Seth Ariel Green is in his second year of a Political Science Ph.D at Columbia.
I’m loathe to admit it, but The Walking Dead is often not a very good show. The dialogue is at times wooden, the characters irrational or inconsistent in ways that only make sense in terms of advancing the plot, the philosophical discussions pretty empty. And yet some 10-17 million of us continue to watch. Recently the show has made it easy with Carol’s freaking sweet evolution into an action move star, but cold-blooded: Anton Chigurh style. And the setting moves now, unmoored; we are watching a group of highly competent people navigate an apocalypse. Seeing Carol get rolled into the evil-hospital a few weeks ago, a million possibilities open up, but the one I was banking on is her murdering everyone within to rescue Beth. What can I say? The part of my mind that responds to fiction is savage.1 The show appeals because it is as well.
But there’s something else there, that I think appeals more subliminally. The show works as a very dark fairy-tale – not that the original fairy tales were anything but – with a feel-good, political message at its core. A Straussian reading of The Walking Dead suggests that it is about a group of well-meaning people in a brutal world attempting to establish a safe, just society that stands as a bulwark against the ever-present threats of anarchy and tyranny. It is, in other words, a retelling of the story of America.
The show starts out just like 28 Days Later2: main character, likable straight white age-indeterminate masculine man (Rick Grimes) wakes up from a coma and discovers that society has collapsed amidst a mysterious, zombifying epidemic. Rick meets up with his wife and son and some survivors and some soap-opera nonsense ensues. The season culminates with the group seeking shelter in the CDC, and discovering there that the last remaining employee plans to kill himself and blow up the building. He does so, and the characters move back into the fog of anarchy.
Here, the key concerns are Hobbesian. This is what life is like without the government; as Christian Thorne writes, “If you reflect on the earliest stages of human history, you’ll see that it must have been hard to stay alive. Anybody could have done to you anything they wanted. The only thing standing between you and every passing rapist was your own fist.” The zombies, and Merle Haggard, are this: the passing rapists, the unthinking men and women who will eat you alive. Again, Thorne: “Zombie movies are always going to be about crowds. People-in-groups are the genre’s single motivating concern.”
As the series progresses, the problems change. After some pointless in-group fighting in season 2, the group settles down in a prison in season 3, and by season 4, is growing vegetables, largely safe from zombies. But a new threat emerges: The Governor, a violent man with an army3. His motives, as befitting a not-very-good show, are unclear and often poorly spelled out, but in the end, what he really wants is the safe haven the main group has established, and to kick the group out because he hates them. “I’ve got a tank,” he says, brandishing one. “What else is there to talk about?” He is a tyrant, looking to exercise right by might. Michonne kills him, in a moment resplendent with melodrama. The group moves on, looking for the next sanctuary.
Running through all of this is a group-internal discussion about how they should organize themselves. After some carelessness leads to deaths, Rick declares: “This isn’t a democracy anymore,” and the group marches to his drum. A season later, he recants in a (what do you know!) moving paen to democracy: “What we do, what we’re willing to do, who we are, it’s not my call. It can’t be. I couldn’t sacrifice one of us for the greater good because we are the greater good. We’re the reason we’re still here, not me. This is life and death. How you live how you die– it isn’t up to me. I’m not your Governor. We choose to go. We choose to stay. We stick together. We vote.”
Do you see where I’m going with this? The group is America, 1789 to present, trying to establish a safe, democratic space – multicultural to boot, with a slew of ex-Wire characters accumulating over time4 – against the threat of tyranny on one hand (The Governor/George III/Hitler) and anarchy on the other (zombies/the wilderness/the elemental fears of intergroup contact that lead America to split increasingly into “Belmont and Fishtown”). We root for Rick’s group because we want to root for ourselves, for the project of America. The myths the show weaves are fundamentally our myths.
A strong anti-libertarian bent runs through the story. Libertarians see even well-functioning states as often behaving like “organized gangs of criminals;” TWD starts from the premise that the state is what keeps us safe from each other. When groups of characters encounter one another, they almost always seek to dominate each other or to keep their distance; it seems to never occur to them to trade. To my memory, the only time when characters from different groups even propose anything resembling a contract is when Rick’s group negotiates a strategy for removing Walkers from the prison with the men holed up there, which the leader of the other group promptly betrays the first chance he gets. It’s a repeated Prisoner’s Dilemma in which everyone except Rick’s group always defects. What’s the deal? As best as I can tell, the show’s perspective is that man is by nature evil, and only a society formed by the just few can hold that at bay.
It didn’t have to be this way. Consider two alternative pieces of apocalyptic fiction. 28 Days Later sets you up to follow protagonists in a zombie apocalypse who seek shelter with the military (“Of course there’s a government! There’s always a government! They’re in a… a bunker, or a plane!”), only to find that their saviors are marauding rapists. Thorne writes: “the underlying scenario is straight out of Heart of Darkness: The last outpost of civilization turns out to be a whirring freak show.” The characters break free, and then recover somewhere in the country, safe both from the zombies (re: the mass public) and from the government that betrayed them.
More to the point, I think, is the YA novel The Girl Who Owned a City5. A virus kills everyone over 14, and a group of children reconstruct civilization by occupying and defending a school, and securing a food supply. They have to fend off other gangs of children, but end the book well on their way towards building a new society based on voluntary cooperation, justice and interpersonal respect. It is the anti-Lord of the Flies.
Such an outcome is next to unimaginable for TWD, and not just because the source comics are unrelentingly bleak. It just doesn’t fit with the show’s vision of human nature. These people aren’t going to find peace with each other unless they’re forced to. The only possible endpoint is that Rick and his group will become so overwhelmingly strong, like America, that no one can take what is theirs.
This is the emptiness of the show’s vision, as appealing as it is superficially. It’s not just that we find the story of a powerful, democratic group of do-gooders establishing peace against the forces of darkness alluring. It’s that they can only get there through force, never through cooperation. And that makes me sad. I’d like to believe better of people.
1.As I reread Harry Potter in adulthood, all I could think of was how inefficient, how non-lethal, their magic was. If you can enchant a car to fly you can probably enchant a gun to never miss! Fire it at Voldermort!↩
2. It’s the best zombie movie of all time, and by a long-shot; the proponents of Romero’s movies are caught in nostalgia.↩
4. How’s that for an idealized retelling!↩
5. People on the internet claim that O.T. Nelson wrote the book to spread Ayn Rand’s ideas to children. I don’t remember any Jon Galt type speeches in it but they could be there.↩