Reading Cruelty in the Pre-Apocalypse
Interesting Times 1.2: If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.
Common Q: Where would you go in the event of a zombie apocalypse?
Best A: To New York City. That’s where all the tasty brains will be.
There’s a scene in the novel World War Z where a guy on rollerblades is zipping down Third Avenue, taking off zombie heads with a meat-cleaver bolted to a hockey stick. In the book we see him refracted — he’s being watched on a tv-screen by a bunch of pampered celebrities viewing the progress of the end times like it’s an episode of The Great British Bake-Off. Rollerblade guy, in this scene, becomes one of the unsung heroes of the apocalypse, an end times meme kind of like Ken Bone. He goes down sensationally at least, tripped by a zombie arm from the sewer and dragged in by his pony tail. Maybe it’s the hair, but I always think of him as a fellow queer, and I always think of roller-blading guy when I hear this zombie-apocalypse joke, which is funny (“very funny,” as Freud would say), because it reveals-by-reversing the usual assumption: that you’ll be a survivor rather than one of the millions of roving, ravenous hordes.
Americans are so strange that way. We never think that we’re part of the ravenous hoard.
With that in mind, it’s interesting to note how many post-apocalyptic stories deal with that thin line between hoard and hero. In a lot of post-apocalyptic narratives — think The Road, I am Legend, The Last of Us, Sweet Tooth, we see individuals or small groups of survivors struggling to maintain their humanity in the face of a world that produces, well . . . mostly cannibals. But the people-eaters are symbols for the dog-eat-dog-ness of civilization both before and after the Fall.
If the cannibals are fallen humanity, though, our hero is rarely much better. The idea seems to be that in a world so disordered, survival itself is a likely indication of moral degeneracy. In all of these narratives there comes a moment when the reader, player, or viewer is asked to reckon with their hero-identification. In The Last of Us, we get little moments throughout that ask us to question protagonist Joel’s presumptuous good-guy status, like when a group of survivors accuses him of having killed all their friends without provocation (although, really, they’re also totally cannibals). In The Road, the moment comes when the enraged protagonist forces a man who has failed to steal from him and his son to remove all his clothes in the middle of nuclear winter. The child, who represents (big shocker here) hope for the future, tries to intervene. But the incident is a lot like Moses hitting that rock on his way through the desert. It reveals the protagonist’s inaptitude as an avatar for the better world to come. He has to die before they reach the promised land so the future can exist unsullied by his violent choices.
AMC’s The Walking Dead is typically understood as just this type of fable. Fans see it as reckoning with the harsh realities of life in a post zombie-apocalypse world. The show is, of course, notoriously gory, and not just if you happen to be a zombie or a horse. It’s famous for raising its characters for slaughter pretty much like the farm in that tiger video on Facebook.
Because the world is so bad after the apocalypse, Rick Grimes and his band of really-not-at-all-merry men and women are constantly exposed to terrible choices. To build or destroy? To save or sacrifice? To murder wantonly or to murder less wantonly? It’s a hard life, and a fascist one. As Sean T. Collins shows in his article on the authoritarian ethos of The Walking Dead, the show makes the preservation of an “in-group, and the destruction of all who threaten it,” into the ultimate moral justification for “the most brutal means at each group’s disposal.”
Unlike The Road or The Last of Us, critics say The Walking Dead tends to actively incentivize cruelty and make kindness look weak. TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz writes in an article on violence in the show that it gives viewers “platitudes about dehumanization and moral choice wrapped around endless, pornographically explicit sequences . . . so that we can all savor the electric excitement of watching people commit emotional and physical violence while telling ourselves it’s a moral fable about the collapse of decency in the aftermath of civilization’s collapse.”
In other words, the most popular current example of zombie-apocalypse fiction never really does ask its viewers to reckon with their hero-identification. It worships its murderers. I’m interested in that idea, and I think we can push it even further. It’s not just that The Walking Dead sells violence, then lies to viewers about the idea that they have a moral out in seeing the show as a commentary on that violence. It’s that the lie of the moral out itself is what The Walking Dead (and art like it) is selling.
The Walking Dead didn’t create this need, it met it. So why do viewers need the idea of a moral out legitimized in their television shows? Personally, I wonder whether viewers like post-apocalyptic fiction of this kind so much in part because it relieves us of our moral culpability for enjoying the fruits of cruelty. If we accept the reality of white supremacy, settler colonialism, and misogyny as the forces that structure power in our world, all our notions of what it means to be a hero are upended. But post-apocalypses like The Walking Dead depict a world in which there is no broader civilization against which to measure moral goods. Survival of the self, and sometimes a kid, family, or survivor group, is the protagonist’s whole world, so all you have to do be a hero is keep existing, no matter what. The Walking Dead helps us to imagine a world in which there is no such thing as selfishness because the self and its extensions are the only world there is to save.
This idea was clarified for me while watching YouTuber Ryan Hollinger’s analysis of the ending of The Last of Us, which is another member of that storied tribe of valorous-white-guy-seeks-survival-in-the-zombie-apocalypse narratives. The Last of Us is wonderful. A 2013 video game from Naughty Dog, it is the deserving (in my opinion) recipient of pretty much all the awards. It’s the Meryl Streep of video games. It follows Joel, a violent old grizzled white guy, as he shepherds Ellie, a kid, through the American wasteland post-zombie virus. They meet, you know, some cannibals.
