Walking with the “Walking Dead”
I have just watched the first four and a half seasons of “The Walking Dead.” I will first give my assessment of the series thus far. Second, I will give my interpretations—where applicable.
As for my impressions of the series, I must say that it is visually the most disturbing television series I have ever seen. It is hideously violent, and for those of you thinking of watching the series, do not do so if you are squeamish about any of the following: decaying bodies, dismemberment, cannibalism, bashed in brains, spilling intestines, horrible wounds, rape, torture, violence against children including babies, exploding people, burning people, and chopping people up with machetes. The violence in this series is simply astonishing. And I am still wondering whether or not it is too violent. That may seem like a strange thing to wonder about, but I will get back to that point…
The settings are disturbing in that there is so much decay everywhere, streets populated by corpses either re-animated or rotting—or half-eaten. Yet there is a banality about the towns. There are homes with kitchens and dishes in the cupboards, tinned tuna and dry pasta, forks and knives in drawers. Pictures on the walls. Bathrooms with toilet paper, shampoo on the side of the bath tub, deodorant in the mirror cabinet. Bedrooms with blankets, pillows, alarm clocks, televisions, clothes in the closet, clothes in the laundry hamper…. Etc, etc, etc. The houses are the homes of the North American “every-person”. These are the homes of Joe and Jane Smith, their 2.5 kids, and Fido their dog. The people who owned these homes are ‘you and me.’ That the owners are jumping out of closets and basements trying to eat people is frightening, but because these people are ‘you and me’ (both as re-animated corpses and as survivors), it is truly disturbing.
The cities are still standing, but even from a distance through binoculars, one can see that they are as dead as the re-animated corpses haunting their streets. No running water, no flush toilets, no showers, no electricity, barely a battery, no news, no operating radio stations, no television stations, no internet, no professional medical facilities, no infrastructure, no government, no phones, no law, no help. All human survivors on the planet are left to their own devices, and this point is also terrifying.
What is the most unsettling thing about “The Walking Dead” is that the violence and the human remains normalize both in the survivalist characters in the series and in the audiences. Also, as a viewer of the series, don’t become attached to any one character, (spoiler) as the most beloved characters seem to die off every four or five episodes with the exception of six characters:
- Rick Grimes: A deputy sheriff who, wounded in the line of duty, was in a coma in a hospital bed when the “Zombie” virus outbreak happened. It’s a miracle that he survived. Conflicted leader, teetering on the edge madness.
- Carl Grimes: Rick’s son, about 10 years old at the time of the outbreak. Is now 12, and damaged. Angry and didactic. Accomplished killer. Dangerous and self-loathing. Older than his years.
- Carol: Woman of about 35 years old. Was abused in her marriage, but her identity has changed. Her husband and daughter are both dead. She has gone from slave to warrior.
- Glenn: Young Asian guy, about 21. He’d been the pizza dude until the outbreak. He is smarter than everyone else but under-valued. Had lived by his wits until he met Rick.
- Daryl: Redneck drifter who lived a very hard life. Good at hunting, and the cross bow is his weapon of choice. Uneducated and not highly intelligent, but resourceful, very loyal, and hard as nails. He had Rambo’ed it in the forest eating bugs and leaves until he attached himself to Carol’s group.
- Morgan: Seldom seen man who first rescued Rick and brought him up to speed about what had happened in the world while Rick was in a coma. Is trailing Rick’s group of survivors, and hoping to meet up with them. Resourceful, intelligent, and ‘invisible.’
All other characters currently in the show, even if they seem like central leads, are peripheral characters—and the kill fodder for the writers. The show is balanced in this way. When villains die on “The Walking Dead”, a pattern has developed over 4.5 seasons that this ‘death of evil’ is answered by the death of a central character (aside from the core six—at least, thus far). So, one of the good guys dies also.
As for my study of the series…
The series is a metaphor for those instances within and the mechanisms of modern Western culture. Those that terrify. The writers seem to cover everything, but there are three major questions that are explored through the story lines. These questions are:
- Upon what is human civilization built?
- Does human morality actually exist or is it merely a philosophical rubric for the world of now?
- How does the individual endure the astounding depths of meaninglessness already present in this modern Western culture?
Going back to the violence of the series—violence that simply cannot be overstated… The violence happens on several levels, and these levels seem to have stabilized within the story: the violence against the ‘other’ (killing zombies), the justifiable violence (killing the enemy), the unjustifiable violence (killing each other), and the interior violence (destroying one’s own mind and soul). The world is seen within a fishbowl, highly magnified, and where most conflicts—even within the established heroic collective—are resolved by violence in one form or another. All violence that occurs can be rationalized. Even the most evil ones can make amends—or seem to be offered this opportunity.
There is a price, both implicit and explicit, for anything of value that passes from person(s) to person(s). The saying “there is no such thing as a free lunch” comes to mind. Altruism and mercy are subject to an unsound form of utilitarianism. Rather than Mr Spock’s famous paraphrase of Jeremy Bentham’s “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”, the society of “The Walking Dead” believes that “the needs of our many negate the needs of the other.” This revised take on the old apothegm is constant across all the various survivor settlements encountered in the series.
One thing I found quite fascinating about this series is that there are no “good guys.” Even the good guys are not good guys. The “heroes” in this series can be compared to the “man with no name” archetype of the old “spaghetti westerns” of the 60s and early 70s. The character is amoral, on the edge, ultra-violent, with a very binary code of justice. His fearlessness and seemingly “moral” acts are also self-serving, and the primary reason he acts in the first place. Then he leaves without having truly revealed himself or his motivation other than his own survival. The rest is speculation because he is necessarily an enigma. Without that sense of mystery, the character is so two-dimensional, that it would degrade without it. In “The Walking Dead”, a brilliant example of this archetype is the character of Daryl Dixon. He is a simply a rephrasing of the gritty-voiced, dirt-smudged, lone-wolf anti-hero with the icy stare—the man of few words. It is implicit that Daryl has “a code”, yet the audience struggles to define it, and after 5 seasons, well, I think I’ve made my case… However, what I was saying about the “good guys” being not so good, and the series lacking anyone who is actually “good” is a valid point, and part of what makes the series not merely cohesive, but also makes it a study in the humanness of humans.
The good guys don’t win; they just get lucky from time to time. The universe keeps score—one good guy death for every bad guy death. “Only the strong survive” is the overindulged truism that is both proved and disproved repeatedly. The series holds a reductionist viewpoint of human civilization and contends that all the ethics and principles valued at large by modern Western culture can be reduced to a cruel brand of moral relativism and anarchy. We aren’t “human” without our civilization, that is to say, we are no longer capable of maintaining our humanity without our cellphones.
I will be discussing more about “The Walking Dead” and other “zombie” literature and films in the coming weeks. This is my first real take on it…
I will keep you posted!