The second episode of season 7 (“The Well”) has been much and rightly praised for its exceptional storytelling, which served as a welcome relief from the brutality of the season opener (“The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be”).
I’ve read some interesting things online about how the storyline developing between Carol (Melissa McBride) and Ezekiel (Khary Payton), with his strange insistence that she take his pomegranate, evokes the Greek myth of Persephone and Hades.
This article by Ryan Folmsbee on Comicsverse is a good example and lays out how Carol’s story tracks that of Persephone.
A crucial part of the story of Persephone, though, is that it is known as “The Rape of Persephone.” Hades sees Persephone, wandering alone, and he forcibly abducts and rapes her. So when Folmsbee refers to the “love” between Hades and Persephone, it doesn’t exactly seem an accurate description of the relationship—and, indeed, in the posts I saw about the myth, the “rape” part was not being talked about. (Folmsbee gets it more right later when he says that “Persephone was not entirely on board with the idea of spending her life with Hades.”)
The story of Persephone and Hades is told in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, one of many anonymous Greek hymns celebrating individual gods and written in the sixth and seventh centuries BC. This hymn tells us that Hades saw Persephone and he “seized her against her will, put her on his golden chariot, / And drove away as she wept.” And later, that “She was being taken, against her will.” Under pressure, Hades finally allows Persephone to leave the Underworld and go back to her mother, Demeter, which is the only thing she wants—but he tricks her by making her eat a pomegranate, which means that she must return to the Underworld for one-third of every year. As Persephone recounts what happened to her mother, she repeats that “It was very much against my will. I cried with a piercing voice.”[i]
That Carol’s story is being told through a Greek myth that involves rape and captivity is a bold move on the part of the storyrunners, suggesting an inexorable victimization in Carol’s story that seems fated to co-exist with her emerging strength and power. Carol was, of course, married to an abusive man, Ed, and then has, more recently, as Liz has written about here, been involved in a violent relationship with Morgan Jones (Lennie James). And she says no to the pomegranate and to staying in the Kingdom. But Ezekiel persists.
Starkly different from these relationships has been Carol’s friendship with Daryl (Norman Reedus)—and I have to put his offering Carol the Cherokee Rose in the season 2 episode of the same name in stark contrast to Ezekiel’s offering her the pomegranate. And, indeed, while the story of Persephone is the story of a daughter forcibly taken from her mother, wanting nothing but to get back to her, in the earlier storyline Daryl is doing everything he can to bring Carol’s daughter back to her, to reunite mother and daughter. That Ezekiel’s relationship with Carol is the inverse of her relationship with Daryl seems ominous. (Note the way in which Daryl and Carol are framed as equals in the screenshot below, an equality that is the hallmark of their relationship.)
If the references to Ezekiel as Hades add a sinister cloud to his character, the other reference to an ancient Greek story in this episode seems more reassuring. The story Ezekiel tells Carol about how he ended up with Shiva (which is also told in the comics, albeit to Michonne) clearly evokes Aesop’s fable of Androcles and the Lion.[ii]
Androcles, a slave, was wandering in the forest when he came across a lion in pain; seeing that he had a thorn in his paw, Androcles took the thorn out, and the lion showed his gratitude by feeding Androcles. Soon both were re-captured and thrown into the arena to provide amusement for the emperor and his court. (Sidenote: this sounds like the Governor, who threw humans into the arena to fight walkers.) When the lion recognizes Androcles, however, he refuses to attack him and goes up to him and licks his hand. After Androcles told the emperor his story, he freed both the lion and Androcles. The moral of the story is about the nobility of gratitude.
I have to say, though, that even this reference doesn’t completely reassure me about what kind of man Ezekiel is. Tellingly, the moral of the fable goes all to the lion (Shiva), for it is the lion that demonstrates gratitude and thus achieves nobility. Sure, Androcles and Ezekiel showed kindness to the respective animals, but they got something in return from that kindness (not least the adoration of an animal, which is twice described in Aesop’s fable as licking Androcles’ hand “like a dog.”) And, again, the moral of the fable crucially speaks to the lion’s qualities not the human’s.
In short, I’m intrigued by Ezekiel, but I’m also definitely ambivalent. I love the richness of the story, though, and it’s just one more way in which this episode was in such stark contrast to the flat brutality of the first episode and to the flat brutality of Negan’s character.
[ii] The text of “Androcles and the Lion” from http://aalbc.com/authors/Aesops_Fables.htm.
A slave named Androcles once escaped from his master and fled
to the forest. As he was wandering about there he came upon a
Lion lying down moaning and groaning. At first he turned to flee,
but finding that the Lion did not pursue him, he turned back and
went up to him. As he came near, the Lion put out his paw, which
was all swollen and bleeding, and Androcles found that a huge
thorn had got into it, and was causing all the pain. He pulled
out the thorn and bound up the paw of the Lion, who was soon able
to rise and lick the hand of Androcles like a dog. Then the Lion
took Androcles to his cave, and every day used to bring him meat
from which to live. But shortly afterwards both Androcles and the
Lion were captured, and the slave was sentenced to be thrown to
the Lion, after the latter had been kept without food for several
days. The Emperor and all his Court came to see the spectacle,
and Androcles was led out into the middle of the arena. Soon the
Lion was let loose from his den, and rushed bounding and roaring
towards his victim. But as soon as he came near to Androcles he
recognised his friend, and fawned upon him, and licked his hands
like a friendly dog. The Emperor, surprised at this, summoned
Androcles to him, who told him the whole story. Whereupon the
slave was pardoned and freed, and the Lion let loose to his native
Gratitude is the sign of noble souls.