In the end (and, needless to say, spoilers here) Joel has to make a terrible decision. Should he save Ellie in spite of the fact that her death by science experiment might be the only hope for the human species? In spite of the fact that she wants to die for something just this big instead of getting meaninglessly eaten? Spoiler alert, again, he saves her anyway. Hollinger’s analysis explains one reason why: Joel saves Ellie, without her consent and maybe against her will, because he wants his long-dead daughter back. He’s trying to assuage the psychological demons of his own grief.
So that makes character-sense. What’s a little more freaky is that Hollinger and plenty of others seem to think of Joel’s choice as making sense-sense as well. The game, as others have noted, gives us everything we need to condemn Joel, but many viewers still identify with his choice. As Hollinger puts it: “selfishness in this world isn’t based on greed or inconsideration, it’s based on the need to protect yourself both physically and psychologically. . . . His psychological state justifies the belief that really there is nothing that experimenting on Ellie will do to benefit humanity.”
This kind of moral relativism is the reductio ad absurdum of the shock doctrine Naomi Klein described back in the years of Bush II. It works on the premise that in times of social breakdown, or, what Hollinger calls “global pressure,” because we feel so bad, it makes sense that we act terribly — and making sense, to ourselves, is enough to make a decision justified. In other words, heroes in The Walking Dead and The Last of Us run on the same engine of moral relativism that lets someone like George Zimmerman or Michael Dunn say “I’m sorry-not-sorry but I honestly feared for my life.” In a world where cannibals ate the future, one man can totally murder the shit out of people and everyone will just be like, dude, really sorry about your feelings. I hope you find that nuclear family you are seeking with such rapacious eagerness.
Okay, so that explains a little, doesn’t it, about Donald Trump’s inauguration speech. The post-apocalyptic world that Bannon describes via his flaxen-haired meat puppet is the landscape of The Last of Us and The Walking Dead — rusted out factories and American carnage and everything. The Trump campaign itself apparently recognized the similarities of worldview. They bought ads during The Walking Dead because its 15-million-plus viewers were deemed to be particularly afraid of immigrants.
In his speech, Trump brings that post-apocalyptic landscape into rhetorical being to justify cruelty — the cruelty he exhibited throughout the campaign, and the cruelty of the excessive regulation that he and Congress immediately unleashed on immigrants, refugees, and school-children. After all, only a world as cruel as the one that Trump describes can justify the tearing apart of families for no infraction, or the denial of help to those we could easily assist. In a world that bad, those who refuse to help get to think of themselves as heroes. This is the one in which we’re the zombies. We the masses of New York.
Facts confirm it. The New Yorker recently ran a chilling feature on the doomsday cults spreading through Silicon Valley’s most well-appointed rumpus rooms. People with the cash to do so have been buying up bunkers, helicopters, and supply caches JIC. They’re the celebrities off the coast of Manhattan in World War Z, trying to ride out the wave of scarcity by hoarding resources. What’s worrisome and temporally typical about them, as author Evan Osnos points out, is their hopelessness. They use their money and influence not to stop the tide of misery and violence that they predict, but to try and sneak through it alive. That makes them really different from the Carnegies and Vanderbilts of a century ago who, while seriously flawed as people, did respond to what they saw as the decline of American culture by investing in that culture — building public libraries, universities, research institutions, and parks. These people are just using their obscene accumulation of wealth to buy the most M16s. They’re not for shooting zombies, either.
So climate change is terrifying, but apocalyptic hopelessness really just gets us a reprise of the worst bits of this culture, complete with hoarding 1%, violence against the resource poor, and that weird effect of the American Dream where we think if we bootstrap hard enough, we too can buy an army of dolphins to carry us to safety in Guam.
The good news, maybe, is that since the election, it seems our collective appetite for moral self-appeasement has slackened. Or, anyway, since The Walking Dead made the decision to bash virtuous character Glenn, and by extension its audience, over the head in ways both literal and metaphoric, fans have been leaving in droves, as Collins hoped they would.
But really it’s no wonder if the showrunners miscalculated the audience appeal of Negan, the smiling, swaggering, ubiquitous, narcissistic rapist-who-doesn’t-think-he’s-a-rapist they made the center and antagonist of season seven. After all, it really seemed like a lot of people enjoyed that kind of thing before.
Producers seem to be drawing the Trump-Negan connection on purpose, as when Executive Producer Gale Anne Hurd told Variety in December, “I think that people, at a certain point, embrace a demagogue because they make certain promises. But they won’t accept a tyrant.” So maybe it’s a sign of hope that we now hear long-time fans saying things like “Negan is a one-note villain with no discernible motives beyond cruelty who talks endlessly, boastfully, cracking unfunny jokes and generally annoying everyone around him.” It would be nice if that old hopeless-sociopathic charm were starting to wear thin.
But I’m not holding my breath — or hoarding my stuff. It’s a small apartment anyway, no room for a weapons cache because I have all this cat food to store. Seems like my only choice is to try and help do something about the apocalypse before the end times come. Anyway if all else fails, I’m going to New York.
Originally published at yeswehaveno.com on March 2, 2017.