Lisa Glebatic Perks, Merrimack College
This article explicates a “morality martyr” homology with three characteristics: amoral actions against “good” characters, introspection, and a fatalistic final act. Formal morality martyr patterns are analyzed in two characters from The Walking Dead. Exposing the morality martyr’s thinly-veiled suicide endorsement is an initial step in undercutting the deadly terministic cycle. Through comparison of the two characters, a merciful stretching of the formal pattern emerges, offering a set of values that preserve life through forgiveness.
Written into many narratives is a death penalty for characters and an intolerant system for deciding their fate. Even in the age of complex television (Mittell) that embraces morally ambiguous characters (see, for example, Krakowiak and Oliver; Krakowiak and Tsay-Vogel), death sentences often follow violent transgressions. A human penchant for order shapes the jury deliberations. An impulse to purge the guilt accompanying disorder drives the narrative death march. In The Rhetoric of Religion, Kenneth Burke explains that conditions of “moral order” position death as a naturalized form of “capital punishment” (209).
This article positions traitorous characters on narrative death row as part of a morality martyr homology woven from the terministic cycle of order and redemption. Brummett describes rhetorical homologies as discursive formal patterns connecting disparate texts and experiences (Rhetorical Homologies). Collectively, homologies comprise “the engine of stable categories in our consciousness” (Rhetorical Homologies 6). In Rhetorical Homologies, Brummett argues that these formal patterns offer “common ground and shared ways of communicating” (27) and enable people to “discursively attribute motives” (31). The formal characteristics of the morality martyr are: 1) amoral actions that hurt the “good” side, the group of characters with which audiences are meant to identify; 2) recognition of the error of the traitor’s ways, which is often accompanied by a sense that they can never compensate for their wrongs; 3) commitment to helping the moral cause, usually in a bold, brave final act that will save “good” lives at the expense of their own. In the morality martyr’s constellation of meanings, the naturalized response is death, which underscores the importance of uncovering the formal constitutive properties of the homology—and the audience’s role in warranting the outcome.
Reindividuations of the morality martyr homology can be found in film, literature, and television. Common in epics that offer extensive, complex character development, we see morality martyrs in Snape from the Harry Potter series, Boromir in the Lord of the Rings series, Luke from the Percy Jackson series, and Prince Ellidyr from the Chronicles of Prydain series. Contemporary characters with morality martyr features are Nux the turncoat War Boy from Mad Max: Fury Road, Yondu from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and Skurge from Thor: Ragnarok. Of note, morality martyrs typically appear to be male and white. Illustrating the homology’s transhistorical nature, one of the earliest formal iterations of the morality martyr can found in the story of Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus and, upon confessing to priests and elders was told, “See to it yourself” (New Interpreter’s Bible; Matt. 27.3–5). This example positions mortification (Judas’s suicidal hanging) as a fitting response to perfidy.
To illustrate repeated formal similarities of morality martyrs within the same context, the analysis focuses on two characters in The Walking Dead, the television series on American Movie Classics channel (AMC). Based on Robert Kirkman’s graphic novel series of the same name (Ambrosius and Valenzano), The Walking Dead captures humans’ experiences trying to survive a zombie apocalypse in the United States. The narrative follows a group of survivors led by former sheriff deputy Rick Grimes. The Grimes group integrates some new members along the way and battles other communities, including the “Governor’s” Woodbury settlement and Negan’s Saviors. On the surface, The Walking Dead is a post apocalyptic drama focused on survival; however, the dialogue and character development (including that of morality martyrs) roots much suspense in the humanity that can be lost in survival. Questions about the life worth living are posed and (sometimes conflicting) answers are offered throughout The Walking Dead’s engaging narrative. Characters commonly dialogue about what decisions and acts they can and cannot “come back from”—in terms of reclaiming their soul, their belongingness, their lives (see, for example, “30 Days without an Accident”; “East”; “Too Far Gone”). As Tenga and Bassett observe: “the pervasive threat of violent death forces characters to reevaluate what they are willing to do in order to survive and what constitutes meaningful existence” (1281). This dramatic, suspenseful show was a ratings juggernaut for AMC, drawing over 10 million viewers on average for seasons three through eight (Otterson) before a precipitous ratings drop in the ninth season (Patten). (1)
The upcoming pages review Burkean theory on the terministic cycle of order and redemption. The analysis of the first eight seasons of The Walking Dead then hones in on the guilt and rebirth of two characters, Merle and Dwight. Both characters exhibit the formal properties of the morality martyr’s thinly-veiled suicide endorsement—yet Dwight has a different form of rebirth. Because the guilt/redemption cycle goes “round and round like the wheel,” disparate closure can reframe the entire cycle and its attribution of motives (Burke, Rhetoric of Religion 217). Exposing the formal properties of the morality martyr’s thinly-veiled suicide endorsement—along with a divergent rebirth—promotes a reconfiguration of the narrative death march for those who have erred.
