The Walking Dead: “Wildfire”


The Walking Dead

AMC, Sundays, 9/10 PM


Written by Glenn Mazzara

Directed by Ernest Dickerson

That sound you hear, that’s God laughing while you make plans. – Jim

What defines “human”? For some, it’s how you treat the weakest member of the group. For others, it’s how you treat the outsider. Yet others would say that how you treat the dead says a lot about how you treat the living. In this slam-bang episode of The Walking Dead, the survivors of last week’s horrific attack must decide not only how they are going to physically survive, but what kind of people they want to be at the end of it. The writers have given us a nice spectrum of human behavior to choose from so far, from the nearly feral Merle and Daryl to the noble and self-sacrificing Norman and Rick. In between we get a host of characters of mixed ethical commitment, from Shane and Lori with their ambiguous relationship to the highly suspicious Dale to the mother figure of Jacqui.

Our people are over there!” – Glenn

In the wake of last week’s zombie attack, the refugee camp is burying and burning the dead. Daryl walks around shooting every single corpse in the head, as a prophylactic against their resurrection. Ed, who got the snot beaten out of him for wife abuse last week, is among the casualties, and his wife takes out years of frustration, turning his skull into mashed potatoes. This is not a show for the weak of stomach. When it comes to disposing of the bodies, some members of the group draw a clear distinction between the walkers who attacked them and their former campmates. Never mind that those killed by walkers will now join that merry horde, they were all sitting together eating fish a few hours ago and the survivors cannot bear to categorize them as the enemy now. A tearful Glenn refuses to let Daryl treat even Ed’s corpse with the kind of casual brutality he’s shown to all walkers, and insists on burying rather than burning the bodies of his friends. For people like Glenn, humanity is defined by how we treat our dead.

“That girl’s a ticking time bomb!” – Daryl

As the burials continue, Andrea crouches over her dead sister’s corpse like a dog over the body of its master. Daryl, the master of the obvious, reminds everyone that Amy will soon wake up as a zombie, and wants to put a bullet in her head. Andrea snarls him away, weeping over the body of her only remaining family. Anger and fear build in the refugees, but then Dale (Jeffrey DeMunn, Shelter) defuses it with a very humane moment. He comes over to “pay his respects” to the dead. He sits quietly with Andrea and tells her a story from his past. It’s a very human moment, an acknowledgement that Amy was loved, was valued as a person, that she will be missed. The rest of the camp has already consigned her to the category of walker, or Other, or some other non-person, but Dave reminds us all that Amy is and was more than that. It’s this kind of compassionate response that makes him one of the more likeable characters, and sets the tone for the rest of the group to respond. It also tinges Andrea’s ultimate response to the waking Amy: even as her zombified sister wakes and growls and reaches up for a bite, Andrea tenderly says goodbye—and then tenderly shoots her in the head. In the context as established in these scenes, her action is a coup de grace, an act of mercy and love. Like the opening scene in the pilot, where Rick shoots a little girl in the head, what might be a gut-wrenching moment of horror is transformed into an act of pity and kindness. For her as well as Dale, honoring the dead by acknowledging their worth is part of what makes us human; in this bizarre context, honor is a bullet through the head, delivered by your closest loved ones.

This fifth episode of the six-episode season dragged in monster ratings: a 5.6 million viewer audience, a season and series high.

“My decision. Not your failure.” – Jim

The toughest dilemma of all emerges when Jim reveals that he was bitten during the zombie attack. Knowing that any such bite leads inevitably to zombification, this means that Jim is now a walking time bomb. Of all the challenges faced by the survivors, this is the most interesting to me. Humanity has never faced such a choice before; even during epidemics, the most common response is quarantine, not pre-emptive slaughter. Most quarantined patients get weaker over time, but when (not if) Jim awakens as a zombie he will be stronger than he is now, and a real physical threat. With a 100% certainty that he will become a walker, what is the human, the compassionate response? Daryl, of course, is all for taking him out now. Rick wants to get him to the Center for Disease Control for possible treatment. That means a return to Zombie Central, aka Atlanta. On the other hand, Shane is all for going to Fort Benning, in the hope that there may be enough of a military presence there to help the decimated group survive. In the end, Rick prevails (except for one family), and the group returns to Atlanta. On the way, however, Jim grows steadily weaker, and finally asks to be left behind. After much argument, the group reluctantly agrees. They prop him under a tree, and one by one come to say goodbye. This was the most moving and compassionate moment of the show, a moment where humans do what they do best. Jim was not merely cast aside, but was honored with the acknowledgement that he was a valued member of the group, that he was important, that he was worth saying goodbye to.

Then they climb in the caravan and drive away; apparently it occurs to nobody that by leaving Jim behind they have rendered their trek to the CDC a moot point. They’ve also left a man to die—again—and made him a problem for whoever else comes along. The debate on this particular ethical dilemma will, I am sure, surface again and again on this series. It’s one of the things I keep coming back for.

I think tomorrow I am going to blow my brains out. I haven’t decided. But tonight, I’m getting drunk. – Jenner

We jump abruptly from the caravan making its slow way to the city, to the CDC itself. The lone survivor inside has been dutifully recording a report every day, working on a cure, talking to himself. If he looks a lot like Will Smith’s character in I Am Legend, it’s no coincidence. A catastrophic fire destroys most of the lab and all of his work, and as he is at the very nadir of despair, Rick and company arrive. As the walkers close in on them, they bang on the door and plead for someone to let them in. Jenner hesitates a long time, then finally the door opens. Is this the salvation they’ve been looking for? Maybe Jenner can explain the rules of zombification—certainly the earlier concern about not getting any zombie blood on the skin has quite disappeared in the wake of the last attack. I’ll confess to some unease, though; right before Rick showed up, Jenner was lamenting that he does not have any “fresh” material to work with. I am breathless with hope that Jenner will turn out to be that staple of campy movies, the Mad Scientist (bwahaha).

“I love you. That’s all I got.” — Rick

The most interesting point of this entire story, which rocked from one end to another, is that the zombies are more personal now. Whereas in the beginning we saw only a human wave of mindless chompers, now we see people we have some investment in – Amy, Jim – facing a truly awful fate. Characters like Daryl, who are at least as dangerous and nearly as mindless as the zombies he dispatches, is contrasted with a group who agree to put the safety of the whole at risk for the sake of one member. Are they being reasonable? Are they being logical? Of course not. But then humanity has never been defined by logic. We are risk-takers and heart breakers, apes who bury their dead rather than burn them, in a last gesture of respect. Even if they will, literally, come back to haunt us.

This fifth episode scored a series high, averaging more than 5.5 million viewers and a 2.8 rating in the 18-49 demo. I predict that next week will break all series records, however; the audience just keeps on growing for this show.