Welcome back fellow walkers and roamers to another edition of A Deeper Look at the Walking Dead, where we analyse Robert Kirkman’s series volume by volume, and analyse just what is it that makes it the most popular zombie series this side of Day of the Dead.
This time, we are taking a look at Volume 3: Safety Behind Bars.
Last time we left Rick and the gang, they had returned back to their nomadic life of looting, starving, and killing scores of the living dead after being kicked off Hershel’s idyllic homestead. Just when it was becoming apparent that the group was failing to survive, Dale and Andrea discovered a vast prison, and Rick had decided that this would be a perfect location to live permanently.
This arc picks up directly where the previous issue left off, as the group prepare to take over the prison. They have a pretty big problem though; namely, the scores of undead that infest the prison both inside and without. The crew use the zombie killing skills they have developed surviving the past few months on the road, as Andrea, Rick and Tyreese begin killing zombie after zombie. They realise that with proper tactics applied, the dead really aren’t much of a problem, though there are a few close calls here and there.
Soon they have cleared out a large section of a prison, and just when things are looking up, they discover that the prison has some living inhabitants locked away in one of the many wings. Meet Axel, Dexter, Andrew and Thomas, four long serving prisoners who were abandoned when there was an attempt to evacuate the prison. They have been trapped for months and have little idea what has happened to the world, other than that the dead have started to rise. Both sides struggle to trust each other, and most of Rick’s group struggle to trust Dexter, since he was serving a sentence for a double homicide.
With most of the prison cleared out, the rest of the group begin to move in. They are initially overjoyed with their new home: it is pretty much impenetrable by the dead, is fully stocked with food, has plenty of room for everyone, and even the prisoners don’t seem like the worst sort of people. Rick begins envisioning a perfect, permanent home here, and makes the decision to drive back to Hershel’s to take them all over to the prison. After all, Hershel knows about farming and so could probably help them grow their food. Dey gonna live offa da fat o da land!
Rick picks them all up, including Glenn, Patricia and Hershel’s four remaining kids. Good thing too, the farm was gradually suffering from more and more zombie attacks. It seems with Spring coming and the ice melting, more and more walkers are moving around the countryside. Only Otis remains at the farm, to protect the livestock and farm equipment they could not carry across on the first trip. Additionally, he and Patricia just broke up so he was probably irritating everyone by playing Linkin Park on repeat.
Finally, everything seems to be coming together! And then Tyreese’s daughter Julie is shot by Chris, as part of a joint suicide pact. And she comes back as a zombie despite not being bitten. And Tyreese shoots her. And he then throttles Chris to death. So… yeah.
At least we know we’re playing by the old “anyone who dies becomes a zombie” Romero rules?
The next day Tyreese is oddly chipper about the whole thing, even as he tosses his family’s bodies into a bonfire. Rick, being an amazing friend and father, takes this opportunity to travel hundreds of miles just to shoot zombie Shane in the head. Priorities, Rick, priorities!
While he is gone, Tyreese almost gets himself eaten by a lot of zombies still lurking in the gym while he goes at them with a hammer, in what is probably his most badass moment. Seriously, he was left in there for over a day with just a fucking hammer, and he comes out on top, working out his grief along the way. Fuck therapy!
Meanwhile, Hershel discovers that his twin girls have been murdered. Poor guy just can’t catch a break, can he? Instantly, the group decide that Dexter must be the killer and lock him in a cell. Rick returns to the chaos, presumably thinking that he can’t leave them alone for five minutes without something catching on fire.
We soon see that it was actually the butler who did it… or rather, the mild mannered Thomas, as he tries to kill Andrea. Seriously, you had to pick Andrea? Lori is right there man! Naturally, Andrea fights him off, escapes outside, and Rick beats the ever loving Hell out of him. They discuss what to do with him, before Rick seizes command and declares that they are going to hang him. He lets Dexter out, but still doesn’t really apologise to him for locking him away.
The next day, Patricia decides to bust him out due to her own crippling idiocy, and he immediately tries to murder her. He’s nearly successful, but Maggie comes to the rescue and shoots the shit out of him. Thomas’s body is tossed outside for the zombies as Hershel watches.
Finally, finally, bloody finally, everything is going to be alright… then Dexter shows up armed to the teeth, demanding that Rick and everyone get out. And there we have it, the Walking Dead Volume 3.