The Terministic Cycle from Order to Guilt to Sacrifice
For Burke, order and human hierarchies prescribe a normalized way of being, which inherently “gives rise to a sense of guilt” (Rhetoric of Religion 210). Brummett catalogues transgressions that may lead to guilt: “hate, violence, lawlessness, rejection, alienation or failure to meet responsibilities” (“Symbolic Form” 66). Order seems simple, valuable, and ideal; yet, the complexities and rigidity of order readily give rise to guilt. Burke captures the challenges of following a moral path, writing, “Often the attempt to obey one moral injunction may oblige us to violate another” (Rhetoric of Motives 253). Burke’s work illuminates the dis-ordering effect of striving for order. Recognizing that contradiction can therefore coach attitudes in a different way of achieving a sense of stability.
Burke offers several mechanisms through which to purge guilt. The two most relevant to this essay are mortification and scapegoating. Mortification is a more insulated process whereby one confesses sins and atones for them through punishment (Brummett “Burkean Scapegoat”; Burke Rhetoric of Religion). Scapegoating involves a sacrificial vessel (the representative animal or goat) “upon whose back the burden of these evils is ritualistically loaded” (Burke, Philosophy 40). The purgation of evils (through the goat’s sacrifice) thus purifies the guilt of an external entity or group. Treat (2008) cautioned against the rhetorical efficacy of scapegoating, identifying Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath as in instance in which fiction (in the form of television show K-VILLE) should “invite reflective national mortification” instead of the “melodramatic individualism” of scapegoating (para. 17).
Acknowledging that internally-held guilt and externally-applied guilt may be purged through the same act, Oldenburg writes about the “hybrid victimage” strategy in which the sinners are punished to “exorcise their own guilt and the guilt of their culture” (para. 5). In both forms of victimage (or the hybrid version), the same outcome is achieved through different means: “The secular variants of mortification, we might say, lie on the ‘suicidal’ slope of human motivation, while the secular variants of redemption by sacrifice of a chosen victim are on the slope of homicide” (Burke, Rhetoric of Religion 208). Uniting mortification and scapegoating inherently unites suicide and homicide, creating a nebulous sense of agency that resides in both the victim who took their own life and the audience that goaded on the action for communal purification.
Both mortification and scapegoating require sin purgation witness. Because mediated texts are designed for others’ engagement, we should consider two concentric circles of witness: fellow characters and audience members. (2) The witnesses are a key element of the third morality martyr criterion: a brave final act. For if the brave act was committed with no witnesses, the ritualized cleansing would never be acknowledged as part of the intra-narrative mythology. Burke explains, “Martyrdom is the idea of total voluntary self-sacrifice enacted in a grave cause before a perfect (absolute) witness. It is the fulfillment of the principle of mortification, suicidally directed, with the self as scapegoat” (Rhetoric of Religion 218). Martyrdom is a displayed or performed act of mortification. According to Burke, the story of Samson (as told in the Old Testament and by Milton in Samson Agonistes) is a fitting example of narratively-sanctioned suicide. Samson’s self-sacrificial act, Burke argues, involves “both aggressive and inturning trends” (Rhetoric of Motives 5). Burke sums up Samson’s fate as such: “Samson is self-killed in a warlike act that kills the enemy” (Burke, Rhetoric of Motives 9).
