Robert Kirkman likes to describe The Walking Dead as a zombie movie that never ends. But to my eyes, the most interesting thing about the show is how it’s spent five seasons fluttering between different storytelling modes. The show lacks a single setting and makes a point of killing off at least a couple key cast members every season. This can make The Walking Dead feel unwieldy or unfocused, but it also means that there’s an exciting state of constant flux underpinning the show’s basic head-crushing thrills. I’ve always said that original showrunner Frank Darabont most clearly viewed his version of The Walking Dead as a kind of neo-western, with Sheriff Rick as a clean-cut cowboy wanderer set morally adrift in a new frontier apocalypse.
The western aesthetic mostly disappeared during the second season, when Darabont inadvertently rounded out his tenure with a static sequence of farm-centric episodes. No one can ever agree on what, precisely, went wrong with that second season. Some argue that Darabont didn’t have the budget to support his ambitions; you could counterargue that Darabont was the director of The Green Mile and The Majestic, and so it’s not exactly surprising that he transformed The Walking Dead into an overlong anti-narrative morality play starring Jeffrey DeMunn in a small-but-pivotal role.
Either way, the vacuum of Dead‘s second season set the stage for the next showrunner to transform the show into a full-fledged war movie, the survivors reimagined as a post-apocalyptic Special Forces squad in a war of attrition to claim the Prison for themselves. The Walking Dead-as-Saving Private Ryan delivered the best moments of season 3. Then, once again, the show devolved into a weird stasis: Long stretches of aimless episodes devoted to the slow-burn no-burn rivalry between Rick and the Governor.
Again, this weird reversion to vanilla stasis gave the next showrunner a unique opportunity to immediately put his own mark on the show. As I argued back in March, the Scott M. Gimple Walking Dead regime transformed the show into a kind of endless bottle episode, laser-focusing on the survivor diaspora in a series of low-stakes high-impact episodes that looked, to me, like a new peak for the show.
And now, I think, the show has transformed again. It’s an evolution that’s been brewing in the background for a long time—since at least the middle of season 3, when it became clear that the characters on the show had left Georgia and entered an exciting magical forest where people and plot points constantly ran into each other, and key settings were simultaneously a million miles away from each other and right around the corner. But now that we’re clear of Terminus, and the new season has established a rough narrative goal, we know exactly what kind of genre The Walking Dead is now. It’s a fantasy. And, to be specific, it’s The Lord of the Rings.
Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that it has been Lord of the Rings all along—that the show’s early attempts toward something like “realism” were just a cover for a long-game move toward high fantasy that absolutely no one (not even the show’s creators) could’ve conceived. Consider the evidence:
Rick is Aragorn
Although The Walking Dead is an ensemble story, Rick Grimes serves as both the leader of his specific group and more generally as a leading symbol of hope for humanity in post-apocalyptic America. Played by the increasingly bearded Andrew Lincoln—an Englishman affecting an impressively elaborate Southern accent—Rick occasionally tries to reject the responsibility of leadership, spending many months as a farmer. Early in the saga, Rick is paired off against a near-exact Double: Shane, another policeman, who believes that evil actions are justified if they’re in service of the greater good. Shane dies in Rick’s arms.
Although The Lord of the Rings is an ensemble story, Aragorn serves as both the leader of his specific group and more generally as the literal leader of all humanity in Middle-Earth. Played by the increasingly stubbly Viggo Mortensen—an American affecting an impressively elaborate Old-Timey accent—Aragorn occasionally tries to reject the responsibility of leadership, spending many years as a wandering Ranger. Early in the saga, Aragorn is paired off against a near-exact Double: Boromir, another warrior of noble birth, who believes that the evil One Ring should be used in service of the greater good. Boromir dies in Aragorn’s arms.
Carl is Frodo
When The Walking Dead begins, Carl is a little boy: Innocent, bright-eyed, generally willing to believe the best about people. This innocence is lost early and often. Carl nearly dies from a gunshot wound. Although he survives, much of the ensuing moral drama of The Walking Dead centers on Carl, who shifts constantly across the spectrum. He may kill a surrendered enemy in cold blood, but he also seems possessed of a fundamental hopefulness (“Everyone can’t be bad.”) which implies a more positive view of humanity’s basic decency. Carl also constantly wanders off on his own, forcing other characters to come and find him.