So a theme that is made pretty clear in this arc, in part due to its choice of location, is that of justice. We have several competing versions of justice presented to us by Kirkman, yet he never really spells out which one we are supposed to see as right.
The first debate around justice that comes up is what our main characters should do with the prison’s residents. Lori is extremely wary of them, especially Dexter, whereas Rick seems awfully trusting, immediately letting them mix in with the group. Lori’s argument is that they are criminals, that Dexter is a murderer, and that they cannot be relied upon to not continue acting as such. This raises the question: should we forgive these men of their sins against society, especially since that society has now collapsed? As Dexter states, he murdered his girlfriend and her lover, and as those two are dead he is not about to murder again. In a world where people are being eaten by the dead, where good men like Hershel nearly shoot someone over a petty argument, is it really worth upholding the legal system of the long dead civilisation?
Our first introduction to the new world’s sense of justice comes after Chris kills Julie. Immediately, Tyreese throttles him to death for shooting as daughter, which is presented much like a revenge killing. The only problem is that Julie was committing suicide, her death was her own choice. Is it right for Chris to be killed for assisted suicide? He was meant to die as well, but if he suddenly regrets his choice surely he should be spared? Of course, we as the audience know that he certainly seemed to be the instrumental one in the joint suicide, but Tyreese and Rick do not know this. Tyreese’s killing of Chris is more out of instant gratification, of catharsis, than it is out of revenge for his daughter. This is further emphasised by Tyreese deciding to torture Chris’s undead body, a torture that we are lucky enough not to witness.
The next presentation of justice that we see is the rule of the mob. When Hershel’s daughters are murdered, the group is immediately swayed into believing Dexter is the culprit, despite having no evidence whatsoever that this is actually the case. They arrest him, lock him away in a prison cell, and decide to wait for Rick to return before they presumably lynch him. Dexter, of course, is completely innocent. The mob was wrong, yet so righteous in its conviction that it sentenced him without consideration of the fact. Out of all forms of justice presented, mob justice seems to be the one Kirkman disagrees with the most.
When the real killer is revealed, we once again have a debate with what the group should do with him. Rick’s initial response is the same as Tyreese’s earlier in the volume: emotional catharsis. He beats Thomas so badly he breaks all the fingers in his hand. Unlike Tyreese, though, he manages to stop himself. Rick decides that the group need to punish him, and he tells them that he will hang the next day. He sets a rule: “You kill? You die, simple as that”. Of course, we all know that rule from countless examples throughout history: “An eye for an eye”, corporal punishment, state execution. The choice of hanging is also intentional: The accused is made an example of, the public nature showing the power of the legal system over the individual.
Lori, who one day prior was baying for Dexter’s blood, seems to shy away from Rick’s decision. Is it because of the less personal, less cathartic, more calculated method of justice being applied? Kirkman doesn’t really give the answer. Lori herself doesn’t seem to know, and writes it off as hormone imbalance due to her pregnancy. Patricia, however, takes a more active role in opposing Rick’s decision; she makes a stand and frees Thomas. She, like many, see’s corporal punishment as an evil and wants to let Thomas go free out into the world rather than let him be killed by the group.
Thomas, being the loveable old crazy that he is, immediately tries to kill her. Maggie then shoots him, but we see that this is not purely out of her love for Patricia. Maggie unloads the whole magazine into him, staring thoughtfully as she does so. We once again have this “catharsis as justice” idea raised, which is further enforced when the group toss Thomas’s body out to the ravenous undead horde. This acts as a proxy for Rick’s intended public hanging; it is a public display of justice, sickening and brutal. Here we see that Hershel and Billy watch as Thomas is devoured, getting some form of closure over their daughters deaths.
So is Kirkman saying that the best way for justice is for the victims to gain some catharsis out of punishing the perpetrator? It is hard to say. He wants to make it clear that the rules for our world and the one of pure survival presented to us are different. After all, the prisoner characters clearly show this, as their incarcerated status seems to mean very little now the dead are rising. Thomas was crazy, sure, but then so was Shane and he was a policeman in the world before. The parallels between both of them are even directly pointed out by Carl at one point.