The cycle of disorder to mortification, which is performed for an audience, has resonance with real life suicides. Although Burke writes about symbolic suicide, which may include changing identifications, roles, or perceptions of the self, this analysis focuses on a more literal application of the suicidal slope. The impact of shifting identifications in The Walking Dead can be fatalistic: transgressions cleave characters from their groups, and groups of trustworthy humans are the main locus of survival during a zombie apocalypse. This analysis uncovers a narrative pathway that makes literal suicide feel inevitable for characters—which is a dangerous audience message. Bridging the gap between media engagement and lived experience, Brummett notes that a symbolic formula “guides the audience in experiencing both life and text” (Rhetorical Homologies 18). In their qualitative analysis of suicide notes, Messner and Buckrop observe, “suicidal individuals appear to perceive their lives as chaotic, painful, and otherwise disordered. To them, suicide is curative, a means of overcoming tremendous anguish, guilt, shame, and/or physical suffering” (2). Building off of Messner and Buckrop’s work, Martinez describes suicide as a communicative act that “always implies an audience for whom such communicative actions are offered for social sanction” (54). These acts are conducted for others who uphold the system of order and bear witness to redemption.
The physical suffering of suicidal individuals, Messner and Buckrop note, relates to guilt from a sense of “tainting the lives of others” (8). It is worth mention that the guilt from “tainting the lives of others,” echoes the mythology of zombie infection that is passed from the undead to the living. The disease thus stays “alive” by preying on a once-healthy host. This zombie/suicide connection is particularly salient when analyzing characters from The Walking Dead, but it can also be applied to other narratives in which the continued presence of transgressors is seen as endangering the heroes or the group mission. Through a dangerous, deadly scapegoating process, witnesses can be at risk of infection and then symbolically purified.
Analysis: Traitor to Martyr
Walking Dead character Daryl Dixon deserves mention at the start of the analysis. A brave and trusted leader of the Grimes group, Daryl is the brother to the first morality martyr analyzed, Merle, and has a fraught kinship with the other marked man, Dwight. Daryl has, at times, advocated for both Merle and Dwight to join the Grimes group—and pushed them away. The associations between Daryl and the two morality martyrs are synecdochal: there is a convertible relationship between the dyads, “a connectedness that, like a road, extends in either direction” (Burke, Grammar of Motives 509). We cannot fully understand one without the other. Daryl is what Merle and Dwight could have been (and vice versa) if the narrative were set up and played out with slight differences. The synecdoche between him and the martyrs throws Daryl’s morality into relief. Indeed, each narrative twist and difficult decision seems to push Daryl closer to the Grimes group’s leadership core.
The very first episodes of The Walking Dead establish a divide between Merle Dixon and the rest of the group. His racism and violence endanger everyone. In the second episode, after Merle fights two characters of color and pulls a gun on them, Rick Grimes handcuffs him to a pipe on an Atlanta rooftop. A hasty escape and lost key force them to leave Merle behind. This scene marks Merle’s substantive break from the group (1.2 “Guts”). When the group goes back to rescue Merle, he is already gone, leaving a hacksaw, a trail of blood, and his hand behind. Viewers later learn that the sadistic Governor and his Woodbury acolytes took Merle in. However, their “rescue” is more like a sentence: using duct tape, metal, and leather to strap a knife in place of Merle’s missing hand, the Governor’s “rehabilitation” signifies Merle’s transformation into a mercenary. By the time he reappears in season three, Merle has racked up over a dozen murders, beat up long-time Grimes group member Glenn, and nearly killed newcomer Michonne.
Maybe the Grimes group would have let Merle back in if they had found him on that Atlanta rooftop. But at their reunion point in the narrative, Merle has driven an even greater wedge between them. When Daryl advocates for his brother to rejoin them, the Grimes group solidifies their distance from Merle: Rick states, “There’s no way Merle’s gonna live there without putting everyone at each other’s throats.” (“Suicide King”). Daryl protests, saying that “Merle’s blood.” However, Glenn and Rick counter that there is no consubstantiality between their new post-apocalyptic adopted family and Daryl’s genetic family:
Glenn: No, Merle is your blood. My blood, my family, is standing right here [….]
