One morning, years ago, I was coming up the stairs from the subway platform and I heard and then saw a man preaching about his god. The man was indifferent to the general indifference of the commuters and kept on preaching with enthusiasm and volume. It occurred to me that the man’s life must be very comforting. He knew what he was going to do when he got up in the morning and he was more energized by this chosen work than I have ever been about mine. I will also add that the man was clearly mentally ill, although I can no longer remember how that was.
A lot of television shows are about the end of the world, mostly because we use “world” as a synecdoche for things that aren’t really the world (lovers, apartments, blogs). So you can say that Mad Men was about the ending of a certain world in which white men ran everything or that Breaking Bad was about how Walter White’s world was ending so he decided to end it first. These are fair but they are no more useful than my favorite idea that all TV series are about identity.
Two current series are more explicitly about an end of the world; The Leftovers and The Walking Dead. In The Leftovers, 2% of the world’s population disappeared without explanation. In The Walking Dead, a zombie apocalypse has transformed the world (or at least the southern United States) into a state of accelerated Darwinian evolution. While The Walking Dead seems less interested in how society responds to the collapse of social norms, both series are most interesting when they contemplate what it means to live, what the purpose of faith is, and what the “world” really is.
In season two of The Leftovers, Kevin Garvey’s father, Kevin Sr., explains how he was able to get released from a psychiatric facility. It wasn’t because he stopped seeing people who weren’t there but because he decided to start listening to them. “God I love this town. But now everywhere I look all I see what’s gone. So, I can sit around and cry about how the world fucking ended or… I could start it up again.”
In The Walking Dead, we get an episode which is mostly a flashback filling in the blanks between when we saw Morgan until he showed up last season. During that time, Morgan meets Eastman who tells him about finding peace through aikido and believing all life is precious. It’s not a message Morgan is ready to hear given the loss of his wife and son. Eastman’s wife and two children were killed by a sociopath seeking revenge on Eastman. Later Eastman kidnapped the man and starved him to death. When Eastman went to turn himself in, he couldn’t because “the world had ended”. “But the world didn’t end,” Morgan responds.
Of course in neither The Leftovers or The Walking Dead has the world really ended, but as opposed to Mad Men or Breaking Bad, the “world” has ended for almost everyone equally. And the question about how to respond when everything is different forever is an interesting one.
In The Leftovers, it is possible to draw an analogy between the Departure and the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Although the Departure is orders of magnitude greater than 9/11, in both cases it is possible to see the world that existed before the events in the current world. Indeed, it would be reasonable to suggest that people who don’t visit the sites of the attacks or fly on planes may not notice the difference between our world and the pre-9/11 world. In The Leftovers, it is not possible to ignore the Departure, even in a place like Jarden in season two where no one departed.
As I wrote earlier, The Leftovers is very interested in the role that faith, old and new, plays in the new world. Kevin’s father wants to move to a place where he can no longer see the old world and start a new one. Kevin himself is eager to start over again with Nora Durst and find a place where they will never have to be afraid again. At the end of the latest episode, Nora’s brother Matt decided that it was his time to atone.
The Walking Dead is not as interested in faith, other than the faith that it is possible to create a new world out of the ashes of the old one. Part of the lack of interest is due to how obsessed the series is in showing zombies getting killed, but part of it is the suggestion that religious faith is a luxury in a world as dangerous as that of The Walking Dead. Last season and this season have been primarily set in Alexandria, an idyllic community with walls to keep zombies and anarchists out. When Rick and the gang arrive, their goal is not to assimilate into the culture of Alexandria. Instead Rick and his followers are determined to show the residents of Alexandria what the world really is, and if necessary take Alexandria for themselves.
While we all want to know what happened to Glenn on The Walking Dead, “Here’s Not Here” may be the most important episode of the series in that it brings faith to the fore. The only character of faith in Rick’s gang is a priest who locked himself inside his church with the community’s supply of food because he was afraid that there wouldn’t be enough. But can the world go on without faith? There’s a reason that the most popular religions in the world were born centuries or millennia ago; life was difficult and confusing. It was appealing to imagine that all this suffering had a point. In The Leftovers, it didn’t take long for people to turn to faith to comfort themselves. In The Walking Dead, we’ve mostly seen faith centered on the idea that Rick will lead them to a better life. The Governor peddled a related idea but both faiths have the idea of killing those who don’t agree running through them.
What has Morgan brought with him to Alexandria, and what effect will that have on Rick and his people? Rick and his people believe all life is precious, but some lives are more precious than others. What kind of world can be built on that? And is faith a luxury that can only exist when you can still see the old world? I’m interested to see what The Leftovers and The Walking Dead have to say about faith.