(In These Times) — In Sunday night’s fourth-season finale of the wildly popular horror-drama The Walking Dead, beleaguered protagonist Rick Grimes reinstated his identity as a man who will do anything to protect his friends and family, up to and including ripping out the necks of his enemies with his teeth. Such blood-and-guts horror is fairly typical for the show, which details the misadventures of a group of survivors trying to avoid zombie bites in a relentlessly humid post-apocalyptic Georgia. But The Walking Dead isn’t just the most-watched drama series in basic cable history; it’s also arguably one of the more conservative-minded shows on television, something Sunday’s finale reaffirmed right along with the throat-eating action.
Since its inception, The Walking Dead has made a point of examining how individuals and communities adapt to the constant threat of imminent death via undead horde. In the show’s universe, the humans who manage to survive the recently deceased’s attempts to eat them cluster into small communities. Within these communities, labor is frequently divided according to gender roles: The men hunt food, fix car engines, patrol the perimeters and pull water-logged zombies from wells, while the women plant gardens, clean clothes, tend to the children and occasionally undergo deadly C-sections.
The gender-based divisions within The Walking Dead aren’t incidental; the characters even occasionally comment on them, such as in Season 2, when then-central (now-dead) women Lori and Andrea duke it out over Andrea’s refusal to cook and launder. The show’s writers seem to be exploring whether traditional gender roles can withstand a zombie apocalypse. And as the series progresses, the answer has become increasingly ambiguous: Sweet-faced Beth gets down with a crossbow when it’s her survival on the line, and the bland Tyreese finds himself burping an infant when he’s the only surviving adult to care for it.