They are the oddest couple I know. One is a strung out, racist, redneck with a really bad attitude and cojones only a fool would dare challenge. The other is a black man built like a Mack truck who displays good intentions and guts, but harbors doubts about his place in a zombie-infested society. When they meet sparks, …or rather blood and spit, certainly fly. It’s a feast for the eyes and the spirit…for both Merle Dixon and Theodore Douglas, better known as T-Dog, are grappling with issues of race, survival and what it means to honestly show your true colors.
Who are Merle Dixon and Theodore Douglas? They are characters from The Walking Dead—a series of graphic novels by Robert Kirkman turned into one of the world’s hottest cable television shows by AMC and an insanely talented production crew. They have created cast of characters I have a great deal of love for:
- the tormented former lawman Shane Walsh,
- a squirrel-tossing badass Daryl Dixon,
- the honorable Glenn,
- an elder statesman, Dale,
- a woman on the hunt, Andrea, and
- the man with a mission, former lawman Rick Grimes.
If you aren’t watching the show you should be. From the moment the show begins viewers are taken on the undead ride of a lifetime, watching a cast of beleaguered humans fight not only to survive, but to retain that which makes us most human.
These two characters represent the opposite ends of the spectrum in a battle that has raged since the beginning of recorded history. Are we, the human family, truly one? Or, are we divided by race, religion, ethnicity and/or politics? Are we a global family? Or, is it us against them? Neither man is evil. Both are, at least partially, products of their environments. And both men have valuable lessons to teach us about what it means to be human.
[***WARNING: Spoilers ahead***]
Everyone loves Merle. Wait, scratch that. Everyone loves Michael Rooker, a singular actor who can take the most vile character and leave viewers salivating for more. But it isn’t just Rooker. Merle is able to do what most of us cannot—to be true to who he is and speak his mind no matter how unpopular his feelings might be. Putting aside, briefly, that Merle is a danger to pretty much anyone he encounters including his own family members, there is a sort of freedom there that few human beings have the guts to display. T-Dog certainly doesn’t have that kind of courage—it is only when ravaged by fever that he is able to give voice to the dark thoughts he harbors within about race and the fate of the black man. While he may later express disgust with the bile that spewed forth from a fevered mind, he cannot really deny that those were—at least, in part—his true feelings…and given the state of pre-zombiepocalypse society, not entirely unjustified.
T-Dog, played by IronE Singleton, is the main survivor group’s conscience personified. After Merle’s disgusting display on the roof, it is T-Dog who steps forward to take on the responsibility for Merle’s fate even though he, above all the others, would have the most reason to turn and walk away. He took the responsibility for dropping the key and delivers a message few want to hear—that the blood is on their hands, and no matter how repugnant Merle may be his fate will weigh on their spirits. By securing the door with a chain and padlock even as he fled the rooftop scene, T-Dog recognized that his anger towards Merle was human, but that the outcome was untenable.
The one vs. the many. Merle and T-Dog, because of who they are as men, have polar opposite approaches to survival. Merle needs no one and sees the pansies, democrats and n*ggers as negatives rather than assets. T-Dog sees every individual as having a place on this earth with value to add to the group. In this regard Merle is hopelessly deluded. A man may be able to survive physically on his own, but the human spirit requires others to flourish.
Both Merle and T-Dog have strength of spirit, the strength of true survivors. If you pull away the layers of drugs, acerbic wit and short-sighted views of Merle, and the doubts about his place in the main survivor group as a whole in the case of T-Dog, both men have a strength to them. Seriously. How many people out there could do what Merle did on the roof, and in the kitchen with the iron? How many can continuously put aside fear and loneliness to act in the best interest of the group as a whole with no real sense of acrimony?
Which leads me to the rub. Is there a place for a man like Merle in a group of survivors for which he expresses little more than outright disdain? Should a man who consistently puts the group before himself feel like an outsider? And, ultimately, should the group survive long enough to begin a true rebuilding process, can they—the new human family—rise above the hurts of the past to chart a more humane future?
With special thanks to R.C. Murphy