The many eras of Robert Kirkman’s sprawling opus, The Walking Dead, have always been defined by two things: their antagonists and their settings. For over 185 issues, every time the story has moved onto a new major arc or era, that change has been accompanied by a new villain, a new setting, or both.
The story starts in rural Georgia with the closest analog to a villain being Rick’s best friend, Shane (issues 1 – 12). Then Rick’s crew moves on to a prison, where they are attacked and victimized by the overtly evil Brian Blake (a.k.a. The Governor) and his town of Woodbury (issues 13 – 48). The gang then hits the road for a bit and encounters minor villains like “The Hunters” before settling in the Alexandria Safe-Zone.
Here Rick and company find themselves in conflict with Negan and The Saviors (issues 98 – 126). After the Saviors are defeated in a bloody war, Alpha and the Whisperers show up to give Rick and company the creeps (issues 132 – 168).
The villains of The Walking Dead always represent the biggest sea changes for the comic. Settings change, of course, but the real setting arguably has always been the same zombie-strewn landscape. The undead represent the true setting of the story. The villains are more dynamic and represent what each arc wants to communicate, whether that be the existence of terrifyingly organized evil (Brian Blake), charismatic fascism as a response to a dangerous world (Negan), or just humankind reverting to a bestial nature (the Whisperers).
Now, as the comic marks two major milestones with issue #175, “Volume” 30, and the approach of the end of the series’ fourth Compendium, The Walking Dead is getting experimental with its villains once again to reveal a deeper truth about the dark heart of man. Only this time around, the villains are barely villains at all.
In The Walking Dead Season 9 finale, the radio that Eugene repaired receives a message. “Is anyone out there?” a woman’s voice act. In the comics, that voice belongs to Stephanie, a member of a new society in Ohio called “The Commonwealth.” The Commonwealth is a thriving community of 50,000 survivors. To longtime readers or watchers of The Walking Dead, that number may have initially seemed like a misprint. All we’ve known so far are communities numbering in the dozens, and in rare cases, just over hundreds. But the Commonwealth is comparatively MASSIVE.
The community has a sophisticated power structure, a bustling Main Street, and even a stadium for when baseball season rolls around. This isn’t just a community. It’s a city, and maybe even the first ever city since the dead began to walk around.
Kirkman has famously never put an end date on the story he is telling in The Walking Dead. He’s previously been quoted as hoping the series lasts “around” 300 issues. Before he was dedicated to telling a nearly endless story, however, Kirkman gave serious consideration to ending the series once the characters arrived at Alexandria. It would have been a logical enough stopping point. The characters had found refuge and relative safety, and it’s easy for the reader to imagine a healthy society rising up around the example of Alexandria.
Similarly, Eugene, Michonne, Yumiko, Magna, Siddiq, and Juanita’s arrival at the Commonwealth seems like another potential stopping point. The characters (or six of them at least) have now found something none of us ever dreamed they would: society. The unspoken goal of The Walking Dead has always been to survive long enough to restart that crazy little human experiment called society that we enjoyed for so long. Now Eugene and company have survived long enough to discover exactly that. Once human beings are playing baseball again, what else is there to do?
Why does Kirkman bother continuing? Because, in The Commonwealth and the power structure that accompanies it, he will be able to create a new kind of villain, which is really an old kind of villain: the bureaucrat.
The Commonwealth has existed for only two volumes thus far, but in those two volumes (New World Order and The Rotten Core), it is already clear the kind of conflict that Kirkman is setting up. The conflict is not likely to be a military one like that of the “All Out War” volumes. If that were the case, The Commonwealth would almost certainly crush Alexandria, The Kingdom, and Hilltop with its tens of thousands of citizens. Instead, this will be a conflict of values. What happens when those accustomed to pure, borderline anarchic freedom brush up against the world from before it all – the world with rules, bureaucracy, and inequality?
When Eugene, Michonne, Juanita, Magna, Yumiko, and Siddiq first encounter The Commonwealth, they are astonished by the order of it all. They are confronted by dozens of armed soldiers – all wearing the same armor and wielding the same weapons. This level of order and uniformity is worlds away from the kind of conflicts Eugene’s crew is used to fighting.
Then when the “soldiers” take the group inside The Commonwealth to be processed, once again we’re presented with the carefully constructed bureaucracy the new society has established. The first named character we’re introduced to is Lance Hornsby, the Commonwealth’s “bookkeeper.” Hornsby is worlds away from the kind of antagonist we’re used to seeing in the Walking Dead universe. Where Negan introduces himself with a barbed wire-adorned baseball bat, Hornsby instead wields a pen and a notebook.