When Lord of the Rings begins, Frodo is a young hobbit: Innocent, bright-eyed, generally willing to believe the best about people. This innocence is lost early and often. Frodo nearly dies from a Ringwraight wound. Although he survives, much of the ensuing moral drama of Lord of the Rings centers on Frodo, who shifts constantly across the spectrum. He may attack Sam for trying to steal the Ring from him, but he also seems possessed of a fundamental hopefulness which implies a more positive view of Gollum’s basic decency. Frodo also constantly wanders off on his own, forcing Sam to come and find him.
Hershel is Gandalf
Rick is the military leader of his group. But he takes all his advice from older, gray-haired, gray-bearded Hershel. An implicit representative for an older order—he’s a religious man—Hershel is killed by the demonic Governor while Rick and the other characters watch in horror. He is resurrected as a zombie.
Aragorn is the military leader of his group. But he takes all his advice from older, gray-haired, gray-bearded Gandalf. An implicit representative for an older order—he’s a wizard—Gandalf sacrifices himself in battle with the demonic Balrog while Aragorn and the other characters watch in horror. He is resurrected as a plot contrivance.
Daryl is Legolas
Maggie is Eowyn
Initially held back from the fighting by an overprotective bearded father figure. Ultimately reveals herself as a warrior woman of the first order.
Michonne is Eowyn and Gimli
Hey, there aren’t that many female characters in Lord of the Rings! But there’s no denying that the moment when Michonne ends mini-boss tyrant The Governor with her sword bears a resemblance to Eowyn’s feminist-powered dispatching of the Witch King. Michonne is probably more generally recognizable as a Gimli figure, though: Another creature-killing enforcer, like Daryl/Legolas.
Woodbury and Terminus and anywhere that briefly appears to be safe are Moria and Helm’s Deep and anywhere that briefly appears to be safe
Spoiler alert: Nowhere is safe.
Because J.R.R. Tolkien was a linguist, certain conventions of name construction pop up frequently. This is most clearly seen in the names of geo-located siblings: Eowyn and Eomer of Rohan, Boromir and Faramir of Gondor. Because The Walking Dead was a saga constructed on the fly, certain conventions of name construction pop up frequently. This is most clearly seen in the fact that everyone’s name ends in “L”: Carl, Hershel, Daryl, Merle, Carol, Randall, Gabriel, Meryl, Cheryl, Larryl, Harol, and fan-favorite character Umbreryl Shutsworth.
I’m having a bit of fun here, but I think there’s a deeper resonance to the Lord of the Rings connection. Season 5 of The Walking Dead is one of the first times in the show’s history that the characters have had a clear mission statement—a quest, you might say. In Lord of the Rings, the characters are on a long walk to Mount Doom to destroy the ring; in Walking Dead, the characters currently appear to be on a long walk to Washington, carrying whatever knowledge Eugene has locked away in his head. In Lord of the Rings, the characters are attempting to halt the forces of evil and ruin. In The Walking Dead, evil and ruin have already claimed their sorrowful world.
The notion of a zombie cure is an intriguing wrench to throw into the show—especially since the Darabont era seemed to explicitly deny that possibility with the trip to the CDC. I’m still not sure how much credence to give it, but the glimmer of hope that the “cure” has brought to the show makes me wonder if The Walking Dead‘s own perspective on itself is shifting. One of the tragically beautiful notions at the center of Tolkien’s original story is the notion that certain people don’t get to enjoy the world they save; that Frodo, the other Ring-Bearers, and most mystical creatures need to disappear from Middle-Earth after they save it. I wonder if The Walking Dead will ultimately end with whatever characters are left alive looking at the new post-zombie world and sorrowfully leaving it behind, unwilling or just unable to join the future of humanity. Like Frodo, they can’t enjoy the Shire they saved. Like Moses, they can’t enjoy the Promised Land.
By which I mean: I’m anticipating that The Walking Dead will go Full Biblical by season 8.