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How The Walking Dead tackles the psychological ramifications of a deconstructed society

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May 23, 2018

The zombie drama The Walking Dead explores the mental and emotional costs of surviving in a dangerous world. How do people cope with extreme trauma and loss after an apocalyptic event? The long-running series paints a (mostly) realistic portrait of what it means to survive not only in the apocalypse, but through real-world challenges.

In Season 8, Rick Grimes and Michonne were delivered a major blow when their son Carl died while saving another person. It was a painful turning point for them, but it marked a major change on the show: Carl’s death meant that every major character had lost everyone from their pre-apocalypse life.

The end of Season 8 is only about three or four years into the apocalypse for the survivors, but it has been eight years for viewers. This makes it easy to forget what these people have endured and the effects it continues to have on their mental health. It would be impossible to cover every single person on The Walking Dead, but there are a few characters who have dealt with their share of pain.

Jim

Jim was perhaps the earliest version of how extreme trauma and survivor’s guilt can impact a person. His supposed failure to protect his family took a toll on his mental stability. But, in this post-apocalyptic world, there was no therapist or support group to help him navigate his grieving process. As a mechanic, he was a useful member of Shane’s initial camp, but the effects of the apocalypse caused him to have horrifying dreams about death. Most of the group distanced themselves away from him and he was okay with being a loner. Jim’s detachment from the group was likely a natural consequence of shock and a mechanism to avoid emotional ties with anyone.

When he was bitten in a large zombie attack, he became an unprecedented problem for the group — what do they do with a person who is still alive but will eventually become a walker? Jim ultimately found peace in choosing to spend his final moments under a tree. His demise was the first of many devastating stories about people who have a hard time coping in the apocalypse.  

Lizzie Samuels

Surviving in the apocalypse has been a tough journey for adults, but Lizzie Samuels proved how detrimental this scary and unpredictable world is for children. Her first appearance in “30 Days Without an Accident” revealed that Lizzie still saw walkers as people rather than a deadly threat. She refused to kill them and even gave them names.

Lizzie's younger sister Mika helped her through a panic attack after their father’s death, instructing her to look at flowers in order to calm down. This appeared to be a coping mechanism that was established before the apocalypse, which suggested that Lizzie might have been suffering from an unnamed mental health condition. However, Lizzie was also willing to kill living people. Her delusional belief about walkers led to her killing Mika in an attempt to show Carol and Tyreese that walkers could be trusted.

In one of the most heartbreaking scenes in The Walking Dead history, Carol eventually chose to kill Lizzie as a result of her instability. One child's disconnection from reality led to the show further exploring the ever-changing definition of morality, the depth of the darkness in an apocalyptic situation, and the ripple effect on those who had witnessed horrible events.

Michonne

Black characters are often dehumanized and relegated to just being “strong,” but actress Danai Gurira gives katana-wielding Michonne some emotional complexity. The TV show doesn’t take her through the sexual torture she experienced in the comic series, but Michonne’s grief over her son’s death and need for human connection are explored throughout her arc.

From an external viewpoint, Michonne was handling the destruction of society well. She had developed impeccable solo survival skills, made smart decisions, and was able to see through anyone’s BS. But the show started revealing Michonne’s struggles in “Clear” when she spoke to Rick about his “conversation” with Lori’s ghost. His behavior disturbed others, but Michonne was able to relate to him and admitted she used to talk to her dead boyfriend. The two found common ground in their grieving processes and planted the seed for a future bond.

Michonne could physically survive alone, but she wanted to be with other people. Her renewed strength caused her to look for survivors from her newfound prison group family. The episode “A” also revealed more about her mental state prior to meeting the group as she opened up to Carl about her regrets concerning Andre’s death and her decision to keep her boyfriend and his friend after they became walkers. Michonne’s walker pets were physical representations of her guilt and she carried that weight for some time. 

As the most level-headed person in the group, Michonne often has to take on the emotional weight of others while trying to maintain her own sanity. Most of Season 7 was spent with her bearing the emotional brunt of Rick’s brokenness, but it all came to a head with the death of Carl and the burning of Alexandria. Michonne’s devastation over watching the home she built with Rick go up in flames was a heart-wrenching scene. She stormed the community and violently stabbed a Savior to death. Michonne was in a full rage and this time it was Rick who had to bring her back from a perilous situation. The effects of Carl’s death are largely explored through Michonne as she openly grieves while reading his letter and tries to convince Negan to call a truce in the war. She’s standing by Rick’s decision to rebuild with the Saviors and keep Negan alive. Hopefully, she will get more moments of levity and bliss.

