The House that Rick built: “Four Walls and a Roof”

This is this week’s post on the most recent episode of The Walking Dead.

One thing I want to say about my reviews, present, past a future:
I don’t want any reader to think that I propose violence or savagery to right wrongs or address evil or social problems. Any interpretation along that lines is absurd, and a complete falsification of my essays.

I see TWD as a fable, an allegory, and the essays I write about it are in that vein. For me Scott Gimple is a modern-day, albeit somewhat tortured, Aesop.


Am I psychic? Or a master of stating the obvious?

As I had hoped for in my last TWD posting, so it became and Bob had a little surprise for Gareth and his group. The ironies here abound.

Before diving in, the topic of cannibalism took on an interesting dimension for me in watching last Sunday’s episode that I wanted to explore.

The last two episodes, actually two parts of one story arc, take place in and around a church. Religion, confession, forgiveness, damnation, redemption, justice and even communion are explored.

There’s a lot of confession at the altar: Gabriel confesses to Rick, Gabriel later confesses to Rick. Rick here is the confessor, the priest. He dispenses forgiveness (earlier with Tara), cautious mercy (Rick’s warning to Gabriel about protecting his “family”), or excommunication for Gareth.

Then there’s communion.

Communion. At one point Rick thanks Father Gabriel for sharing the “communion wine” with the group. Gabriel reminds Rick “it ain’t holy until it’s blessed.”

Communion. According to the doctrine of transubstantiation, communion is:

the consecration of the bread and wine there takes place a change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood.[i]

Father Gabriel’s church is an Episcopal church. A literal look at the episode leads to the question: does the Episcopal church follow this doctrine? Well, as a former Episcopalian, I’ll tell it to you straight: I don’t know. I looked it up, and I still don’t know.  What I did find, interesting enough, is the idea that:

for those who receive the form or sign without faith, or for those who are wicked, Christ is not present spiritually, and they consume only the physical signs of this holy presence, which further adds to their wickedness[ii]

This is where we find Gareth.  Just as Father Gabriel’s church is a perversion of the idea of Christianity where people are to be saved from an eternal death, Gareth’s practice is a depraved perversion of communion.

Because Gareth can’t engage in holy communion, so what he consumes only adds to his wickedness. When he hears a baby crying in a church, he is so committed to evil that the sound doesn’t call to his humanity, it’s a siren call to his brutality.

In “Four Walls and a Roof,” we find Bob filling an almost Christ-like position. He is tied to a stake, persecuted. On his deathbed, he reiterates his optimistic faith to Rick who holds Judith. It is in the baby’s existence Bob urges Rick to believe in change for the world. He lays dying, saying his good-byes to his friends, under a carving of The Last Supper, when Christ says good-bye to his.

I could write from now until The Walking Dead is something we tell our grandkids about and still not get to the bottom of all the theology and religion that gets presented, examined and turned inside out – as does the idea of communion – and still not get to the bottom of it.

In the sanctuary of the church, five bible verses are listed. For non-church goers, this is unusual. The board is usually used to display maybe a reading or two, then the hymn numbers from the hymnal. So, seeing this unusual use, I found the following passages based on the board:

Romans 6:4
For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him.

Luke 24:5
In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?

(This is interesting. In the previous episode, Abraham says in his invitation to DC that “the dead shall die and the world shall return to the living.”)

Ezekial 37:7
So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone.

Matthew 27:52
and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life.

Revelations 9:6
During those days people will seek death but will not find it; they will long to die, but death will elude them.

So, this is where it becomes tricky as to whether the writer was simply having a bit of Biblical fun for readers with too much time on a Sunday night, or if he was pointing to a deeper theme or meaning. A good debate could take decades. I will say that I when I read the Ezekiel and Matthew passages, I imagined Gabriel huddled behind his desk, reading those very texts as he couldn’t help but hear outside:

“the dead came for them. … entire families calling my name as they were torn apart begging me for mercy.” Well, dude, you could have done something about that.

I try to look for a nice, neat moral at the end of the fable when watching TWD, but in this episode I don’t think there is one. I think there is just a lot of exploration and smaller messages of hope, be it Glenn’s peace-making, Tyrese’s urging Sasha to always chose the path of love over anger, our realization that his prevailing characteristic is not an aversion to violence, but a commitment to compassion, as he violently saves Bob from “turning,” and sends Bob to a final peace.

