitting bloody and spaced out in the dirt having clearly engaged in some violence.
Must be Tuesday.
While the teaser does eventually pay off, it’s not until the very end of the episode, and as an opener, it does nothing to draw you into the story and keep you watching. The promise of Terminus and the question surrounding the fate of those already there are the things that keep you watching.
The arrival of Rick, Daryl, Michonne and Carl at Terminus is very effective. We know a bunch of our people are already there, but they’re nowhere to be seen. They’re met by a guy called Gareth who seems genial enough but almost too nice and reasonable in the face of four filthy, heavily armed strangers sneaking up on them unawares. The barbeque Mary is constantly tending to seems very out of place in a world where food is so scarce, and there’s been no sign of livestock at all. Then we start to notice some familiar things: Glenn’s bright orange rucksack, and a set of riot gear he was wearing and had previously given to Eugene; Maggie’s poncho, and finally Hershel’s watch, which has been a persistent symbol throughout the series made all the more poignant by the flashbacks we’ve been watching throughout the episode (I told you they’d pay off!). Rick instigates a confrontation with Gareth and they run, beginning a chase scene that demonstrates the denizens of Terminus are either the worst shots ever, or are purposefully herding them.
As the four run through Terminus they pass a disturbing pile of offal, which isn’t overtly human but once again causes us to question where all this meat can possibly be coming from. Finally, they’re driven into a cargo container, in which they are finally reunited with those who arrived at the end of the previous episode. They’re all frightened. Rick gives a brief but effective speech culminating in a simple statement: “They’re fucking with the wrong people.”
It’s the not most effective season cliffhanger from the series, but it was certainly the most effective one to date when it was released, easily surpassing the hopeless air after the group’s time at the CDC (season 1), the farm being overrun (season 2), and the somewhat anti-climactic safety achieved after their successful attack on Woodbury (season 3).
Are The Real Monsters The Dead, Or The Living…?
Season 5 kicks off with No Sanctuary and a dark box that we initially presume to contain Rick and company, as that’s where we left them. People are huddled together and we hear screams in the distance. It’s only as we get a closeup on one of the people that we realise it’s not Rick, but Gareth. The scene quickly cuts to Rick and co. who are gearing up as best they can for a fight. It’s a sharp contrast and sets the tone for the episode, which is the core of the Terminus arc. It’s fast and brutal, swiftly dropping us into the harsh reality of Terminus, with a bunch of men (including Rick, Daryl, Glenn, and Bob), lined up like cattle for the slaughter. We see that the group running Terminus (headed by Gareth and Mary) are seriously twisted and utterly detached from the horrors of what they are doing. They don’t kill out of malice, or a desire to inflict pain, but simply practicality.
This is somehow far more chilling.
Several men are killed, including Sam, a survivor Rick and Carol had met previously and arranged to meet later and take back to the prison. Rick even gave him his watch to ensure he and his girlfriend made the rendezvous on time, but they never showed up. At Terminus, they’re reunited just as they find themselves at the trough of death, and Rick’s powerless to save him. There’s some seriously excellent foreshadowing in this scene, between Glenn inches away from getting brained by a baseball bat, Gareth threatening Bob, and Rick promising to kill Gareth using a machete with a red handle. We hear gunfire and all hell breaks loose, ending the teaser.
It’s by far the most effective teaser in The Walking Dead’s history.
Following the credits we return to Carol, Tyreese and Judith, but we’re not bogged down by their plot as we were in previous episodes, as they immediately collide with the Terminus plot, leaving Carol to save the day with some bold, spectacular, and astonishingly bloody moves, including blowing shit up and throwing a zombie hoard at Terminus.
Rick’s escape from the trough of death is fast, bloody, brutal and surreal, as he dispatches humans with the efficiency he would normally use on zombies in the midst of the remains of several partly chopped up humans, one of whom is the spitting image of Rick – it’s actually really creepy watching him stand there staring down at this body, whose head is twisted towards the camera at an odd angle. The resemblance is striking and a real ‘there but for the grace of God’ moment for Rick.
Between the horde of burning zombies, Carol’s solo vendetta, human carcases hung like sides of beef, and rooms filled with huge collections of stuff belonging to the victims of Terminus is a very hollocaustesque tableau, the whole episode is total insanity and excellent television.
Disturbing, poignant, and the zenith of the show’s overarching question: are the real monsters the dead, or the living?
What Is Justified In The Name of Defending Yourself And Those You Love?
