There is much to say about the role of religion in AMC’s The Walking Dead, but here I want to focus on the three crucial church scenes that have punctuated the series so far.
1. In season two, episode one, “What Lies Beneath,” the group is searching for Carol’s (Melissa McBride) lost daughter. They hear church bells and are drawn to the Southern Baptist Church, where, after killing the three walkers sitting in its pews, Carol and Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and even Daryl (Norman Reedus) ask God to help them.
2. In a much different scene in the season five episode, “Four Walls and a Roof,” the group lures those remaining survivors from Terminus who had captured Bob (Lawrence Gilliard, Jr.) and eaten his leg into Father Gabriel’s (Seth Gilliam) church and brutally slaughters them.
3. And finally, in the season six episode, “Not Tomorrow Yet,” Rick stands at the front of Alexandria’s church and exhorts the survivors that their very lives depend on a preemptive attack on Negan’s Saviors—that they must find them and kill them.
The most obvious point to make about the trajectory of these scenes is the dramatic increase in brutality on the part of Rick and his group, which goes hand-in-hand with Rick’s movement from supplicating Christ to taking his place.
In the season two scene, as Rick hacks at a walker, he looks at the statue of Christ in a way that suggests he knows he is committing some kind of transgression by butchering even the dead in a church. In the season five scene, however, Rick brutally kills humans in a church—without, seemingly, any compunction at all. He did, however, have justification for doing so since those humans had, after all, planned to kill and eat him and his friends—had, in fact, eaten part of one of them (Bob).
In the third scene, however, from season six, Rick declares his intention to kill humans who have as yet done nothing to harm them.
The increase in brutality over the four seasons comes in tandem with an increase in power—one could say hubris. In season two, despite admitting that he’s “not much of a believer,” Rick tells God that he and the group “could use a little something to help us keep going.” He asks for some “indication I’m doing the right thing.” Rick expresses humility, bowing his head and taking off his hat, and asks God for a “sign.” The camera cuts between Rick, head lowered, and a close-up of the statue of Christ, pointedly framed above Rick.
By season six, though, there is no more supplication. Rick is not beseeching Christ; he becomes Christ. In the frame below, he stands in the center, the cross prominently behind him. The actual priest, Father Gabriel, sits in the pew listening to Rick—and the man actually named Jesus (Tom Payne) sits to the side and buried in the background. Here, we witness Rick’s apotheosis.
But to what end? In season two, Rick was begging God to give him a sign that he was right to jeopardize the safety of the group in order to search for Carol’s daughter, because her life, her single life, mattered. In season six, Rick calls for indiscriminate death. Preaching of the need to kill all the “Saviors,” he declares, “We don’t shy away from it, we live. We kill them all.”
In the end, what has crucially changed between season two and season six is that in the above season six episode, the above frame, Rick is positioned as Christ. In season two, characters (notably Rick, Carol, and Daryl) recognized the presence of an ineffable divinity in the world, something greater than them. By season six, Rick no longer does. The human stands alone. All is flesh, body, animal survival.
And here’s where the intervening season five scenes in Father Gabriel’s church come in. Gareth (Andrew J. West) and the rest of the Terminus survivors are unambiguously the “bad guys” because, yes, they cannibalize other humans, but also, on another level, because they have made the world flesh, allowed no possibility of transcendence. They have literalized the word (and world) of God; they have literalized the divine, thus effectively erasing it.
Prominently featured in Gabriel’s church (in both the “Four Walls and a Roof” and “Coda” episodes) is an arch on which is inscribed: “He who eats and drinks my flesh and blood has eternal life.”
When this arch frames the cannibals of Terminus, its inscription is clearly ironic: they eat humans, and it’s hard to believe that in any world view—religious or otherwise—they are not damned for doing so. Also, in “Coda,” the walkers stream under the arch, representing exactly what “eternal life” now means in this fallen post-apocalyptic world.
The frame above crystallizes the way in which everything that was allegorical, everything that once spoke of transcendence, is now reduced to the literal, to the flesh and blood of fellow men, to the eternal life of walking, rotting corpses.
There have been scant few characters in The Walking Dead who have kept alive the hope of transcendent meaning in the world—Hershel (Scott Wilson) and Beth (Emily Kinney) notably among them. But also, I think, Bob himself, who overcame a battle with alcoholism to find meaning and love in his life before he was eaten, doubly eaten—by walkers and then by humans.
Bob’s flesh and blood were forcibly taken and consumed, and those who participated in his literalization of God’s words on Gabriel’s church—“He who eats and drinks my flesh and blood has eternal life”—seem clearly evil. No one mourns their brutal murder inside the church’s walls.
But now we see Rick, in season six, taking Christ’s place without any qualms and declaring death to people he knows little to nothing about. Like Gareth and his group he is stripping the world of transcendence; he has banished humility; and he has become a God-like destroyer. You’ve got to wonder if he’ll pay the price.
*The title, “Raised from the Dead,” is from Romans 6 4: “Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.” This chapter and verse is prominently featured throughout “Four Walls and a Roof” and clearly gets at the theme of the perversion by some of the characters of The Walking Dead of the spiritual/divine into the literal.