Burning It Down: Fire in The Walking Dead - Horror Movie - Horror Homeroom (2023)

AMC’s The Walking Dead is back for its 9th season. We’re going to run a series of posts about the series that are distilled versions of the arguments of chapters in our edited collection,The Politics of Race, Gender and Sexuality in The Walking Dead, recently published by McFarland.This collection is not at all the last word –and we’d like to open up more conversations about all these things in the show, especially as the issues raised in the book–and the arguments that get made–change as The Walking Deadnarrative continues. To that end, we’re inviting submissions to Horror Homeroom that enter into conversation with this series of posts taken from our book. How do these arguments play out in seasons 8 and 9? If we publish your submission, we’ll send you a free copy of the book.

The second post in the series is from Catherine Pugh . . . This is what she has to say:

The following discussion is a taste of my argument in “‘We ain’t ashes’: Daryl, Carol, and the Burning away of Traditional Gender Roles”in The Politics of Race, Gender and Sexuality in The Walking Dead, edited by Elizabeth Erwin and Dawn Keetley (McFarland, 2018).

Fire is an evocative, recurring motif in The Walking Dead, something that I explore in more detail throughout my chapter. Something I only look at briefly, however, is the fact that virtually every place Rick’s group of survivors call home inevitably goes up in flames. The torching of Alexandria by Negan in the season 8 episode, “How It’s Gotta Be” reignites (no pun intended) the question: why does almost every potential sanctuary burn away?

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In season 1, the survivors decide to leave their campsite after a walker attack, eventually settling on the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Reluctantly let in by lone occupant, Edwin Jenner, the group seems to have found a veritable underground paradise, with hot running water, plentiful food and impenetrable walls. They are only allowed one night of respite, however, before Jenner reveals that the CDC’s generators are almost exhausted and therefore the building will shortly self-destruct in order to purge the hazardous materials inside. Most of the group escape by the skin of their teeth, while Jenner and another member of the group, Jacqui, choose to stay.

The majority of season 2 takes place on Hershel’s farm, culminating in an attack by a nearby walker herd that is drawn by the gunshot when Carl shoots Shane to protect his father. In the fight that follows, Rick and Carl set the barn alight. The fire spreads almost as quickly as the herd; the Greene family home and land are destroyed by both flames and walkers.

Hershel’s barn burns in season 2

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Season 3 and the first half of season 4 centre on the abandoned prison where Rick’s group of survivors find shelter after months of wandering. Managing to turn the grim fortress into a home, the group is forced to flee when the villainous Governor turns up with a tank. Eventually, the survivors are welcomed into the seemingly idyllic community of Alexandria, where the majority of them remain until Negan’s attack leads them to take refuge with Maggie and Jesus at the Hilltop.

Although the survivors are forced to move between various temporary shelters for other reasons (in most cases being overrun by walkers, but also rival survivors, kidnapping, lack of supplies and so on), the destruction of a home by fire is significant and tends to be reserved for those places considered a potential sanctuary; somewhere infused with hope where lives may be rebuilt and a society formed. Post-apocalyptic worlds in general are unstable; therefore there is a tendency for survivors to keep moving, for shelter and safety to be only temporary. This is particularly the case in The Walking Dead where early seasons focus on forming home and family, while later seasons look to defend them. Discovering a place that can be claimed as a home is significant enough, but finding one that has the potential to be made into a community is so important that Rick’s survivors are willing to fight and kill not only the dead but also the living. A safe haven becomes paradise. So when it falls, it must descend into symbolic and literal flames.

Rick, Carl and Michonne flee as Alexandria burns in the season 8 episode “How It’s Gotta Be”

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The CDC, the farm, the prison, and Alexandria are all safe havens, with inbuilt amenities, domestic and defensive advantages. Not simply rest-stops, they have the functional potential to be inhabited long term—to become a home. The importance of “home” and how it changes is something I discuss in more detail in my chapter. Various characters try to enforce a domestic ideal, whether this is in the form of traditional gender expectations (such as the women doing the cooking and cleaning while the men protect the camp, particularly in seasons 1 and 2); Rick’s attempt at farming at the prison that ends in the horrible sacrifice of the poor piglets; season 4’s episodes “Still” and “The Grove” that see scattered and fractured groups beginning to form familial relationships that are cruelly snatched away; and Carol’s struggle from season 4 onwards to balance who she has been with who she is afraid of becoming, causing her to go on a cookie-baking rampage (“Not Tomorrow Yet”) to compensate.

On a practical level, fire is a useful tool to keep the narrative moving; the survivors constantly forced to abandon their refuge and start again with nothing. As well as offering more opportunities to interact with new characters and allow the audience to explore more of the Walking Dead universe, it refreshes the dynamic; characters on the move in a dangerous world with no shelter or resources are very different to those who have the stability of a place to rest their heads at night. Both scenarios, however, can become stale to an audience after a while; it can be argued that shaking things up occasionally makes things more interesting, certainly in earlier seasons where the focus was more on developing a community rather than defending it.

The cycle of death and rebirth so prevalent in The Walking Dead is often symbolised within the show by fire, smoke and ash, particularly in season 4. Two other instances of (admittedly dubious) refuges being destroyed reflect this: the Governor’s implied destruction of Woodbury – the town he ruled with a benign expression and an iron fist – and Daryl and Beth’s burning of the moonshiner’s cabin reminiscent of where Daryl grew up. In both cases, the characters use fire to draw a line, violently rejecting who they once were by obliterating symbols of their past.

Here Beth and Daryl burn down the moonshiner’s cabin in “Still”:

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Fire is both a creative and destructive element, irrevocably transforming whatever it touches. Unlike in season 6, when Alexandria is greatly damaged in invasions by both Wolves and walkers, Negan’s bombing of the town has left it decimated. The survivors may be able to go back, but they cannot go back to what it was. The walls may be rebuilt and the land reclaimed as it was in season 6, but the Alexandria that offered such refuge and hope has been forever devastated, leaving the way open for a new start and the time jump of season 9.

You can check out the first in our series, by Brooke Bennett, here.

Catherine Pugh is an independent scholar, who completed her PhD at the University of Essex in the UK. Her research interests lie in the area of the transformative properties of cinematic insanity and real-life mental illness in regard to the body and external landscapes, which she explores in her thesis: “Unhuman Borderlands: Madness, Metamorphic Monsters and Landscape in Contemporary Horror Films.”

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