Just how far is too far? What is an acceptable level of violence when you’re defending yourself and the people you love? This is the key question raised throughout TWD which is brought into sharp focus by this story arc. It’s an effective theme because it evolves naturally. Carol’s actions throughout the season have already raised the issue after she murdered two of her own people at the prison in order to prevent the spread of a deadly illness that could have potentially wiped them out. From there she was forced to kill Lizzie, a child she had adopted and grown to love and care for as her own, in order to keep the mentally unstable child from killing anyone else as she had her sister. It’s fitting that her role in this arc is so pivotal. The need to protect the group has driven her to ever more violent extremes, culminating in her attack on Terminus to rescue the group, which resulted in the deaths of most of their (substantial) group. She may not have personally killed them all, but her actions directly resulted in their deaths.
The other thread running through No Sanctuary is Tyreese’s inability to act, even in defense against zombies. He faces off against Martin, who tries to convince him that survival means killing. Tyreese refuses to believe it’s the only option and is adamant that ‘Nobody is dying today’. It’s a particularly futile assertion given what’s going on at Terminus, but it proves to be true for his little corner of the world. Not only does he spare Martin’s life, he subdues the zombies who attack them without actually killing them, instead choosing to leave them impaled and unable to move. The decision to let Martin live has consequences further down the line.
The Butcher Or The Cattle…
“And they raped and they killed, and they laughed over weeks. But we got out and we fought it and we got it back. And we heard the message. You’re the butcher… or you’re the cattle.”
As the group leaves Terminus in flames, No Sanctuary ends in a flashback to Mary, Gareth and some of the other original denizens who have been locked in the containers and repeatedly beaten and raped, while their friends and family were dragged off and killed for food. It’s a very brief scene but effectively shows the extreme circumstances that caused the residents of Terminus to become what we know they are. They take their home back at all costs, and in order to prevent the same horrors being visited upon them again, they become the things they fear the most.
As motivation goes this is extremely effective, from both a psychological and practical standpoint. When driven to such extremes, it’s understandable that it would seem like the only option is to become so brutal that brutality can no longer touch you.
Towards the end of No Sanctuary Rick declares ‘It isn’t over ‘till they’re all dead.’ The rest of the group talk him down, and they walk away. The flashback shows us Gareth promising Mary that they will ‘Take it back.’ This is starkly reminiscent of Rick’s assertion at the end of the previous episode that ‘They have no idea who they’re fucking with’.
The difference is clear: they were both pushed to the brink, and both reached the same conclusion, but in the end, Rick was able to step back and prevent himself becoming the monster in order to defeat the monster.
How To Eat People…
The story arc continues across the next two episodes. In Strangers, the group are being watched. This culminates in Bob being taken. His leg is amputated and eaten in front of him before he’s returned the group when Gareth realises Bob had previously been bitten and they have eaten ‘tainted meat’. This leads to a showdown in the church in Four Walls and a Roof, when Rick finally follows through on his threat to kill them all and makes a point of killing Gareth himself, with the red handled machete.
The fact Bob has been bitten when they consume him is an interesting twist. Although everyone is infected with the zombie virus it doesn’t activate until you die, unless you are bitten, in which case you begin a transformation to causes your death and resurrection. Although Bob isn’t yet dead when they eat his leg, they are eating flesh that contains the active version of the zombie virus. They’re killed before we discover the consequences of this.
Gareth’s views on their cannibalism are also given a voice for the first time, as he explains that their actions at Terminus were evolution, but since its destruction they have devolved into hunters, necessitating far more horrific methods than the detached butchery we witnessed at the trough of death. He states that he hates ‘all this ugly business’ and yet he seems to relish it. He also doesn’t seem to be grieving his losses, focusing only on getting more food. They’re not there for revenge, though that is surely part of it, they’re there because they’ve lost their food supply and need a new one.
The manner in which they eat Bob’s leg as he is forced to watch is seriously grisly. We realise that human meat has become their obsession. It’s not a necessity, they enjoy eating it.
The Terminus cannibals are so horrific because we know they were once good people, dedicated to helping others at the expense of their own resources, who have now abandoned everything they were, not because they were forced to face the undead, but because they were forced to face the living.
It completely saved what would otherwise have been a painfully dull end for Season 4. The final episodes of the season, following the immediate aftermath of leaving the prison, all revolve around some seriously uninteresting relationships and plot threads coupled with a distinct lack of zombie action, or action of any kind. Splitting up the group is always interesting, but focusing on only two of the factions at a time meant that the plot lines for each was seriously drawn out and had to bear the burden of at least half of a full episode. There are certain characters that don’t do well alone. The interesting storylines are drawn out, making what should have been good, dull, white the dull storylines are similarly overdrawn, making what would always have been dull, painful. The only motivation in the final episodes of the season is a promise of a reunion at the ominously named Terminus. The final four episodes of season four would have been utterly painful were it not with the threat and uncertainty of their destination looming in the distance. The fact that they don’t all arrive at the same episode helps with this, giving us a great pay off in the penultimate episode and providing the driving force for the final episode which would otherwise have been very slow.