Rick: And you’re part of that family. But he’s not. He’s not. (“Suicide King”)
The biological imagery (throats, blood) in these conversations evokes zombification as it cleaves Merle from the group. Glenn’s blood, his newly-constituted family, is made up of those who have cared for and sacrificed for one another. Merle’s “blood” is tainted by hatred and self-preserving violence. Allow Merle back into the group and his amorality will “infect” them all—by putting them at each other’s throats. The narrative intimates that zombies like Merle must be purged, lest they infect or taint the others. Merle is constructed as a character who can never be rehabilitated, healed, or welcomed back into the social order.
Michonne, while still on the Grimes group outskirts, presents her objective stance on Merle’s belongingness. She offers Merle a conversational feint, which coaxes him to see himself in a true light—as separate from the group:
Merle: The folks here, they’re strong, good fighters. But they ain’t killers.
Michonne: Rick is. Maggie is. Carl put down his own mother.
Merle: Mercy killing. That don’t make him an assassin.
Michonne: Mmm, but you are.
Merle: [chuckles] When I have to be. (“Arrow on the Doorpost”)
The dividing line—between protectors and assassins—is not murder, but motives. This perspective of Rick’s group as tough but merciful fighters functions as the moral gaze that viewers are coached on throughout The Walking Dead seasons. Taken in isolation, the Grimes group’s actions are not moral. They kill. They steal. They deceive and hurt others to get resources for themselves. However, Rick’s group, as the main enduring characters of the show, functions as the moral center of this post-apocalyptic world. They are the Robin Hoods of death, stealing lives from the cruel so that their morally superior group may live on.
To complete his full divide from the group, Merle must be cleaved from his flesh and blood. He must be differentiated from Daryl, a man once on the group’s outskirts but who has proven importance in Rick’s “family.” The scene in which the Governor pits Merle in a fight to the death against Daryl to test Merle’s loyalty to the Woodbury community is a significant moment in the narrative. Merle plays along with the Governor’s challenge, saying, “I’m gonna do whatever I gotta do to prove [punches Daryl in the gut] that my loyalty [kicks Daryl] is to this town [Woodbury]!” (“The Suicide King”). Merle signals to Daryl that it is a ruse, which buys time for a Grimes group rescue.
After a daring escape, the brothers walk away together, working through their tumultuous history step by step through the forest. Daryl confronts Merle about leaving him alone with their abusive father years ago, reluctantly revealing the scars of that horrible childhood that are etched angrily into Daryl’s back. Merle remorsefully explains he would have killed their dad otherwise. The brothers’ conversation about their past, their biological family, lengthens the narrative thread of Merle’s cruelty, making his death seem determined long before The Walking Dead begins. Merle is thus framed as a thoughtless zombie, taking out his abuse and unmet human needs with violence and hatred against others. Through contrast with Daryl—who shows kindness, care, and collectivism—characters and viewers are told that Merle has the agency to decide who he will be and how he will act. He abandoned his brother in their youth and again after in the apocalypse. Whether pre- or post-apocalyptic, Merle cannot or does not change his violently self-preserving nature, the seeds of which are narratively planted by his abusive father.
Unsatisfied with his brother’s reason for leaving their childhood home, Daryl uncouples from Merle and begins walking back to Rick’s group, where he “belong[s]” (“Home”). Analyzing this scene, Tenga and Bassett wrote, “Daryl discovers that his personal investment in the culture of Rick’s group supersedes his blood bond to and identification with his brother” (1284). Merle, looking his most remorseful up to this point in the narrative, states rather than pleads, “I can’t go with you. I tried to kill that black bitch [Michonne]. Damn near killed that Chinese kid [Glenn]” (“Home”). Even in his desperation, Merle marks his outsider status by using hateful and ignorant labels that strip Grimes group members their unique identities. Daryl’s response focuses on a defense of his new family—“He’s [Glenn’s] Korean”—rather than the implications of Merle’s division from his brother (“Home”).
Walking away from Merle initiates Daryl’s symbolic separation from his genealogical past, and his full assimilation with the Grimes group. Burke argues that it is not just a separation from one’s past but a re-fashioning of it that occurs with rebirth: “a thorough job of symbolic rebirth would require the revision of one’s ancestral past itself […] in becoming wholly transformed one not only can alter the course of the future but can even remake the past” (Philosophy 41). With that symbolic separation of brother from brother, all of Daryl’s past transgressions (Merle reminds Daryl that they once planned to rob the Grimes group together) are symbolically placed onto Merle, ready to be cast off.
