Culture

A Brains-eatin' Time: The Western Side of 'The Walking Dead'

Andrew Lincoln in 'The Walking Dead'/Image © Gene Page/AMC
Andrew Lincoln in 'The Walking Dead'/Image © Gene Page/AMC

AMC’s “The Walking Dead” ends its third season on Sunday, March 31, with all signs pointing toward a battle between The Governor’s well-armed troops and Deputy Rick Grimes’ ragtag band of survivors defending their prison hideout. It’s no coincidence the post-apocalyptic showdown brings to mind the battle of The Alamo. From its series premiere, with Rick riding a horse toward Atlanta, the ratings smash has woven Western iconography into its zombie-fied landscape. Director Frank Darabont, who helped adapt Robert Kirkman and Charles Adlard’s Image Comics series to TV, once referred to the series’ tone as “a little John Ford meets 'I Am Legend.'” Even The New Yorker has noticed, saying the damaged heroes, moral complexity, Rick’s reluctance as a leader, and rugged wilderness evoke 1960s Westerns like "The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly."

Some references are obvious, like Maggie and Glenn riding horses into town for supplies in Season 2’s episode “Cherokee Rose.” Others are more subtle: Rick’s convoy resembling a wagon train with a Winnebago; his group referring to a pack of “walkers” (aka zombies) as a herd; Rick and The Governor in this season’s episode “Arrow on the Doorpost” negotiating like a high-stakes poker game but without cards.

Check out the others we’ve found below (SPOILERS BELOW!), and see how many you can spot on Sunday.

Rick Grimes, Cowboy
Rick awoke from a coma in the series premiere to find the world overrun with zombies, and the first season treated him much like a man out of time. He wore his uniform -- including his heroic hat -- as he tried to bring his old-world sensibilities to this new world order. (Rick gave his son, Carl, the hat in Season 2, as Rick’s choices became more morally ambiguous.) Andrew Lincoln says that he modeled his portrayal of Rick on Gary Cooper in "High Noon," a man with divided responsibilities and a kind heart.

Yet even as Rick becomes pragmatic, he keeps the touchstone of a cowboy: his revolver. Whereas his colleague Shane carried a semiautomatic pistol, Rick often uses a six-shooter and fires one-handed, as when he killed Sophia in Season 2’s “Pretty Much Dead Already.” Unlike a modern lawman, Rick slings his holster low on his thigh like a gunfighter, and he’s a quick draw too, like when he got the better of two threatening characters -- in a bar, no less -- in Season 2’s “Nebraska.”

Daryl Dixon, The Man with the Name ‘Hombre’
Created for the TV series, Daryl (Norman Reedus) wore a necklace of zombie ears like trophy scalps in Season 2, and his hunt for Sophia resembled that of "The Searchers," a quest to find a lost girl in a hostile wilderness. From Season 2 to 3, though, Daryl has found his footing as Rick’s right-hand man -- a hero that blends Paul Newman’s protagonist in "Hombre" with Clint Eastwood’s taciturn Man With No Name in Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns. (How else to explain that poncho in this season’s episode “Say the Word”? Was it suddenly cold in Georgia?)

On society’s outskirts before the rise of the undead, Daryl is a resourceful tracker and a crack marksman with a crossbow upon whom colleagues rely to survive. He rides to the rescue on an “iron horse” -- his motorcycle -- saving Carol in Season 2’s “Beside the Dying Fire.” Plus, although he talks little, when he speaks, his words resonate, like in this season’s “This Sorrowful Life” when he told Rick: “You’re family too.”

Michonne, The Female Samurai
From "A Fistful of Dollars" to "The Magnificent Seven," filmmakers have retold samurai epics in a Western context, and the mysterious but deadly Michonne (Danai Gurira) strikes us as a nod to that narrative tradition. The woman is an ace with a katana, after all, and she won’t let it out of her sight, even forgoing a chance to escape without it in “This Sorrowful Life.” As she put it, “Wanted my sword back before I get away.”

Michonne is a ronin, a wanderer without a master who stumbles upon people in need (Andrea in Season 2’s “Beside the Dying Fire”; Glenn and Maggie in this season’s “Hounded”) and winds up helping them. She seems to carry deep psychological wounds and seeks a place where she belongs. Another character of few words, she opened up enough in this season’s “Clear” for us to feel her connection with Rick’s group.

The Governor, the Charming Sociopath
The Governor (David Morrissey) is a charismatic leader with ulterior motives, a common Western motif. With his hold on the town of Woodbury, he calls to mind Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman), whose word was law in "Unforgiven." He has a gentility that belies his sadism, much like Henry Fonda shook up his good-guy persona with his eerie turn as the family-killing Frank in "Once Upon a Time in the West." He’s as cruel as Lee Van Cleef’s Sentenza in "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" and as disturbed as Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) in “Deadwood.” (They could compare the disembodied heads they keep as trophies.)

The Governor wears a duster like a horseman on the range, and in this season’s “Prey,” he whistled a few bars repeatedly, once in his torture room and again while tracking Andrea. While some viewers think this cements his plunge off the deep end, the music reminds us of the leitmotifs that composer Ennio Morricone created for Leone’s films -- including the harmonica ditty Charles Bronson played in Once Upon a Time in the West to ratchet up the tension. Mission accomplished.

Jason Geary contributed to this article.