The other prisoners seem just like the other survivors; Axel is helpful if a little perverted, Dexter is understandably mistrustful, and Andrew is sketchy but in love.
This brings us into our next couple of themes: trust and how you change in the face of horror. We have already discussed a bit about how our main group have some reservations about the prisoners, but this volume shows that the mistrust is a two way street. Dexter and, by extension, Andrew believe that our heroes have gone “crazy” in their months of survival. The prisoners have been isolated throughout the zombie apocalypse around them, but our heroes have been out there battling for survival every day. Dexter hypothesises that the main characters cannot be trusted, that they will readily kill them at any moment.
This issue is actually brought up by our heroes too. Dale and Andrea have a discussion where they say that death no longer really fazes them. With all the loss they have suffered, losing people they barely even knew, such as Julie and Chris, really doesn’t affect them. Something similar seems to happen to Tyreese, a man who loses his daughter and seems to beat most of his grief out with a hammer and some rotting skulls. He is not crippled by grief, as Allen was in the previous volume, he just gets on with it. Death and loss are becoming such regular occurrences that the survivors are learning to deal with it better.
So is Dexter right in his evaluation? Has all the horror of The Walking Dead made them monstrous? It’s difficult to say. Our characters do make some rather irrational moves. Rick travels hundreds of miles just to shoots a zombified Shane, even though he is abandoning his family at a pretty awful time. He is motivated by his personal sense of justice and his need for closure over Shane, sure, but it’s still pretty irrational. His beating of Thomas to near death is good evidence for his latent insanity too, where even Dale comments that he was uncontrollably enraged. The aforementioned mob mentality scene is further evidence of this, with how callously they treat Dexter.
Then again, are they just adapting to become better survivors? With all the death and destruction around them, is their callousness a necessary survival trait? It seems that this may indeed be the case. Compare Hershel’s differing reactions to the deaths of his children between volume 2 and volume 3: Last arc, he nearly murdered Rick over an argument and broke down wondering if he was insane. This time, he has a punch up with his son, but he also decides that he will not be held fully responsible for his daughters’ deaths. Hershel has developed a better strategy for dealing with grief, at least in terms of keeping him alive longer.
So how does Volume 3 fare compared to the previous instalments in the series? Pretty damn well, I’d say. It is certainly better than Volume 2, which was much slower in pace, and rivals the first arc in terms of its surprises and character drama. Seeing our heroes finally find a believably permanent residence is very satisfying, as is watching them use the knowledge and skills they have acquired on the road to help them secure it.
The character deaths were also far better done in this arc than in previous ones. Whereas Hershel’s kids dying in Volume 2 was a bit underwhelming due to not really knowing those characters, seeing his daughters beheaded, zombified corpses was brutal and effective. Similarly, finally seeing the payoff to Chris’s ominous comments throughout the last arc was also effective, and Tyreese’s reaction was sympathetic and believable.
I also enjoy the new characters introduced in this arc. Dexter is a very interesting character, who is both sympathetic yet still threatening. His motivations are entirely understandable, given the way he is treated by the group, and his turn against them at the story’s conclusion feels justified. Andrew makes a good sidekick for him too, and the scene where Axel seemed to sow some seeds of distrust between him and Dexter makes for an interesting dynamic. Similarly, Axel is also a welcome addition, filling the role of the likeable character from the prison group. He has quite a few funny moments across the arc, including his attempt to assist Dale and Glenn in clearing the zombies from the prison fence.
This is not to say that the arc is without its issues. The main villain Thomas is given incredibly little attention, meaning that we never really get to understand his motivations or exactly who he is. Whereas Dexter is focused on to the point where he is almost as sympathetic as the protagonists, Thomas is just in the background for most of the volume. I suppose this is to make the reveal of him being the real murderer all the more shocking, but to anyone who was paying even the slightest amount of attention it was blatantly obvious he was evil.
However, while Thomas himself is underwritten, the questions his actions raise make for good reading. The main joy of reading this issue is seeing our characters deal with their first real moral quandary: What to do with someone you can’t have in the group? This, for me, is where The Walking Dead really shines and rises above most other zombie media.
So overall, this is a pretty awesome arc and, lucky us, this is set to continue throughout the rest of our time in the prison.
Next week, Volume 4: The Heart’s Desire. See you all there!