Burke writes of scapegoating in literature: “we so point the arrows of the plot that the audience comes to think of him as a marked man, and so prepares itself to relinquish him” (Philosophy 40). Various narrative signs mark and prepare Merle as a sacrifice. The Walking Dead’s third season episode titles function as a breadcrumb trail leading viewers to his fate: “Made to Suffer,” “The Suicide King,” “Home,” and “I Ain’t a Judas.” Merle is eventually allowed into the Grimes group, but forced to stay locked up in the prison they have made their home. Biblical foreshadowing inches viewers closer to Merle’s end. Hershel, the eldest and most devout of the Grimes group, speaks of redemption to Merle. Quoting the Gospel of Matthew, Hershel begins, “And if your right hand offends you, cut it off, cast it from you. For it is profitable that one of your members should perish…” Merle finishes, “And not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.” (“I Ain’t a Judas”). Merle cut off his own hand in order to survive. The “casting off” of his hand could have meant rebirth for Merle, could have saved him. Instead, that casting off made Merle a mercenary. It is a devil’s bargain: body is saved but soul is lost. When considering casting off and rebirth, we must ask for whom the sacrifice is for and to what ends does the sacrifice occur. This synecdoche is reconfigured with Merle as the “hand” of the Grimes gang, the member who will eventually sacrifice self for the greater good.
Merle’s conversation with Hershel quickly shifts to the present danger: the Governor who will kill them all. Merle as a potential enemy, as a danger to the group, is nothing compared to the sadist down the road. This magnified danger also highlights Merle’s value. Merle is a fighter, a killer. If the two settlements battle to the death, vicious Merle can tip the scales in the Grimes group’s favor. The group does not ask Merle to sacrifice himself; indeed, that would taint their moral character. But the plot wheels are already in motion with the fatalistic moral gaze. Set on the outskirts of the group, with no clear path to belongingness, Merle kidnaps newcomer Michonne, with the goal of delivering her to the Governor as a risky peace offering that he hopes will prevent a deadly battle between the two groups.
Merle explains his rationale to Michonne: “I want to be with my brother. My brother, he wants to be in prison. This little trip—maybe it’ll keep that place [the prison] standing. If I pull it off, maybe all is forgiven” (“This Sorrowful Life”). Forgiveness and acceptance are what Merle seeks. We see this type of transformation—sin redeemed through victimage—in Burke:
Insofar as punishment is a kind of ‘payment’ for wrong, we can see flickering about the edges of the idea of punishment the idea of redemption. To ‘pay’ for one’s wrongdoing by suffering punishment is to ‘redeem’ oneself, to cancel one’s debt, to ransom or ‘buy back.’ (Rhetoric of Religion 175–176)
There is an exchange here—past sin is swapped with current bravery or bold deed—and in that exchange resides the potential for rebirth and belongingness.
As they take the fateful car ride back to the Governor, Michonne puts the agency back on Merle, also acknowledging Daryl’s rebirth: “The truth is this could have been your shot. With your skills, a whole new beginning. But you choose to stay on the outside. No one’s gonna mourn you, not even Daryl. He’s got a new family” (“This Sorrowful Life”). In her final appeal Michonne tells Merle, “Both of us. We can just go back.” It is difficult for him to spit out the words, but Merle eventually says with a mix of exasperation and sadness: “I can’t go back. Don’t you understand that?” At that point, he lets Michonne out of the car, frees her wrist ties, and says, “You go back with him. Get ready for what’s next. I got something I gotta do on my own” (“This Sorrowful Life”). Merle recognizes that delivering Michonne to the Governor is not enough of a sacrifice to cancel out his own sins. He has to give of himself, presumably drawing from his killer “skills” that Michonne references earlier. Merle ambushes the Governor’s men, shooting several and narrowly missing the Governor himself—all to give the Grimes group a better chance at survival. Of “redeemed traitors,” Perks writes that brave final acts such as Merle’s function as “redemptive suturing, which allows readers to reflect back positively on the characters, despite their transgressions” (168). His last act was his most beneficent and bravest. In the end, the Governor kills Merle, but it is Daryl who later completes the sacrifice by putting an arrow through zombie Merle’s skull. Daryl must be the one to witness—and even participate in—Merle’s zombie rebirth, which is symbolic of his self-sacrificing, soul altering reincarnation. After “dying” twice over, Merle’s sins are fully cleansed; he no longer walks the earth in any form preying on others. By casting him away, the Grimes gang’s morality is affirmed. They can appreciate his final act, but mercenary Merle never was and never will be them.