A lot has been said about the slaughter of Gareth’s crumbs of a gang in the sanctuary of the church. Without a doubt it’s a bloodbath. However, both The Talking Dead panel and reviewer Hughes omit one important moral point Rick briefly makes.  If he lets Gareth go, it’s mercy on Gareth, but what innocent stranger is Rick dooming? There are no police, no laws, no prisons, no jails. How is one to balance the need to protect the world from Gareth and the desire to provide mercy? The safety and welfare of anyone unfortunate enough to “cross paths” with Gareth in the future rests squarely in Rick’s hands.

Rick listened to the group’s call to mercy in the previous episode: he just walked away and Bob paid a brutal, however ironic, price. Clearly, Gareth doesn’t know what to do with mercy when he gets it. Suggestions: walk away and do good to your fellow man. Pay it forward. Stay out of trouble. But sweetie, don’t hunt down and piss off your enemy with the red-handled machete who promised to kill you. He’s probably a big believer in “fool me once, shame on me,” etc.

Rick, however, learns and adapts:  sometimes, evil just needs to be eradicated or else it will come back to get you or someone else. Remember, he tried to reason with the Governor. That destroyed their very community and sent them back wandering through the wilderness again. Michonne, who spoke of her time before Andrea earlier, is reminding of this recurring theme in her life when she finds the children’s drawings at the church of a baby Moses with the caption “40 years of wandering.” Ultimately, though, they all are wandering through the wilderness.

When Rick’s gory solution to his moral dilemma is all over, Rick isn’t angry or triumphant or arrogant or despondent. He’s humbled: “Coulda been us.” There but for the grace of God go I.

Gabriel’s learned nothing on the other hand. “This is the Lord’s House,” he says facing the carnage with a sanctimonious sense of indignation. Really? So carnage of innocents outside the church is merely regrettable when the execution of depraved villains inside is blasphemous? Gabriel pretends to be guilt-ridden, but it’s a masochistic pretense, like Monks who flog themselves in the Abbey while ignoring the starving multitude outside.

“It’s just four walls and a roof,” Maggie explains.

After all, it’s what we do there and how we use that makes it God’s house or not.

A lot could be said about the savagery Rick resorts to. Would a good old-fashioned, Lonesome Dove style hanging with a sign that said “Cannibals” be more human? As the reviewer Jason Hughes of The Wrap[iii] points out, Maggie and Glenn are pretty awestruck at the violence – but are they appalled at the brutal killing, or the fact it was even necessary?

This is all fable: posing the question of what to do with evil in the world. Where is the line between mercy and the greater social good? I don’t want any reader to think that I propose violence or savagery to right wrongs or address evil. Dear G-d I can’t even squash a bug.

Unlike Rick and his group, we have a justice system, attorneys, jails, judges, police and an entire infrastructure, albeit a corroded one, to address evil. One small moral to the fable may be that we just don’t use it. And by use it, I mean become a part of it, a working component of that infrastructure of justice and protection. Gareth and Gabriel failed. Rick was once an ineffective system: indecisive, then a bit irrational, then a lot of things. That said, he’s learned and adapted; he’s pretty effective at addressing evil in the midst of goodness now.  It ain’t always pretty, but it’s a safer world because Rick is in it. Abraham acknowledges this with his note to Rick as they leave.

One last unrelated thought: why do Maggie and Glenn go with Abraham? Let’s face it, this is about story development. It’s the only way to keep us invested in the journey for Abraham and the group, since we (the audience) haven’t built a real relationship with those characters yet, nor have they been given a great deal of screen time for character development. Thematically, I think the best bet is that after witnessing the ugly truth of the world they live in, where Rick’s newfound brutality is necessary, they decide to join the search for a solution, for the hope of a better world.

I’m still predicting Eugene knows squat about a cure. Is the needlepoint he say a hint? “Stupidity is also a gift of God, but one mustn’t misuse it.”

 


 

[i] http://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/what-we-believe/catechism/catechism-of-the-catholic-church/epub/index.cfm

[ii] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anglican_eucharistic_theology

[iii] http://www.thewrap.com/the-walking-dead-gets-back-to-the-business-of-killing-and-dying/

 

 

 

 

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