As I’ve argued repeatedly, The Walking Dead franchises (both The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead) are an important popular culture medium by which contemporary audiences are asked to reflect on what it means to be human. Sure, that applies to much of our popular culture, but the zombie apocalypse throws this into sharp relief, when those who are bitten and die, and those that die anyway, become the walking dead. Our society has collapsed and people struggle for survival in the ruins. In this crisis, do the dead matter? Yes, we are told: in fact not only in the treatment of other living people, but humanity is defined by how one also treats both the dead and the undead: named loved ones and the unnamed hordes of the walking dead.
In episode 10, ‘Close Your Eyes’, of Fear the Walking Dead season 4, Alicia escapes in a storm and takes refuge in a house. She leaves Morgan behind in the maelstrom, a symbol for her giving up on life. The house becomes her test and her turning point: whether she will become undead through her own anti-social actions, or return to the world of the living. The house is a liminal space betwixt and between life and death. Entering, she slays the four undead occupants: a family of two parents and their teenage children. She casually tosses their bodies out into the rain in a row.
Finding the photographs of them on the mantle piece and elsewhere, she is disturbed by them. She puts them in a plastic laundry basket and throws them out too. The resonances of the people she has just slain are clearest in the parallel between a photograph of the family lying on grass in sunshine when alive on the centre of the mantelpiece, near identically postured to the way she lay their bodies out in the storm.
Alicia has lost hope in the world and in own humanity following the death of her brother, Nick and her mother Madison. She doesn’t care for the living or the dead… She didn’t even engage with Nick’s funeral fully, with Morgan having to prompt her about Nick’s body’s disposal. Her contempt for the loved ones of others might seem complete, and yet the fact the photographs affect her, shows how the powerful of photographs as mnemonics of of the dead. She doesn’t even know them, but the fact they affect her reveals her morality and responsibilities have not completely gone, and even those who are without names, without known relatives, ‘matter’. This is a very archaeological problem: we dig up and encounter the unnamed dead, and yet struggle to navigate the complex ethics of these unnamed hordes of the dead from the human past.
Yet her brother’s juvenile killer, Charlie, has incidentally also taken refuge from the storm in the house and Alicia tries to make her go or else she will kill her. They struggle in their temporary prison to resolve their differences. Charlie saves Alicia when knocked unconscious outside. Later, Alicia saves Charlie who tries to end her own life by zombie, aware she is traumatised with guilt and suicidal. As the storm worsens, they fight together for survival and after the storm, leave together.
A combination of corporealities and material cultures mediate their journey through the storm. It is very Key Largo but without gansters.
The catalyst for their mutual redemption and the forging of a friendship between Alicia and Charlie are the four undead bodies who are outside, and how they are tied to the house and their photographs. While Alicia is unconscious Charlie retrieves the photographs and dries them off.
Alicia is furious that Charlie has salvaged the images from the storm. She says: did you know these people or something? I put them out there for a reason.’ Later, Alicia finds Charlie in a frantic state, attempting to explore the photographs screaming ‘Someone might come back for them, someone might find them!’. Alicia retorts that no one cares. Charlies says she cannot make up for what she has done and she knows she’s garbage for killing Nick, but still she is doing this act of respect for those whose house she is sheltering in.
Therefore, in contrasting ways, both Alicia and Charlie respond to the photographs and the cadavers in the context of the house. Alicia concedes that ‘no one is gone until they are gone’ but explains to Charlie that the people are ‘gone’ and pictures are not going to change this. Charlie retorts: ‘why do you care?’. It is clear that Alicia does care and is disturbed by the triangle of connections between the cadavers, the house and the photographs of once-living people to remind her of a family who are gone even though she did not know them. Charlie explains that she wishes so much she still had a photograph of her parents to help her remember how they were before they became the undead.
The house, and the photographs within it, and the undead cadavers are inextricably tied together. Responding to their own losses, Charlie’s memory of her parents ‘turning’ and her struggle to remember how they were ‘before’, and Alicia’s ongoing struggle to deal with the loss of her brother and mum before, complement each other. Traumatised in the flooded cellar where they shelter at the storm’s apogee, Charlie begs to be killed but Alicia won’t do it. The context and their memories steer them through their grief and Charlie and Alicia together mediate this through the respectful treatment of the unnamed family in death is part of their mutual healing process in facing loss. It picks up on the moral treatment of the dead explored in Season 2 especially.
The episode concludes with Alicia burying the four undead cadavers with respect, in a manner Morgan might have done: the undead have brought her back to life in memory. Moreover, as a votive, she puts the photographs of them in a jar on one nof the graves. The photographs stay with the dead upon their grave, wrapped for no one to see, consigned rather than displayed. The presence of the photographs, rather than their display, inhere the dead to the place, outside the house when they came.
Charlie asks Alicia: ‘did you do that for me or you?’
Alicia replies: ‘I did it for the people who could come back’. In other words, for both of them, and the hope of others to remember the unnamed dead. By disposing of the dead, the living can move on with living.