After Daryl is separated from his own group in Season 6, he comes across Dwight, Dwight’s wife Sherry, and Sherry’s sister in a charred forest. The trio has staged a daring, fiery escape from the Saviors, a malicious group that is bigger, more powerful, and better organized than even the Governor’s Woodbury town. Dwight and his family assume Daryl is a Savior, so they capture him. Dwight chastises Daryl: “You made the choice to kill for someone else, to have them own you for a roof over your head and three squares” (“Always Accountable”). Acknowledging that the zombie apocalypse has irreparably damaged humanity’s moral compass, Dwight offers an empathic interpretation of Daryl’s (presumed Savior) character: “Everybody’s got their code. You feel you gotta kneel [to Saviors’ leader Negan], it’s fair enough. We don’t” (“Always Accountable”). The charred forest indicates Dwight’s first re-birth: the fire cleansed his soul as it freed him from the Savior total institution.
Despite their rough start, some trust builds up and the small group begins working together to escape their common enemy. Daryl even attempts to recruit Dwight and Sherry to the Grimes group, persuading: “I’m from a place where people are still like they were, more or less, better or worse” (“Always Accountable”). In the zombie apocalypse version of a marriage proposal, Daryl asks Dwight the three questions that are the prelude to acceptance into the Grimes fold: “How many walkers have you killed? How many people have you killed? Why?” Dwight said he killed no humans, explaining, “Because if I did [kill humans], there’d be no going back. There’d be no going back to how things were” (“Always Accountable”). Dwight’s rebirth and escape from the Saviors is thus marked as an affirmation of who he was (prior to the apocalypse) and still is. Daryl’s overture—asking the three questions—acknowledges a willingness to trust and forgive. Despite his gruff exterior, Daryl still expects to find good in the world. However, Dwight’s “everbody’s got their code” circles back around: Dwight and his wife’s code tells them to steal Daryl’s motorcycle and gun, leaving him alone in the forest with Sherry offering a simple, “We’re sorry.”
In season seven, Dwight emerges as a less sympathetic villain: a Savior’s henchman. His return to the narrative includes a visual marker to signify an off-camera return to the dark side. The Saviors recaptured Dwight, and their leader Negan burned the left side of Dwight’s face as punishment. Cruz notes that zombies appear in “various states of decay, with flesh stripping away and appendages falling off” (166). Merle’s amputated hand and Dwight’s burned face serve as plot arrows, gesturing toward zombification. Although his burns can be considered a narrative mark of his “evil turn,” Dwight’s mutilation-as-mortification was an exchange for his wife Sherry’s life to be spared. We thus see that Dwight is a man reborn in flames twice as he seeks to balance protection of his family with adherence to his moral code. After being reinitiated, Dwight takes his Saviors belongingness to the extreme, becoming a heartless Negan acolyte. This is a form of symbolic suicide: Dwight no longer cares about the life worth living. Dwight and Negan kill several of the Grimes gang, also taking Daryl as a hostage.
In the Saviors compound, Daryl is tortured, starved, made a slave. During one of their stolen conversations, Daryl says to Dwight: “I get why you did it. Why you took it [the deal from Negan]. You were thinking about someone else [your wife]. That’s why I can’t” (“The Cell”). Daryl, as synecdoche for the Grimes gang, has a strong moral code that does not allow him to submit to an oppressive community that goes against his character. The interplay of Dwight and Daryl’s characters, their divergent decisions, thus brings into focus the Grimes group’s superior morality.
Dwight and Sherry’s first description of the Saviors echoes throughout their new roles. They once informed Daryl:
Sherry: People will trade anything for safety, knowing that they are safe.