Hornsby is responsible for their intake. He is to collect information regarding their names, weapons, place of origin, and any unusual customs their group practices. Once Lance has had his turn questioning the new group, they’re moved along to the Governor’s mansion for more questioning. Here they encounter Maxwell Hawkins and the true nature of this new society becomes a little clearer.
While Hornsby was concerned with questions that determine whether Eugene’s group presents an immediate threat, Hawkins is more interested in what kind of value this new group can provide in the long run.
“And what was your profession? Before the fall, I mean,” Hawkins asks Eugene.
“What? Um…I was a high school science teacher,” he replies.
“That simply won’t do,” Hawkins says.
Hawkins has just met Eugene. He doesn’t know that he may very well be talking to one of the most intelligent and resourceful people in the world. All he hears is what Eugene used to do for a living and what that reveals about his class and education, and he dismisses him outright.
Michonne, however, reveals that she was a lawyer in the old world.
“Public defender?” Hawkins asks with a clear racist undertone.
“Private practice. I had just made partner.”
So Michonne is ushered into another room to meet “The Governor.” This governor, however, is vastly different from “The Governor” we’re accustomed to. The title “Governor” always felt like a bit of an ironic inside joke as applied to the original villain. Brian Blake was a true sociopath, and so much about his appearance gave him away: wild, unkempt hair, “don’t-trust-me” mustache, and later on a freaking eyepatch. This new governor, however, looks like…a governor.
Pamela Milton is a sharp-looking middle-aged woman who wouldn’t seem out of place as a talking head on CNN. Her hair is clean, her makeup game is on point, and her jawline is strong. She exudes confidence and control. When Michonne is brought in to meet her, Milton knows that she is talking to a fancy lawyer – someone high class – so she immediately shares The Commonwealth’s M.O., in a thorough, yet succinct way.
“I’ll start by explaining who we are,” she says. “The Commonwealth is the shining beacon on the hill. It’s what rose from the ashes of our world and brought order to the chaos. We’re fifty thousand people strong, and bringing more people in all the time. We’re what you’ve been dreaming of – what you hoped still existed. Simply put – we’re civilization, it’s back. You’re welcome.”
Now, bringing “order to the chaos” is straight out of the “bad guy speech playbook.” It’s ominous and immediately begs the question, “How does one maintain that order? And will I like the methods?” The Walking Dead offers us some not-so-subtle clues that we likely won’t. Hornsby threatens Eugene’s contact, Stephanie, with a grim-sounding “work re-assignment” for the crime of…playing with a radio. Later, in issue 177, we are introduced to Milton’s brat son, Sebastian, and it’s clear that the rules don’t always apply to the “elite” of the Commonwealth.
Still, that last part of Milton’s speech is undeniably powerful. “Civilization. It’s back.” Isn’t that what our survivors have been looking for this entire time? Isn’t that what this has all been about? The Walking Dead is never going to introduce time travel as a plot device (*knock on wood*). Things are never going to go back to the way they were before Rick Grimes entered that coma. But this seems close enough, doesn’t it?
This is society. Each character we’re introduced to has a surname. Out in the “wild,” a surname isn’t necessary. Michonne, Negan, Andrea, Heath, Ezekiel Dwight, and more – there’s no need to exchange last names when you’re out in the shit and at risk of dying at any moment.
That’s what’s so enticing about The Commonwealth as villains. They present everything we assume we ever wanted for these characters. But from the look of things so far, we may have been wrong to want that. The Commonwealth is the old world, with its electricity, full stomachs, sense of security, and yes – even baseball. But in striving to recapture that old world, we and the characters, themselves forgot all the things that made that world suck: inequality, bigotry, unfair social structures, and yes – even baseball.
The Commonwealth represents order. It also represents bureaucracy and ultimately it represents us. The characters of The Walking Dead have been through hell. They deserve to rebuild society. But they deserve to rebuild it with all the brutal lessons they’ve learned from the old world. Kirkman, in presenting these new bureaucratic enemies, might have revealed that we never wanted our characters to find the old world. We wanted them to find a new one.
This is the exact challenge that the characters on The Walking Dead TV show might face as well, as the Commonwealth could be the next step for the show as recently as Season 11 or even the back-half of The Walking Dead Season 10.
A version of this article first ran in April 2018.