Carol Peletier

Carol has had one of the most interesting character arcs on television. She started her journey as an abused housewife whose husband died shortly after Rick came into the group. Her perceived failure to protect her daughter Sophia and her determination to never be a victim again were the driving factors in her development. Carol became ruthlessly pragmatic and started making morally questionable decisions, but she is undoubtedly an asset with her cunning plans and survival skills.

Carol often falls back to her pre-apocalypse personality traits to assimilate to her new surroundings and gain others’ trust. She does this often — wearing the Wolves' “W” on her head during an attack, pretending to be a cookie-baking sweetheart, and feigning innocence when cornered by a group of men so she could kill them all. When it works, it is a useful tactic to gain an upper hand, but there is a deeper identity issue going on with Carol.

Carol doesn’t seem to know who she is and frequently withdraws from others. She desires a peaceful life alone because, in her words, she cares about the group and knows that means she will have to kill to protect them. She helped to finish the war, but will Carol decide to stay? Only time will tell.  

Sasha Williams

Unlike her hopeful brother Tyreese, Sasha approached the apocalypse from a pragmatic position. She was the main person to reject Terminus’ sanctuary claims and wanted to focus on building a fortress to survive. Sasha didn’t think society could be restored and could not see any joy in life. The tides began to change when she fell for Bob, a relentless optimist who encouraged her to do more than just survive. Bob and Tyreese’s deaths were close together and Sasha started exhibiting clear signs of PTSD. “Forget” shows Sasha sneaking out of Alexandria to shoot at a family’s photos while she begged walkers to come into her space. She wanted to isolate herself and spend the bulk of her time in watch tower as a guard. Sasha’s trauma and frustration were addressed during a welcome dinner for Rick’s group. As the women of Alexandria talked about casseroles and cooking beloved meals, Sasha flashed back to all of the recent death and trauma and justifiably lashed out. The scene was a solid juxtaposition of what Rick’s group had experienced versus the sheltered Alexandrians who were oblivious to the dangers outside of their wall. 

Sasha became increasingly depressed when Noah was killed after she told him that he wouldn’t survive. She hunted walkers and buried them in deep graves, where she would lie silently with their bodies. Sasha tried to get help for her suicidal thoughts by reaching out to Father Gabriel, but he used her brokenness against her because he wanted her to kill him. Sasha’s turn toward a religious figure to aid her in troubled times is a familiar concept for many people who are contemplating suicide and desperate for help. She ended up praying with the Father and Maggie, signifying a new beginning. Her pain was acknowledged and she leaned on Maggie as part of her support system.

Time passed and she seemed to be on a road to recovery. She started participating in the community and developed an unexpected relationship with Abraham. Her happiness was shattered (again) when she witnessed Abraham’s gut-wrenching death in the Season 7 premiere. She tried to work through her devastation by focusing on the well-being of Maggie and her unborn child, but her anguish quickly dissolved into rage. As the season progressed, she became hellbent on avenging Abraham’s death. A rogue mission with Rosita ended with Sasha allowing herself to be captured by the Saviors. Sasha was prepared to die before she allowed Negan to use her as bait, so she begged Eugene to help her kill herself. She used a poison capsule to die in hopes of her walker biting Negan. Sasha’s sad ending was positioned as a sacrifice to help the team, but in reality, she was a woman who couldn’t handle the recycled pain of losing her loved ones.  

Morgan Jones

Morgan has struggled mentally since the beginning of the series. He helped Rick understand the basic rules of the apocalypse and saved his life. But, when they reunited in Season 3's “Clear,” Morgan’s mental health had deteriorated significantly due to losing his wife and son. He was highly paranoid and violent. He tried to kill Rick and believed that the weak would survive and inherit this Earth. Rick could relate to Morgan’s pain in terms of losing a spouse and tried to tap back into Morgan’s humanity. He asked Morgan to become a part of his community, but Morgan refused to go along. Despite seeming unhinged, Morgan knew Rick’s group was on the brink of a war and wanted to be left alone.

The next time the pair met, Morgan was the person who wanted to preserve his humanity. Morgan’s journey toward peace was seen in his bottle episode “Here’s Not Here,” which picked up after the events of “Clear.” He had an uncontrollable urge to kill everything in his path, including innocent humans. He was seen running aimlessly through the woods in paintball gear and mumbling incoherently to himself, and eventually found Eastman, a former psychologist with a dark past who introduced him to aikido and a philosophy that all life is precious. His time with Eastman allowed Morgan some reprieve from being in constant survival mode. Eastman’s form of therapy was flawed but it did help stabilize Morgan. He went from being homicidal and wanting to die to someone who no longer felt the need to senselessly murder. Morgan’s peaceful code put him at odds with the group but it was the only way he could remain sane.

