“You do not have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.”
This famous quote - if we can momentarily ignore its potentially Gnostic implications - is either from C.S. Lewis or George Macdonald, and it is often used to remind Christians that physical things are temporary, while the Kingdom of God is eternal (and our ultimate citizenship lies with the latter). Fortunately for us, the quote is also a helpful point of entry into what makes Season 3 of The Walking Dead so darn good. Millions of fans eagerly away its return this Sunday.
The action this season is incredible. The writing is sharp and the performances compelling. If you don’t mind some gore - and oh my, is there gore - then there is a lot to get excited about in The Walking Dead.
Seasons 1 and 2 mostly relied on the classic zombie mythology dichotomy: humans good, zombies bad. Humans band together and scratch out a living in the post-apocalyptic ruins of what used to be Georgia. We root for them because they, like us, possess free will, reason and emotion. Zombies are essentially humans sans spark. They possess a physical body but are devoid of any of the aforementioned human characteristics. They are the logical conclusion of raw human desire left untempered by any higher cognitive function: pure hunger. In short, they lack a soul (not to be confused with lacking soul).
In Season 3 things get a bit more complicated. The zombies (“walkers” or “biters”) still exist, but serve mostly as a catalyst for narrative progression … and the occasional surprise attack. However, the primary threat now is other humans. The moral divide of black and white has become grayed. Each character on The Walking Dead occupies a particular space between what we would define as compassion on one end and pure social Darwinism on the other.
Different events move the characters along this spectrum, and the result is both fascinating and heartbreaking. (The death and loss surrounding the birth of a baby has so far been a particularly bleak moment of despair.) A zombie wasteland setting greatly accelerates relationships in this fashion. You think raising a son is hard? Try raising one with zombies. You think family bonds are tested over time? Try remaining loyal with zombies. Or dating someone. Or learning to forgive.
Once everything inessential is stripped away, what will people do to survive? What would you do? What makes one human? Is it not possession of a soul, the divine spark, which sets us apart from animals (and zombies)? In a world where people are pushed to the very edge of humanity, compassion and integrity are still lionized. Walking Dead explores the notion that even in troubling times it is what you do with your spark that matters.