Dwight: Everything. So they got nothing left except just existing. (“Always Accountable”)
Merely existing is again the new life for mutilated Dwight and Sherry, who has become one of Negan’s “wives”—a euphemism for sexual slavery. Sherry ultimately risks her life to free Daryl and to escape on her own, leaving a note of explanation for Dwight:
Now you’ve killed, and you’ve become everything you didn’t want to be, and it’s my fault [….] I let Daryl go because he reminded you of who you used to be, and I wanted to let you to forget [….] Being [with the Saviors] isn’t better than being dead. It’s worse [….] (“Hostiles and Calamities”)
Dwight, the two-faced man, still holds on to the vestiges of who he used to be. The best Dwight can do now is atone for his sins, to figuratively scrub off his scarred façade and reveal his old character. In the final episode of season seven, Dwight goes to the Grimes group in secret with a proposal to take down Negan.
This proposal represents a turning point not just in Dwight’s character evolution, but also in the series. The episode’s title, “The First Day of the Rest of Your Life,” signifies Dwight’s impending third rebirth. Skeptical of Dwight’s motives and angry at his past betrayals, Daryl violently pins Dwight against a wall, fingers on the man’s throat, staring down a quaking knife pointing into Dwight’s head. Resigned, Dwight rasps out, “You go ahead [and kill me]. I’m sorry.” When death does not come, Dwight explains his motives, light illuminating only his scarred side:
[Negan] owned me, but not anymore. What I did, I was doing for someone else. She just got away. So now I’m here [….] You can trust me. We can work together. We can stop it. You knew me then, and you know me now. You know I’m not lyin.’ (“The First Day of the Rest of Your Life”)
These appeals and this act (of turning Saviors traitor) mark Dwight’s attempted return to his old self. He references that self in his persuasive appeal, “You knew me then.” And he attributes his murderous, violent turn to a sympathetic motivation: preserving Sherry’s life. Once Sherry escapes, nothing is stopping Dwight from reclaiming his old self. The narrative builds and The Walking Dead enters an epic battle of civilizations in season eight.
Dwight lost his soul to save his wife. Then, in a much more selfless act, he turns traitor and risks death to help out people he barely knows. Notably, the Grimes group plan is not a Saviors massacre but a battle to break Negan’s authoritarian rule and form a more equitable group from survivors on all sides. Perhaps this more beneficent battle strategy explains his character’s fate: despite close calls, the narrative arrows miss their target in Dwight. Brummett notes that patterns of formal resemblance form “increasingly wide circles” (Rhetorical Homologies 7). Dwight’s narrative closure sketches out the formal structure for a merciful stretching of the homology.
After the battle dust settles, Daryl drives Dwight out into the woods for last words. Dwight: “I knew I’d have to face it. To pay. And I should. I’m ready [….] I’m a piece of shit. There’s no going back to how things were. [He kneels and cries in front of Daryl.] I’m so sorry. Please” (“Wrath”). Again taking the judge role and erring on the side of mercy, Daryl leaves Dwight his life and a set of car keys. Daryl both threatens and instructs Dwight: “You go and you keep going [….] If I ever see your face around here again, I’ll kill ya. You go out there and you make it right. Find her [Sherry]” (“Wrath”). There is a place in the world for Dwight and a way to “make it right” through a solo quest. Dwight’s only tools for survival are keys for his journey. This apocalyptic casting out is a form of isolating mortification—in pursuit of purification and reconciliation. This is a sacrifice to repair one’s soul rather than take one’s life.
The morality martyr homology is a value-laden transhistorical formal pattern. Narrative trajectories function as if traitorous characters have no alternative pathway to atonement but to risk their lives for the “good” group’s cause—whether that’s the Fellowship of the Ring, the Guardians of the Galaxy, the Grimes group, the Order of the Phoenix, the surviving Asgardians, and others. Brummett states that films and other forms of popular media invoke “values that help us get through everyday experiences that are formally similar” (“Popular Films” 64). The many examples of morality martyrs suggest a contemporary cultural penchant for self-imposed justice that elides an external agent. The external agent—the group that has tension with the morality martyr and sometimes even shuns him—thus maintains its moral cleanliness despite playing a powerful, insidious role in goading the self-sacrifice.