He managed to remain stable until the death of his young apprentice at the Kingdom. Benjamin was the closest he had gotten to a person since his son’s death. Morgan strangled Richard (who was responsible for inciting a disagreement) with his bare hands. He went from a mission of peace to a determination to kill all the Saviors. Morgan’s survivors guilt manifested in Season 8 during a Savior compound attack where he methodically murdered while proclaiming “I don’t die,” a direct reference to him still being alive while his loved ones perish.

Morgan’s core wound continued to be his inability to find a neutral place between killing everything and his “all life is precious” motto. He began to have hallucinations of Gavin, a deceased Savior who tortured Morgan with his “you know what it is” phrase. He later teamed up with Rick to take down several captured Saviors and coldly watched Benjamin’s killer Jared be ripped apart by walkers with a stone face. Morgan and Rick had a conversation about their current mental state and Morgan admitted he had become vengeful since Dwyane’s death. He was hopeless about the future, believing there was no way to restore who he was before the apocalypse.

Post-war, Morgan isolated himself in the trash heaps. After several attempts to convince him to stay, Morgan abruptly went to Texas, where he is now with a group from Fear the Walking Dead. On the show, he said to journalist Althea that “I lose people and then I lose myself,” signifying that Morgan is still coping with loss. He attempts to give Nick the book he got from Eastman and Nick is killed immediately afterward. Morgan is last seen with John, who admits that Morgan might be right about not having attachments. Only time will tell if Morgan is able to find some semblance of peace or if he will continue to run from others in fear of continued killing and loss.

Rick Grimes

Rick’s mental state has understandably fluctuated throughout the apocalypse. He went on a mission to find his family and quickly became responsible for an entire group of people. Prior to the apocalypse, he was dealing with feelings of inadequacy as a husband and father, which only heightened his determination to protect his family from the new world. Season 2 was a tough turning point for Rick after learning about Lori’s affair and pregnancy and trying to maintain a good relationship with Herschel for the group’s sake. The constant questioning over Rick’s decisions and the unavoidable choice to kill Shane boiled over at the end of the season. He berated the group and established a Ricktatorship to keep everyone in line. Rick’s ensuing monologue gave viewers insight into the constant pressure he endured as the protagonist.

Rick’s mental health took a sharp turn in Season 3 when Lori died while giving birth. He compounded the guilt of never resolving their marital issues with his supposed failure to protect previous group members who had died. Rick was no longer fit to lead the group (nor parent his children) and his comrade Daryl stepped in during Rick’s grieving period. He went into a blind rage and stormed the halls of the prison, slaying walkers and nearly killing Glenn in the process. Rick suffered from hallucinations, seeing his wife’s ghost and having imagined telephone conversations with dead group members. Everyone knew Rick was in an unstable headspace, so they gave him room to go through his process. He eventually rebounded and relinquished leadership in an attempt to find some inner peace. Rick tried hold on to his moral compass by taking in Woodbury refugees and working out a deal with the Governor. But, the complete destruction of the prison fortress he worked hard to build along with his mentor Herschel’s murder brought out a dangerous side of Rick.

Terminus’ betrayal demolished Rick’s faith in outsiders and killing to survive became more effortless for him. The string of murders and an extended amount of time on the road in Season 5 made Rick wary of anyone outside of his group. It took him a long time to believe in and trust the Alexandria residents, who almost kicked him out of the community due to his unpredictable behavior.

Rick had stability in the community and through his relationship with Michonne, but his peace was quickly shattered by Negan. The Savior leader broke his resolve and belittled him in front of his core group. Rick felt guilty over Abraham and Glenn’s gruesome deaths and knew his decision to kill everyone in an outpost led to Alexandria becoming indebted to the Saviors. He had made mistakes in the past, but this costly error took a toll on his emotional well-being. He was completely powerless, vulnerable, and helpless for the first time.

Negan continued to break Rick’s spirit through calculated psychological abuse and killing Alexandrians as punishment for being disobedient. Rick was paranoid about causing more deaths and resigned himself to live in servitude. Michonne’s emotional support during the ordeal helped Rick make a choice to fight for freedom. Carl’s death hit Rick hard, but not to the point of going on a rampage or experiencing psychosis. He didn’t have much time to process this loss in the middle of a war, but he did make a controversial choice to honor his son’s wish to keep Negan alive and rebuild with the remaining Saviors.

Rick’s moral compass may be realigning to who he was at the beginning of the outbreak. He wants peace, safety, and security for the sake of his family, but he couldn’t have made it through this journey without his steadfast support system.

The Walking Dead has taken most of its characters through the emotional wringer in every way imaginable. Sometimes the mental break is the result of having to make immoral choices. Other times it is due to an underlying personality issue or the result of abuse in a character’s pre-apocalypse existence. Either way, the zombie saga deals with the very real effects that trauma has on the human mind and spirit.