The “prison saga” is one of the longest-running and commercially successful arcs in Walking Dead history, and also captures better than any other storyline to date how the “garden and wilderness” theme is unique to Robert Kirkman’s post-apocalyptic universe.
What makes this arc such a great case study of how mankind continually finds ways to betray its stay in “paradise” is the unique setting of the prison. In the world before Walking Dead’s zombie apocalypse, a prison emblemized the worst society had to offer – a home for murderers, thieves, arsonists and other criminals who were essentially ostracized to the wilderness due to the heinous acts they committed in the garden of the “civilized” and lawful world. But for Rick Grimes and his crew of post-apocalyptic survivors, a prison represents an opportunity to create an orderly society filled with food, shelter, security, laws and hope.
Walking Dead issues #13-19 depict the lengths Rick and his group are willing to go to meet this hope and establish a true paradise – even if it requires them acting in ways that mirror those who used to call the prison home before the apocalypse.
In Walking Dead #13, there is initial skepticism from the group about their ability to occupying the prison, due to the astronomically high number of zombies walking the grounds. But the group’s fear of the zombies starts to evolve during this arc. As Rick, Tyrese and Andrea arm themselves with guns and get ready to clear out the zombies, Rick reminds the group, “Don’t forget how much faster we are than these guys.” In the issues leading up to #13, there’s such an emphasis on the group avoiding the walking dead, and worrying about a potential ambush. At the prison, the group realizes that if the threat is readily apparent and contained, and the element of surprise is eliminated, it can be dealt with. Rick and the group are able to clear things out with relative ease because they were able to plan and strategize the attack and then carry out that plan without any deviations. Unfortunately, what they failed to realize was that the zombies were not the real threat to their existence within this new garden.
The group stumbles upon four inmates in the prison’s cafeteria, Dexter, Axel, Andrew and Thomas. All four are amicable when Rick’s crew arrives, despite the fact that they’re not the “rescue team” they were expecting. When asked about the crimes they committed, Axel, Andrew and Thomas respond armed robbery, drug abuse and tax evasion respectfully. Dexter worries the group when he tells them he’s doing time for murdering his wife.
There is clearly distrust between Rick and Dexter as the inmate gives him a tour of the prison. Despite being a cop before the apocalypse, Rick seems content enough to tolerate cohabitating with Dexter and decides to make their forces stronger, by recruiting Hershel and his family (who we last saw in Walking Dead #12 threatening to kill Rick before kicking him off a farm), to join the ranks and help grow this prison into a true community. Tyrese tells Rick he’s being crazy, but Rick defends his idea by saying he’s thinking “long-term” and trying “to make a life here.” Also, with Hershel’s experience as a farmer, the metaphorical “garden” can actually evolve into an actual garden.
Despite the terrible terms the two ended on in Walking Dead #12, Hershel is ecstatic to see Rick and is very willing to move (what’s left of) his family off their once-sanctified farm. Once he arrives at the prison, Hershel stares out with wonderment, saying “this place – it’s special, Rick. It’s going to be a new life for me, my kids. This is a new beginning for us, I – thank you Rick.”
But in Kirkman’s world, it’s only a matter of time before terror and brutality take hold. And in a facility where the zombies have been eliminated as a threat, the terror and brutality come in the form of human nature. The arc’s first tragedy strikes in Walking Dead #14, when Tyrese finds his daughter Julie has been fatally shot by her boyfriend Chris as part of a “suicide pact.” Then, to shock of everyone, Julie turns into a zombie and attacks Tyrese – despite the fact that another zombie did not kill her.
The loss of his daughter changes Tyrese, who had settled into the role of Rick’s right-hand man. First he murders Chris and tells Rick to leave so when Chris turns, Tyrese can “kill him again.” Then, while Rick is out investigating if his old-friend-turned-adversary Shane has turned into a zombie, Tyrese breaks off from the rest of the group while clearing a prison room filled with walkers and gets himself surrounded. Glenn assumes that Tyrese was killed by the zombies and abandons him in the room. Tyrese later turns out to be alive, but remains cold and distant with Rick and the others, and doesn’t talk about how he survived being surrounded.
Meanwhile, Hershel’s dream of a “new life” at the prison is quickly transformed into a nightmare when two of his little girls are brutally murdered. Given the nature of the death (decapitation), the group immediately blames one of the inmates. And given his history and admission when they first met, the group finds Dexter and locks him up.
Rick is overcome with guilt by the death of Hershel’s daughters and blames himself, but Lori points out that the danger that currently exists within the prison is still more manageable than the wilderness of the outside world. While locked up in a cell, Dexter comes to the same conclusion: “What they been through, out in the world – it’s tore ‘em up. They broken. Now they killing each other an’ blaming us.”
Thomas, the man accused of “tax fraud,” is revealed to be the killer of Hershel’s daughters in Walking Dead #17 after he attacks and injures Andrea. There’s discussion between Rick and Dexter that perhaps Thomas was lying about his tax fraud claims. But that potential deception is ultimately irrelevant to how this one man manages to bring out the very worst in Rick. He beats Thomas to the brink of death (breaking his own hand in the process) before he succumbs to his old moral code from the pre-apocalypse. With the mystery of who killed Hershel’s daughter solved, Rick decides its time to establish old-world law and order inside their prison. He declares one very black and white rule, despite the various shades of grey that color Kirkman’s world: “you kill, you die.” Rick then says Thomas is to be hanged for his crimes.
During a conversation with Lori, Rick starts to verbalize the complications behind trying to establish law and order in a world that has been lawless for months. “I may not have anyone to answer to anymore – but these people look at me to keep them safe. I owe it to them to do everything in my power to do so.” Prior to the group’s arrival at the prison, Rick has never been this assertive, or violent, with the others, but the existence of this “garden” has changed him. Knowing that this prison might be the group’s last and best chance to live in some semblance of order and tranquility, Rick is willing to defend his turf any way possible in order to avoid a return to the even greater lawlessness of the wilderness.
As was the case with the two previous arcs, after six issues at the prison, Kirkman sets the reader up to think Rick and his crew are about to get punted back into the wilderness. After being released from his cell, Dexter holds Rick at gunpoint in order to kick the group out of his “house.” Walking Dead #18 (and the third volume of the trade paperback collected edition) ends with this cliffhanger. However, when the reader returns to this scene in Walking Dead #19 a random zombie attack within the prison gates ends the standoff. During the altercation, Rick shoots Dexter in the head before neutralizing the zombie threat.
Afterwards, Tyrese tells Rick that he saw what he did to Dexter, but that “it was the right thing to do.” He then guilts Rick by telling him he should probably rethink his “you kill, you die,” credo, punching a giant hole in such a black and white mantra before there’s even any time to enforce it.
Rick hangs his head in shame, but his actions illustrate a bigger turning point in the direction of the series. Despite the adversity, through these seven issues, Rick has managed to preserve the sanctity of their new garden, even if it came at the expense of the old world’s traditional morals and standards. Just as was the case with the zombies at the prison entrance in Walking Dead #13, with Dexter and the other inmates, once Rick was able to identify and contain the threat to a specified area, he was able to take care of it. There may be some hopelessness to how Walking Dead #19 ends, but Rick’s emotional anguish is nothing compared to the despair of the wilderness outside the prison.