Pitting Carol against Mary was an excellent choice, giving Carol a harsh glimpse of what surviving at any cost turns you into, and echoing the ‘there but for the grace of God’ theme we’ve seen elsewhere in the episode. For Carol, however, it’s a little closer to the bone – her actions during No Sanctuary push her a lot closer to Mary’s end of the survivor spectrum, and it’s a tipping point of sorts for her character, causing her to reflect upon past actions and question whether she did the right thing. It’s a vital point for her character and has long-reaching consequences. The final exchange between the two characters says it all:
Mary: “You could have been one of us. You could have listened to what the world is telling you.”
Carol: “You lead people here and you take what they have and you kill them. Is that what this place is?”
Mary: “No, not at first. It’s what it had to be. And we’re still here.”
Carol: “You’re not here. Neither am I.”
Carol leaves her to be eaten alive by zombies, but she does listen to what the world is telling her, and she doesn’t like what she hears.
The opening scene of Four Walls and a Roof cuts quickly between humans eating human flesh, and zombies. The noises each make are very similar, their mannerisms are reasonably similar, with the humans taking on animalistic qualities as they devour their food. The line between the living and the dead is well and truly blurred here, and we really can’t help but wonder, what is the difference?
The answer is simple: the zombies act on base instincts with no conscious thought, while the humans consciously choose to consume other humans. It’s very effective, and very disturbing, as we realise the Terminus group are far more savage than any horde of zombies.
The whole arc is a stark demonstration of the core theme of the show, allowing them to explore the lengths to which the group will go to for their own survival. It tests them to the breaking point, just as the Terminus group were tested. While our group of survivors descends as a result of the ordeal, in order to save everyone (Rick and Carol in particular), they ultimately choose not to cross the line and completely abandon everything they believe in. They walk away, giving those who survive Carol’s attack on Terminus a chance, and only kill them when it becomes clear there is no other choice, because Gareth and co. refuse to walk away.
What Didn’t Work…
Denise Crosby is severely underused. Her character is very effective where she does appear and the actress certainly has the chops to have carried more. Placing the burden of responsibility of the more brutal aspects of Terminus on Gareth, and leaving Mary in a twisted maternal role was a disservice to the show. There’s no reason she couldn’t have played a more active role in the action, especially once the zombie horde was in the complex. Her confrontation with Carol is excellent, but I kept expecting more from her and it just never happened.
One of the driving forces throughout season 6 is Carol’s internal struggle to reconcile the things she has done with her conscience. She is repeatedly forced to acts of violence in order to defend herself and others. She doesn’t question it for a long time until suddenly she does and it plunges her into a crisis that leads to her departure. The events of this arc and the stark memory of what the denizens of Terminus were willing to justify in the name of survival serves as a disturbing reflection of what she herself has become.
She may never have killed anyone for food, but she has killed people for survival, often in quite brutal fashion. Say what you will about the folks of Terminus, they were at least pragmatic and relatively merciful in the manner in which they dispatched people. Sure, they scared them shitless first, but their physical deaths were swift and relatively painless.
Carol purposefully left Mary to be eaten alive and left everyone else at Terminus vulnerable to the same fate.
It’s arguable that the things Carol did in order to rescue her friends from the Terminus cannibals were physically more violent than those carried out by the cannibals themselves. Her actions caused them to escalate their violence, and emulate her behaviour, by sentencing Bob to the same fate: being eaten alive.
And yet, even there, they were relatively kind about it – he was knocked out while his leg was amputated. They bound the wound properly. While the psychological trauma of what they did was extreme, and certainly an escalation of their previous actions, they were physically still as humane about it as possible.
The group have edged closer to the brink. They kill the last of the cannibals in cold blood, as they’re on their knees and begging for life. Rick, in particular, has had to kill humans in brutal ways before and recently (in A he rips a guy’s throat out with his teeth) but it has always been to stop those humans from killing him or the group. At the end of season 3, both Rick and Hershel were horrified when Carl made the pragmatic choice to kill another boy, despite the fact he’d surrendered because he knew that ultimately he still posed a threat.
Now Rick makes the same choice he was so disappointed to see Carl make, killing men who have surrendered because he knows that ultimately, they are still a threat.
The group are gradually losing their humanity. Rick, in particular, is struggling with this, and the events surrounding Terminus push him further down a path he may one day find it impossible to return from.