Teaching the Dead: How PTSD Makes People Dangerous in the ZA

The Walking Dead episode “Forget” very quickly turned into a clinical study of post-tramatic stress disorder among the zombie apocalypse survivors.

Each of the characters dealt with their assimilation into the Stepford Wives society of Alexandra in their own way, but one theme remained constant – an inability to trust, which combined with the explosive emotions resulting from their experiences among the dead, make them very dangerous to the new society they are attempting to integrate into.

Even when the characters wanted to trust their new hosts, the horrors of what they experienced outside of the walls of the Safe Zone reminded them not to “get soft.” Some characters found solace in their new-found roles and value to the community that’s been shut off from the outside plague, while others fought against it and even took up arms. Fears and hopes and insecurities were all amplified as our ragged band of brothers attempted to assimilate back into “normal” life after surviving the war against the dead, the undead, and the living. Similar to servicemen and women returning from the battlefield, Rick and his family need to try to “fit in” to a society that knows nothing of their experience or their losses. A society in which recipes and pasta makers are the main concerns in their social circles and hair cuts and running water actually do exist.

The most obvious case of PTSD was Sasha, who experienced flashbacks, burst out in anger, and showed an almost obsessive desire to keep the community safe and keep her sharp shooting sharp.

Daryl showed avoidance and isolation in trying to come to terms with his new-found security. A man used to living “out there” even before the ZA, he seemed trapped in his new surroundings, unable to connect with anyone and unwilling to even leave the porch. He refused to shower, continued to each wild animals, and paced around like a caged animal. He joined Rick and Carol in their secret meetings to discuss maintaining their own personal security in the new environment and the likelihood of an uprising. It was only once he bounded with Aaron, a man unlike the rest of the community who has experienced the danger beyond the walls, that Daryl was able to let himself “give the place a try.” Like some experiencing PTSD, Daryl desperately needed to “fit in” and belong, to see that his unique skills and experiences make him valuable. Aaron was able to recognize the contribution Daryl could make to the community and reached out to him in the ways of shared experiences (both were feared because they were different), food, and interests (motorcycles). Once Daryl felt he was needed, that he belonged, he decided to give the place a chance. The need to belong and surround oneself with people who recognize the true you is a common need for those suffering from PTSD.

Like Daryl, Carl also felt the need to belong. He found it with a group of boys his age and video games. Here, Carl is able to have the childhood he never got and he too seems willing to give the community a chance. (Perhaps even enough of a chance to steal his father’s gun???) Michonne as well wants to fit in and even though she experiences discomfort over how comfortable this new world appears, she is willing to hang up her katana in order to give it a chance.

Glenn, Tara, and Noah give it the old “college try,” listening to people lecture them on how to go on runs who clearly have little skill doing so. They are respectful but skeptical and only speak up and take action when the team is in a danger. They are in constant survival mode and only explode when others inexperience put them in peril.

The most interesting pair are Rick and Carol, whose PTSD has them not only in survival mode, but in usurper mode. Plotting to take over the community from a benevolent leader who talks like a politician and envisions such preZA domestic policies as elections and commerce, they hold secret meetings and steal back their weapons. Rick looks ready to shoot the husband of his love interest at sight and seems almost cosmical connected to the walker on the other side of the wall. He will not be made impotent in his ability to protect his family, but he will smile and wave and put on a police uniform to appear as if he is part of the system.

The queen of putting up an appearance is Carol, who exchanges recipes, bakes cookies, and steals guns, then turns into the Cookie Monster by threatening a kid who follows her into the supply room. Her threat to the young lad is chilling and shows just how dark “out there” has made her. She slips right back into housewife mode when her monologue is over, telling the boy he should take “the cookies” and keep his mouth shut. Like Rick, she is hyper sensitive to the dangers outside the walls and hyper skeptical of the people around her. Also like Rick, she can pretend she wants to fit in so that others around her do not doubt her intentions.

All of this hyper vigilance, distrust of others, need to belong but inability to actually fit in, flashbacks, anger at the system, and general paranoia are all classic systems of PTSD, which all of our characters are experiencing and for good reason. Just a month or two ago they were locked in a boxcar, their friend was eaten, and three of their own died. They’ve seen the friendly Governor of Woodbury, the charming cannibal Gareth, and even the helpful for a price Dawn of Slabtown, all of whom claimed to provide stability and safety from the outside. They’ve seen several towns with walls fall – from Shirewilt to their own prison – and they have been betrayed by humans with smiles. Ironically, however, their inability to come to terms with the outside world has made them the very danger that they have been avoiding. This time, THEY are the ones who have a plan to take over. THEY are the human who want to “take” the place, its supplies, and it’s safety. Deanna and her people are good people who are simply building a community. They are naive, which is why they need people from the outside to help them, but it is that very experience that make Rick and his family a danger to them. Rick’s lack of trust and determination not to “get soft” is making him and his crew the danger that he warned Deanna about. THEY are the inside threat, no matter how right they are about the Safe Zone’s lack of security or paper-thin walls.

That becomes the irony of the Alexandria arc. What makes Rick and his group valuable to the society also makes them dangerous. They are unhinging and suffering from their experiences in the wild. They are literally powder kegs waiting to explode, making them a dangerous addition to a trusting group of people. “Forget” is an excellent episode exploring the effects PTSD have on its sufferers and, in the case of a zombie plague, the dangers of them. They could fit in to this community and be an integral part of its success, but instead, they could become its downfall.

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