Teaching the Dead: Fire, Smoke, and Resurrection

You knew it coming, didn’t you?

A lesson on the fire imagery and symbolism in “Consumed.”

My students knew it was coming. I was greeted at the door with it Monday morning.

Fire is destructive. It’s also restorative. Fire is used in rituals to cleanse negative energy. It’s used to cauterize wounds, to kill germs, to sterilize. It’s a symbol of passion, and emotion. It’s the symbol of transformation, as the mythical phoenix rises from it’s own ashes to rise anew.

It consumes, but it also produces smoke as it roars, a smoke that remains as the fire dies and smolders.

Fire is a major motif, not just in Consumed, but also in the entire series. Fire killed Daryl’s mother, Hershal’s barn, Rick’s house, Terminus, the prison, the CDC, and Woodbury. Daryl and Beth used fire to burn demons as well as a moonshine cabin. Funeral pyres are used to dispose of the dead, and to ensure the bodies of dispatched walkers don’t spread their virus. Fire consumed the bodies of Karen and David, and for the past two seasons has been the running joke regarding Carol’s actions (have a cough? Carol can cure that with gasoline!).

Last episode wasn’t the first time we’ve seen “fire” in the show, but it was the first time fire was truly used to help tell a story. I can’t help thinking how appropriate and brilliant it was for smoke and fire to be used to tell Carol’s story given that this “new Carol” began with her burning two bodies of her victims. As I watched the flashbacks, I was amazed at how smoke and fire were really common threads throughout Carol’s season 4 story progression. Smoke brought her back to the prison just as the fire drove her away. Smoke was seen throughout the episode of the Grove (from a fire that, ironically, Daryl set), and the smoke and fire were the result of her assault on Terminus. In each of these flashback scenes, I finally got to see what I felt was missing from Carol’s story- remorse. Fear. Sorrow. Exhaustion. Super Carol , finally, is human. I had to be patient to see it, but it was presented in a stunning way.

A close examination of the motif also shows that several times in the episode, Carol is seen to be consumed by flames. When she drives back to the prison to see the tower enflamed, the reflection of the fire on the windshield is directly over her face, making her seem as if she herself were on fire. When Daryl is burning the bodies of the abuse victims, Carol sees him, once again, through a window and, once again, the fire is reflected over her face, making her look as if she were in the fire. And, the flashback to her burning the bodies of Karen and David – a very powerful image that I think we all needed to see to truly see her emotion as she committed the crime and the horror of that crime – shows a camera angle that looks up from the flames, as if it were Karen’s point of view. From this angle, we see flames surrounding Carol as we look through the fire to see her. In all these instances, Carol is literally consumed by fire, which as she tells Daryl herself, is symbolic of her “old self” being “burned away.” For better or worse, the old Carol is replaced by something else.

This ties into Daryl’s insistence that they can “start over” and are “trying.” Once the old self is dead, there is a chance for a fresh start and new identity.

One onlooker from Talking the Dead noticed that “smoke” surrounded Carol in her past, while “fire” surrounded Daryl in the present. I disagree with that analysis only because I think this is mostly Carol’s story and the fire – along with the smoke, which is produced by fire – are meant to tell her tale. Daryl’s story is a side note in Consumed. He is the parallel to which Carol’s story is compared. Daryl, like Carol, is a victim of abuse. Like Carol, he coped in his own way, primarily by shutting others out. Like Carol, he was an outcast and like Carol, the apocalypse has given him a chance to “burn away” the old him. He literally does “burn away” his ghosts and demons in “Still” (and suddenly, the burning of that distillery makes a lot of sense and has become a foreshadowing) and he too is surrounded by fire – fire from a cigerette, fire from a distraction to escape the walkers, and fire from a Funeral Pyre for two zombie abuse victims. His outlook on life is a bit more optomistic. He’s more willing to “try” and willing to “start over” while Carol is still struggling under the burden of her past actions, actions that were motivated by her need to “do something” rather than sit back “and watch people die.” When she was her former self with Ed, she did nothing, but at the prison, she may have done too much. She is looking for that perfect balance within herself, while Daryl is more content where he is at this point in his development. Sure, he still has demons (as evidenced by his possession of the self help book), but he’s more comfortable with being able to move forward than Carol. Daryl has connections with people, while Carol is still fighting connections because of the hurt they cause.

The most obvious image of fire, to me, is the image of hell, a tormented afterlife. Carol mentions this, that she doesn’t know if she believes in heaven, but if she’s going to hell, she’s going to delay it as much as she can. She believes she might “burn” for her sins, which makes the symbolism of fire even more appropriate for her. Is she being chased by the fires of hell? Or the fires of restoration, like the phoenix burning the old and resurrecting anew? Are those images of her face consumed by flames the fire of the afterlife? Or the fires from which she will arise a new life?

Fire is both destructive and restorative, and it’s that duality that permeates it’s use throughout the series, but most prominately in the telling of Carol’s story. TWD is at it’s best when it is able to use symbolism, parallelism, and other literary conventions to push a story forward, and it’s even better when that motif can tie back to past episodes and events. Consumed is an example of using such a motif and I think it’s one of the best episodes of the series for that reason alone. I intend to use the episode in order to teach symbolism during one of my upcoming lessons. And, for once, I am happy to see the inner struggle of Carol’s choices. She is now “human.”

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