This Walking Dead article contains spoilers.
Magic realism is a genre in literature that presents a primarily realistic worldview with just an added dash of magical elements for rhetorical effect. Magic realism is often associated with authors such as Salman Rushdie, Toni Morrison, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez (the mack daddy of magic realism).
FX’s Atlanta sometimes indulges in magic realism. Like when it, a show that otherwise reflects the basic laws of physics and reality, introduces a rapper who owns an invisible car. There are many ways to describe the genre but per usual it’s best explained by an Onion headline: “U.N. Report On Magical Realism Warns Of Increased Incidences Of Women’s Tears Flooding The Entire World.”
The Walking Dead has never been a work of magic realism. Yes, zombies could conceivably be viewed as magic entities, I suppose. But the show has never really treated them as such. There are a seemingly equal amount of potential scientific and supernatural explanations as to why the dead walk the earth. Also, bear in mind that magic realism requires just a “dash” of magic – and The Walking Dead features more than just a dash of zombies. They’re kind of the whole point.
With “The Key,” however, The Walking Dead has introduced a new plotline that, while not the very definition of magic realism, at least carries the same soul-satisfying mystical effect. The show has simply introduced people who want to help other people. And in this universe, that may as well be the equivalent of women’s tears flooding the entire world.
In “The Key,” Maggie, Michonne, Enid, and Rosita at the Hilltop encounter a mysterious milk crate in the woods outside the colony. Upon retrieving it, they find that it includes instructions to meet at a crossroad nearby and to bring vinyl records. The four have a lengthy and spirited debate (is there any other kind on this show?) about whether they should follow through with this meeting or not.
Maggie does make a solid point. “If it’s someone who wants to help us and we miss out, we miss out. If it’s someone who’s trying to kill us and we go, we die.” Still, the group decides to venture out anyway because this is a TV show and it has a hell of a trick up its sleeve out on that crossroad.
When they arrive, they come across a panel van flanked by two women holding guns. The door slides open and out walks Georgie (played by invaluable TV veteran Jayne Atkinson – look up her IMDB immediately).
Georgie is unlike any Walking Dead character we’ve seen before. In just three or four minutes of screen time, she makes an enormous impact. She is charismatic like Negan but not obnoxiously so. She’s funny. At one point she even makes a “nonsense word” to illustrate a point. She’s intelligent and fearless, and above all, empathetic.
“What you have is special, unusual,” she tells Maggie. “What the dead have done is brought out the best and worst in us. Right now the worst is winning. But it won’t forever. Perhaps if people can believe in people again.”
If there is a better thesis statement for what this show should be right now, I can’t imagine what it is. More importantly than just a mere thesis statement, however, this show needs actions, not words. Every character on The Walking Dead has a thesis statement that he or she repeats ad nauseam. The world is a brutal place, so I must kill. The world is a brutal place, so I must not kill. Over and over and over on repeat with the same pre-prescribed actions from the comic to enforce these credos. What’s appealing about Georgie and her compatriots, Hilda and Midge, is that they follow it up with tangible action.
Maggie insists on bringing the trio back to Hilltop with them. Once they do and they’ve built a trust, Maggie finally decides to follow through on the “trade” rather than killing them, which at one point seemed far more appealing.
Georgie accepts and presents Maggie with “the key.” It’s a book containing information and schematics on how to build…everything.
“Windmills, grain, lumber, aqueducts,” Georgie says. “A book of Medieval human achievements so that we can rebuild our future from our past.”
Georgie isn’t magic. She’s a flesh and blood human being as far as we can tell. But the role she plays is so transformative for the tone and direction of the show that she may as well be magic anyway. The Georgie experience in this episode is like there is a hitchhiking demigod, wandering the roads of Virginia, looking for human souls to save. And once she’s saved those souls, she’ll come back to make sure they’re on the right track.
“To be clear, this isn’t a gift. It’s a barter. I’ll be back and by then I expect great things,” she says.
On a magically realistic plot level, she doesn’t operate much differently than the monolith does in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Both exist as devices to “jumpstart” human evolution – or simply just to give our species a little push.
When it comes to magic realism or really just any story that incorporates a touch of the supernatural, that little “push” becomes a poignant thing. We all like to think that as a species we’re right around the corner from being “good” – if only we had a little bit of help. That ended up being a big theme in this past season of The Good Place, and good on The Walking Dead for cribbing it. Because it needed to.
It’s clear that The Walking Dead has too much time to kill. It’s a show with too little story and too much time to tell it, which is a point we’re fond of reiterating around here. Still, it’s worth pointing out that the introduction of Georgie and her book is the kind of thing a show with a lot of time on its hands can do, as long as it spends it wisely.
The audience intuitively understands that, if and when this war ends, the survivors will have to rebuild. Hell, even if there had never been a war in the first place, rebuilding society is the logical place that this story has been pointing to since the very beginning. Just flashing forward to a future in which the Hilltop is rebuilt and Alexandria is no longer smoldering would have been a perfectly acceptable narrative choice. Introducing Georgie as a magically realistic element to jumpstart this building is far better because now it’s people helping people once again, as opposed to just people helping themselves.
There’s a lot to like about “The Key.” Yes, Rick and Negan engage in yet another one of their “I’m right!” “No, I’m right!” confrontations we’ve seen plenty of times before. But least this time it’s accompanied by a flaming Lucille amid a veritable sea of fire zombies. More importantly though, “The Key” introduces a touch of the bizarre, the unexpected, and yes, the magical to show us that the survivors are right on the verge of building again.