These character trajectories and narrative justifications are particularly problematic as they have resonance in suicide notes: Messner and Buckrop write, “the deceased maintained that they must sacrifice themselves for the greater good” (9). Self-sacrifices are thus positioned as a benefit to those surrounding the victim. “Disreputable characters,” Burke argued, “die that we may live” (Philosophy 47). Our socially-constructed order is maintained, but the cost is great. By reindividuating this formal morality martyr pattern, we—as writers, creators, fans, and viewers—warrant the argument that there are sins for which no forgiveness is possible.
In the case studies of both Merle and Dwight, we see sins and transgressions, namely against the Grimes group with whom viewers are coached to identify. However, their terministic cycles of guilt and rebirth differ. Merle’s rebirth is complete. He experienced what Burke saw in Samson: introspection combined with outward aggression. By undertaking a final war-like act against the Governor’s army that threatened Daryl’s new family, Merle was reborn in death. Dwight demonstrates introspection and bravery, by turning traitor and risking his life many times over to help the Grimes group defend against the Saviors. Perhaps because of their unique connection, the narrative seems to have made Daryl into Dwight’s judge and jury. Daryl chooses rehabilitation, thus allowing Dwight to be reborn.
Viewers are shown the potential for redemption in the form of Dwight’s quest (rather than his death in battle) when The Walking Dead’s “Wrath” episode aired in 2018. As Burke wrote, “Conscience-laden repression is the symbol-using animal’s response to conditions in the socio-political order” (Rhetoric of Religion 208). “Wrath” was filmed and edited in a time of tremendous turmoil. The election of Donald Trump in the United States, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, the Brexit vote, Syrian civil war, and the global MeToo movement, among other notable upheavals, drew new lines in the sand. Family members and friends often found themselves on different sides of that line, with decisions to make about loss or reconciliation. Dwight’s casting out—not to be zombified but to make amends elsewhere—represents several features of the socio-political climate: division, accountability, restorative justice, evolution.
A zombie homology is woven through the terministic cycle of sin, sacrifice and redemption. Is a character mindlessly consuming flesh to keep himself alive? If so, redemption is not possible. Merle could never “pay” enough for his sins: he’s an assassin, a murderer serving whatever master will have him. Drawing from the zombie metaphor, we might say that Merle has been fully infected with the virus. The virus, in narrative terms, is about morality. Merle has no chance for narrative survival—because he only cares about his survival. Dwight, in contrast, does not succumb to the zombie infection. When viewers first meet him, they learn he has a “code” to follow and disdains those who do anything to merely “exist.” He is ultimately allowed to battle back to that code, to reassert its governance over his life. Whereas Merle only takes lives, Dwight has greater potential to preserve Grimes group lives. If they “win” against the Saviors, the Grimes group need not sacrifice Dwight to purify themselves; instead, they can demonstrate their goodness with beneficent treatment of the losers.
This analysis encourages critics to scrutinize homologies that deny agency and cast judgment with fatal sentencing. Additionally, critics should question ambiguous morality, for that guise can unwittingly coach unwarranted acceptance or condemnation. Rather than shaking a foundation of order, ambiguous morality can anchor order in even more restrictive and disempowering ways: Merle’s “good” final deed was murder and the narrative therefore allows his life to be lost, narratively murdered with minimal compunctions from surviving characters. By elucidating this homology and its supporting narrative pattern, this research aims to stress the importance of “coming back from” transgressions. What has heretofore been considered character suicide should be considered homicide imposed by a rigid order. The plot arrows pointed toward a fatal ending for Dwight, but narrative space was carved out for rehabilitation, for further bravery in pursuit of making it “right.” By allowing to Dwight to live, the wheel of the guilt/redemption cycle offers empathy for his earlier motives, his protection of family that caused a division with Daryl and the Grimes’ group. This homological stretching—a widening of the formal pattern—offers a pathway toward living redemption, something that the socio-political climate hungered for at the end of a divisive decade.
1. This analysis focuses on seasons one through eight to capture the most popular narrative arcs featuring characters at the show’s moral center from the start.
2. In the case of Nux, the War Boy from Mad Max: Fury Road, his cult-like admonishment “Witness me!” before engaging in life-risking behavior represents the epitome of martyrdom-sought.
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