One of the questions that The Walking Dead explores so ably, over and over through six seasons and counting, is the price of our humanity, but I want to take a step back to consider the Season 2:3 episode: Save the Last One as a great exploration of this topic from a variety of angles with a number of characters weighing in.
Early on we have Lori Grimes asking her husband: “Why do we want Carl to live in this world?” While we do not live in a zombie apocalypse, many modern day humans live in very grim places including war-torn countries, grim poverty, and horrifying commonplace violence. Even when our everyday reality is not horrific we still experience demons in the form of disease and destruction from natural disasters to cancer to drug addiction which can devastate individuals, families, and communities. Similarly, even here in America, where most of us have it pretty good most of the time, life can still wear us down and we have to wonder if it is worth fighting on at home, at work, and so on, and we ask ourselves is this a world we want our children to live in?
Dale and Andrea remind us that we need to make our own choices about our life – and we need to make those choices anew every day. Ultimately, we cannot choose to live or fight for someone else’s benefit and we cannot make that choice for them. Living is a series of choices to fight to make this life worth living. Of course, Daryl’s contribution to this argument simply echoes this idea. In many ways, the zombie apocalypse has made his life better. Daryl’s life has always been a fight to survive, so this new world is not as shocking to him as it is to the others. The difference is now he is surrounded by (mostly) good people who care about him and need him. His life has purpose and meaning that it did not before which has made him a better person – a hero. Dale, Andrea, and Daryl all echo the message that Rick delivers to Lori in answer to her question about whether or not they should want their child to survive in this world.
Rick points out that there is still beauty in the world and that Carl can still find and appreciate that beauty. There is always the hope of finding that beauty whether it is within us or outside us in the gifts of nature and others. The deer that Carl and Rick encounter symbolizes the beauty of life in that is simultaneously fragile and resilient. The odds against survival, whether you are human or animal, are stacked against you, and yet, both persevere and even thrive — sometimes.
Of course, sometimes that survival, and hope, comes at a terrible price, as Shane’s story demonstrates. On the surface, Shane’s decision to sacrifice Otis, by shooting him in the leg to distract the zombies so Shane can escape with the medical supplies, is cold blooded in the extreme. But Shane is fighting for survival on a number of levels. First, he knows Carl, a boy he loves, needs the equipment to survive; second, he knows Lori, the woman he loves, will be devastated by the loss of her son; and third, he failed to save Rick twice before (in the shootout and abandoning him at the hospital) and needs to assuage that guilt. His mission cannot fail and he knows he is better equipped, even wounded, to make it back than Otis. Trying to save both of them will jeopardize the mission. While the action of a desperate, ruthless man, Shane’s decision to shoot is a very human decision and one that he struggles to live with in the aftermath. He knows he is changing, evolving, to survive and he knows what he is losing to do so. As difficult as it is to live with the person he has become, Shane is still very human, because his act was ultimately one of love as he sacrificed a piece of his own humanity to save Carl and all he represents.
Ultimately, this episode is about hope and how human’s need hope in order to survive. Hope gets us out bed in the morning. Hope justifies the choices we make. Hope comforts us in the dark. We have to believe that our lives have meaning and purpose and that our world has, at minimum, pockets of light and good. We believe in the power and redemption of love. What message do you take from The Walking Dead’s “Save the Last One”?