Walking Dead #20 opens with Rick Grimes and his group of survivors in unfamiliar territory. For the first time in the series’ short history, the group has emerged victorious when faced with circumstances that threatened to exile them from a place of sanctuary into the danger of the wilderness. Rick and company now have full control of the prison that they’ve established as their new home, and they spend the next five issues molding an existence that mirrors what life was like before a zombie apocalypse laid waste to everything they knew. But like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the group is incapable of preserving the sanctity of their sanctuary. Even without the threat of flesh-eating zombies, or territorial inmates wanting to kick them out, the prison inevitably becomes tainted by the ugliness of human nature.
After killing Dexter, one of the inmates who physically threatened the group if they didn’t leave the prison, Rick is immediately faced with comforting his wife Lori in Walking Dead #20. Lori foreshadows the events of the next five issues, telling her husband, “I can’t stop dwelling on it. Those monsters outside are one thing but any of the people in here with us could cause just as much harm any time.”
This idea of human nature’s brutality being just as dangerous (if not more) than the mindless viciousness of the zombies in the wilderness emerges as the dominant theme of Robert Kirkman’s Walking Dead from this point forward. The threat the zombie population poses is straightforward and apparent – if they bite someone, that person dies and turns into a zombie. But the living who now inhabit this world are much more unpredictable. Rick, the moral center of the comic book series, has already committed murder in an effort to preserve the safety of the larger group. The same can be said for Tyrese, Rick’s second-in-command who murders his daughter’s boyfriend after he shoots her as part of a suicide pact. If the book’s true “heroes” are capable of such viciousness, who’s to say that others aren’t capable of far worse?
Beyond the unpredictability of human nature, another storyline development that hangs over these five issues is Rick’s discovery from Walking Dead #14. When Tyrese’s daughter turns into a zombie despite not being killed from a bite, Rick concludes that the disease that turns humans into these monsters actually lies dormant in all of the survivors. This begs the question, are the walking dead attacking the survivors the monsters in Kirkman’s universe, or are all human beings, living or otherwise, inherently monsters?
Patricia and Otis, two group-members who joined the ranks from Hershel’s farm at the beginning of the arc, demonstrate that even in a threat-free sanctuary, the monstrosity of prejudice still exists. After Patricia tries to free one of the inmates who Rick had threatened to hang (for killing two of Hershel’s daughters) her boyfriend Otis derides her for siding “against us” with “a couple niggers.” Otis then walks out on Patrice telling her she’s dead to him for committing such a heinous act.
Meanwhile Tyrese, who’s involved in a sexual/romantic relationship with Carol, has to cope with the monstrosity of lust and infidelity. He is quickly taken by the mysterious Michonne, a sword-wielding woman who arrived at the prison a few issues earlier. Michonne recognizes Tyrese from his short-stint in the NFL, stroking his ego. The two bond over sports and weight lifting. In Walking Dead #21, she aggressively pursues Tyrese, giving him unsolicited fellatio in the prison gymnasium just as Carol is walking by to witness the event (unbeknownst to Tyrese).
Tyrese is unable to resist Michonne’s advances because he’s distracted by Rick’s behavior. In Walking Dead #20, Rick and some of the group are exploring more hidden areas of the prison when they stumble upon a library. Inside the library, Allen is attacked and bitten in the leg by a zombie that was lying on the ground. Rather than quickly shooting Allen to put him out of his misery, Rick attempts to save him by chopping off the infected leg, arguing that by removing the limb before the zombie infection spreads in Allen’s blood stream, he might survive the attack. Tyrese is outraged that Rick would act so cavalierly and not give Allen a more dignified death. Tyrese tells Michonne that he can’t get over “the look in his eyes” in the moments before she removes his pants.
But before the group can deal with confronting Rick about his questionable behavior, they have to deal with consequences of Tyrese’s infidelity. After her discovery in the gymnasium, Carol kicks Tyrese out of her cell and breaks up with him. When Rick and Lori go to check up on her, they find Carol on the floor with her wrists slit. Rick goes to round-up the group when he finds Tyrese and Michonne kissing. “Jesus Man. I came here to tell you she’s slit her wrists,” Rick tells his friend. “She’s done this horrible thing – and I find you like this?”
Rick’s accusation sparks a physical altercation between he and Tyrese. After the two punch each other for a few pages, Tyrese confronts Rick about the “stray bullet” he fired that killed Dexter. Rick admits that he purposely killed the man and framed it to look like an accident in an effort to preserve the safety of the group. He didn’t admit to it because, “it wouldn’t be long until people started questioning my decisions after that. I would lose all effectiveness as a leader. And again that would be bad for the group.” Instead, Tyrese sees Rick’s recent actions as some kind of “blood lust.” The two pound on each other some more with Tyrese accidentally pushing Rick over the railing of one of the prison floors, before Andrea announces to the group that Allen died from his leg wounds.
Rick is so badly beaten from his fight with Tyrese that he passes out before he has an opportunity to burn Allen’s body. He sleeps for 26 hours only to find Dale, another one of the comic’s moral compasses, who tells Rick that the group has discussed his recent actions and decided he would no longer be the de facto “leader.” Instead they would be governed by a consensus of four individuals. Rick is relieved to no longer have the burden of leadership squarely on his shoulders, but it’s only a matter of time before the naiveté of the group and its obsession with trying to capture some sense of how life used to be before the apocalypse spurts him to make perhaps his most emotionally charged speech of the series.
In Walking Dead #24, Rick approaches the group about the leadership change and is told by Tyrese that his underhanded murder of Dexter is what sparked the new status quo. Tyrese tells Rick “we can’t just ignore the rules, Rick. We’ve got to retain our humanity.”
Rick responds by verbalizing the “garden and wilderness” theme very explicitly: “I killed Dexter to protect us all. He was threatening to kick us out of this place, our sanctuary. He was going to force us out into the wild. How humane would things have been out there? How many people did we lose on the way here?” Rick argues that the world has changed and a sense of “normalcy” is a pipedream. Tyrese argues that the group’s goal should be to establish life “as it was.”
But Rick reaffirms the scary truth about the state of humanity in the Walking Dead: the only thing that separates the survivors from the zombies is death. Because they are all infected with this plague, because “when we finally give up we become them,” Rick believes it is useless to hide behind antiquated ideas of humanity. “You think we hide behind the walls to protect us from the walking dead,” Rick says. “We are the walking dead.”