Since its earliest seasons, AMC’s zombie apocalypse series The Walking Dead has depicted a God-widowed world. Although select characters here and there have gestured toward faith, the show as a whole has questioned the idea that God could exist in a world overrun by animate corpses that devour the living. One emblematic example is a fifth-season episode wherein the survivors slaughter a group of cannibals inside a church. A wimpy priest, Gabriel, protests the carnage, saying, “This is the Lord’s house!” To which a fellow survivor replies, “No. It’s just four walls and a roof.” That pretty much captures the theological world of The Walking Dead: The remnants of God and religion are there, the husks of transcendent meaning. But the churches, the tabernacles, the heavens are empty.
In the series’s most recent season, however, I was surprised to glimpse within this nihilistic landscape something of a pro-life consciousness. The first narrative thread is the revelation that one of the main characters, Maggie, is pregnant—and intentionally so. Glenn, Maggie’s husband, admits to another character, Abraham, that they weren’t using contraception; they’d “talked about it” and decided to leave themselves open to the possibility of pregnancy. Abraham is initially baffled, even disturbed. He’s having sex, too, but with a healthy dose of dystopian pessimism. He makes sure to double up on the condoms (which apparently remain readily accessible and reliable post-apocalypse) to ensure that his fleeting moment of pleasure has no lasting repercussions.
This isn’t the first pregnancy depicted in The Walking Dead. In the second season, a woman named Lori realized she was pregnant, and her response was to scarf down multiple packets of emergency contraception in a futile attempt to cause a miscarriage. Abraham and Lori serve as symbols of a different sort of nihilism, one that seeks a kind of sex that mirrors the world they inhabit, sex that quickly dies, post-orgasm, and remains closed to new life. Maggie and Glenn stand in contrast to this, and what’s surprising is that their choice to be open to life is not depicted as foolhardy, but as brave and noble.
Abraham, for his part, is changed by it. After he sees an ultrasound image of Maggie’s unborn child, he breaks off a purely sexual relationship and tries to start something more long-term with a woman named Sasha. In the final episode of the season, Abraham asks Sasha whether she would ever take the risk of life, like Maggie and Glenn: “Think we could do it?” This conversation unfolds while they drive at twilight; behind Abraham, the sun is visible, low in the sky, but cutting through the darkness of the trees. “Just asking if you could do that.” He pauses. “If you’re doing something as big as that, if that’s living.” They smile at each other, and Abraham reveals a change of heart. “I could,” he admits, “now. Just so you know.” I’m a seasoned enough viewer to realize that this moment will soon give way to sorrow and horror. Perhaps Abraham will die early in the upcoming season; that would make sense, from a narrative perspective, because his character arc now feels complete. He can’t fend off the external threats forever, but he has conquered the nihilism within.
Another thread through the most recent season depicts a similarly pro-life—even Catholic—sensibility. One of the survivors, Morgan, has embraced the practice of Aikido, and with it the ethical code never to kill another human being: “All life is precious”; “With life, there is possibility.” These are Morgan’s mantras, for the most part unheeded by his fellow survivors—except for Carol, a middle-aged woman who has, over six seasons, morphed from sheepish, abused housewife to expert killer, a woman who goes to violent extremes to protect her people. Morgan gets under her skin, and Carol begins to ruminate about the people she’s killed.
When her newfound reluctance to kill gets her captured, Carol manages to save herself—with a rosary. She sharpens the tip of the crucifix on the stone floor and cuts through her bonds, but she has to kill again to fully escape. After returning safely to her community, Carol remains haunted by what she has done. She sits alone on the porch swing, chain-smoking and thumbing the rosary, clinging to it the way she used to cling to her weapons. The rosary, an unexpected talisman in this post-religious world, becomes a symbol for Carol’s inward struggle, the newly awakened part of her that would rather die than kill more human beings.
“With life, there is possibility”—and to choose life, to embrace its possibility at great cost, great risk, is heroic. For Abraham, a seasoned soldier, the decision to open himself to life is the braver, more difficult thing. He discovers that taking on the immense risk of bringing new life into the world is what counts as really “living” (as opposed to merely surviving). This is a fairly radical sentiment, in both his world and ours, where the risk of pregnancy, particularly in difficult circumstances, is often depicted as a threat to women, to their success and autonomy, rather than an opportunity for valor.
Within these few episodes, The Walking Dead becomes the unexpected herald of a culture of life. Zombies are no longer the central antagonists; they are simply the backdrop, the landscape. The real battle is within the hearts of the humans who are left, and the danger they face is not a physical death, but an inward one—a refusal to risk themselves for the sake of life, even in the face of suffering.
Abigail Rine Favale is Associate Director of the William Penn Honors Program at George Fox University.