Teaching The Dead: Red as a Color Motif and Symbol of Loss and Emotion in TWD

“I see red!”

Morgan’s monologue in which he describes the death of his son in season 3’s episode of “Clear” was a chilling (and Emmy worthy) moment. One of, if not the, best episodes of a lackluster season (and arguably one of the 10 best episodes of the series), those three words established what would become a reoccurring motif and symbol in the series – the color red.

When Morgan shouts he saw “red” as his Walker wife bit his son, he is doing much more than describing the red blood that spilled from Dwayne. He is also proclaiming his passion – his anger at his son’s demise, his regret that he didn’t put his wife down when he had the chance, his vengeance for all Walkers, and his loss of sanity as that death put him over the edge. Red is color of passions of all kinds – deep love, regret, desire, anger, vengeance, hatred. Therefore, the reoccurring images of red is entirely fitting in a series that touches upon these emotions in our characters.

The most obvious use of the color is the red blood that is spilled as Walkers kill their victims, but the red is also visible as humans kill other humans as well. The man on man murders are usually perpetrated out of emotion, be it a deep need to protect the family they love, revenge over past wrong, or a desire for power. It is interesting to note that the decaying bodies of the undead do not “bleed” red blood; it is instead black, almost tar like, yet our heroes are coated with red blood after attacks. The death of humans, and the onslaughts caused by the living, are marked with red, but the putting down of the undead are not. The undead kill out of robotic instinct, while humans kill out of passions. Therefore, red literally marks the humans, their emotions, and their losses, especially the loss of humanity as they delve deeper into savage behaviors.

The most recent use of the color occurred in  week’s “Try.” The red balloon was seen three times throughout the episode and was used to symbolize the loss of control of Rick’s emotions. Rick is being consumed by many different “feels” since landing in Alexandria – anger over the recent loss of lives, desire to gain control of the place, lust over the married hairdresser, and rage over her abusive husband. As the red balloon rests on the pond’s surface, his emotions are in check, but boiling under the surface. He’s able to stop himself from attacking Pete, telling him instead to just “Keep Walking.” But the higher the balloon rises in then episode, the more Rick losses control, finally going “full Shane” on Pete, beating him the way Shane beat Ed and delivering a speech about “fighting to survive” which rings eerily similar to Shane’s speech before the barn massacre of season 2. Rick is becoming Shane, even lusting after a married woman, and this loss of emotions, and loss of himself, is illustrated through the red balloon.

But that’s not the only use of “red” in the episode. Fire is also red. Fire as in the note that Deanna set ablaze from Carol. Once again symbolizing emotion – in this case, grief and anger – it’s interesting that the burning note was written by Carol as fire has been used to symbolize her since she set Karen and David alight last season. In fact, an entire episode, Consumed, was dedicated to exploring fire as a motif in the series and using it symbolize Carol’s journey from mousey housewife to Betty Crocker series killer (see my blog for more on that episode https://teachingthedead.wordpress.com/2015/03/06/teaching-the-dead-fire-smoke-and-resurrection/ ). Fire once again is “red” – from the burning of the barn, to the fall of the prison, to the funeral pyres of the dead, and the burning of Terminus – the motif is throughout the series. There is loss in each burning: loss of home, loss of hope, loss of self (and in Carol’s case a reemergence of a new self), and loss of life.

Let us also not forget a more subtle use of the color, the red handled machete that Rick promises Gareth he will use to kill him. Once again, here is emotion (anger, revenge) and a loss of control and humanity, as Rick butchers Gareth as he’s on his knees in a church. Not that Gareth didn’t deserve to die, but bravo to the show writers for changing the location of the massacre from the comic book location of their camp to a church, a place of sanctuary. Just as Terminus was no sanctuary for Rick’s group, the church was no sanctuary for Gareth’s group, and to spill blood within its walls is further loss of humanity. The sight of Gabriel trying to clean the blood from the floors is symbolic of Rick’s decent into savagery, but also symbolic of Gabriel having blood on his hands that he cannot wash off. I can hear “Out damn spot!” echo as he scrubs…..

Also from season 3 we have the orange backpack of the hitchhiker, a backpack so warn and sun faded that it looks red at times. Rick left that hitchhiker to his fate – death – while the Rick of old would have helped him. But here is a Rick slipping into savage cold survival, and the backpack with any supplies it might hold becomes more important that the human who carried it. Then backpack is worth stopping for, not the man.

And so red is used through the series to show emotions and symbolize the loss of humanity and drive to survive. I will predict the color red will also harken the arrival of the character that began this motif, Morgan, as he reunites with the group in the season finale. Red is passion, and Morgan is the epitome of passion and loss, a theme explored throughout the series.

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