(This was originally written for a blog run by my friend Alex.)
The Walking Dead, on AMC. Developed for television by Frank Darabont. Based on the comics by Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore.
Siegfried Kracauer first suggested that the films of a nation reflect its mentality. What of a nation’s TV programming? The tone of AMC’s The Walking Dead bears undeniable similarities to the political language that has emerged in the United States during this nascent 21st century. Since their rise to prominence in George Romero’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead, zombies have served as potent political symbols; warning against the evils of bioengineering as well as cheekily critiquing mindless consumer capitalism. The Walking Dead separates itself from classical Romero-style zombie narratives by focusing on a band of survivors instead of portraying the outbreak of a zombie epidemic–much like 28 Days Later, a triumph of zombie revisionism.
Yet the series inhabits a space free of any cultural evidence of zombies. The word zombie is never used (what we call a zombie they call a walker) and the characters appear to have no reference point for the creatures aside from the Christ’s promise to raise the dead. This sparseness of cultural reference mimics the leanness of the character’s own survivalism. This isn’t a pomo genre playground of zombie referentiality like Shaun of the Dead or Zombieland: it’s a highbrow depiction of a zombie-infested America where people have to make serious sacrifices to in order to keep living. In this way, Walking Dead is perfectly in line with other resurrections of low-culture, comic book phenomena like The Dark Knight, which replaces pulpiness with high-gloss Hollywood realism and drama.
In the first season, it took only a few days for Rick to reunite with his wife, Lori, his son, Carl, and his best friend, Shane. All this after awakening from the coma that helped him sleep through the end of the world. Treating this story with dramatic pretension instead of to B-movie ridiculousness is already a stretch. Season two shifted the drama from asking “will we survive?” to “how will we survive?” For this, it exploded disagreements between Rick and Shane, in which Shane’s commitment to the lawlessness of the post-zombie world couldn’t co-exist with Rick’s attachment to the crumbs of humanity. Their arguments focused on two competing strategies for combating the zombie threat and for disposing of a human prisoner. Shane wanted to preempt the zombie threat, killing as many as possible; Rick thought the group could build good fences and stay safe. Shane, the typical national security candidate versus Rick, the soft-on-crime liberal who doesn’t look man enough in a tank.
As per their prisoner, a harmless-seeming young man, the show reenacted a narrative that has become a key parable of popular media. The captive narrative is visible in TV shows from Lost to 24 (so far, nothing has considered it better than Kelly Reichart’s Meek’s Cutoff). It’s roots are obviously American society’s own post-9/11 unease with enemy combatants. Who are they? What do we do with them? As a nation, we’ve been content to do basically the same thing people on TV do: lock them up until we think of something better. (More frequently we end up thinking of something worse). Here, again, Shane wanted to kill the prisoner; Rick would have rather left him blindfolded in the middle of a distant field. The argument was ridiculous enough to feel at home in congress: do we kill him ourselves or do we let someone else do it for us? Again, The Walking Dead coats this absurd debate with the veneer of high drama instead of exposing its inherent self-deception.
Rick and Shane’s countless arguments indicated a divide between no-holds barred survivalism and the right-to-due process liberalism that have characterized debates about the war on terror since 9/11. Shane suggested virtually every bloody alternative to containment except zombie waterboarding. Rick wanted to reclaim some shadow of the world that had been destroyed. Anyone who saw a Republican debate this year knows that Rick’s way is no longer an option. America is moving into uncharted waters, and if we are to complete with the Chinese and eradicate the threat of terrorism we require a new visionary leader who will be tough on Iran while simultaneously busting anti-free market unions. Though Shane’s fate was to die at Rick’s hand, he still managed to get his way: by pushing Rick to kill him, Shane made sure that the previous fantasy of post-apocalyptic harmony was forever soured. The process is analogous to a terrorist act or contemporary political strategy. Force someone to react and they will lose. Force the United States to engage in endless war and their economy will collapse. Republican Presidential candidates spend their free time away from each other’s throats baiting President Obama. (Obama, for the record, fails to take the bait.) Yet Rick also revealed something primal about what we desire from our leaders: the good man is the man who will say no and then, when push comes to shove, be man enough to kill his best friend. In this we don’t see a worrisome duplicitous–we see the drama of integrity. That’s why it’s so satisfying for Osama bin Laden to die under the Obama banner: we know the good guy made the tough call.
The show’s real focus, then, is the question of survival: how to survive in a post-human world infested with inhuman insurgent enemies. The answer provided is to lose the positive aspects of our humanity and indulge our every violent fantasy. What Rick learns when he kills Shane is much darker than a Gatorade commercial telling you that you’ve got what it takes. Rick learns that permission has been granted to engage in basic nihilistic survivalism, that the trappings of civilization have finally faded away.
The post-apocalyptic world of The Walking Dead is a fantasy without room for big-government intervention or citizens with nonfunctional skills. That hallowed minor irritant, democracy, has been thankfully done away with—much in the spirit of Carl Schmitt’s state of emergency. Such is every survival fantasy: the excess of civilization is finally discarded in favor of real life. Get rid of all those books and focus on building a fire with two sticks. Only your ability to survive determines your value. What’s the use of a lawyer in the zombie wasteland? When the old timer Dale tried to instigate a real debate discussing whether or not to kill the prisoner, he was mocked and silenced. Then he died. What about a painter? Not unless they can really contribute something. In this world, there’s no need for the NEA or universal healthcare (maybe more military spending would have saved us). Finally, we can all live like Libertarians with the perfect excuse for that tired, macho “get off my lawn” response to anyone who wanders on to your land. It’s a world where soft men won’t be tolerated and racial or sexual inequality is remedied when women are allowed to carry their own guns. Season two was complete with a questionable it’s-my-baby-too story line and a highly unrealistic depiction of how the morning-after pill works. The Walking Dead is a masculine, conservative alternative to a civilization running amok with prissiness and intellectualism.
When the show’s sophomore season ended Sunday night, Sheriff Rick Grimes growled, “This isn’t a democracy anymore.” A more fitting ending couldn’t be torn from Newt Gingrich’s fantastic imagination. Picture Gingrich himself, or any of his Republican rivals, watching the ease with which societal collapse effects the values that have been driving their Party since 9/11. What a relief it would be for them to operate without doublespeak—to say this isn’t a democracy anymore instead of endlessly repeating the same freedom-soaked talking point. Certainly Mitt Romney’s failure to lock up the nomination must keep him fantasizing about knifing Rick Santorum and then tearfully screaming, “Do you see what I’ve done to become your nominee?” on the convention stage.
Fantasy and fiction can be understood as ultimate distractions from our daily lives. Without them, though, we would be unable to digest the raw experience of our existence. Narrative is an essential tool for the formulation of memory and knowledge, and nothing is more influential on the narratives we create than the narratives we consume. Narrative becomes a permanent feedback loop that annihilates its own origin: we see what we understand so we understand what we see. At this point, we require radically new narratives or anti-narratives that fight against the rule of the same (how Adorno referred to capitalism). Unfortunately, we won’t find that in The Walking Dead.