The Walking Dead Is Not About Zombies…It’s About Us.
On the face of it, The Walking Dead appears to be all about zombies, and to a certain extent, it is. Certainly zombies feature largely in the weekly drama — new zombies, old zombies, even, sadly, child zombies.
I’ve heard many people say they don’t watch the show because they’re not interested in zombies, and they dismiss it with a wave of the hand. However, the zombie apocalypse could have been any global disaster: the super flu, germ warfare, nuclear winter… it doesn’t matter. Like Stephen King’s The Stand, The Walking Dead is more about how we reinvent ourselves as a civilized society and define “how to be in the world” in the absence of law. Prompting us to think deeply about ourselves and human nature, the show tacitly asks, “What would you do?”
The Walking Dead revolves around a small band of protagonists who struggle to maintain a community in the face of constant danger which comes, not surprisingly, from other human beings (not the dead ones). More a nuisance, the zombies act as a distraction from the real threat which comes from those intent on seizing resources and shelter, willing to kill to eliminate competition, and able to rationalize savagery in the name of survival.
In charge of the apparently idyllic fortified town of Woodbury, complete with sidewalk cafes, the cruel and egotistical Governor leverages his position to engage in some pretty despicable acts, such as pitting humans against zombies for entertainment. While we feel some sympathy for him as he strokes his zombified daughter’s hair, his lack of humanity becomes apparent when he tortures anyone who threatens his authority.
Wandering aimlessly in the woods, a small band of survivors called “The Claimers” abide by two loosely defined laws: The first one to spy a useful object and calls “Claim!” gets to keep it. And liars are beaten to death. With those two laws — and none other — the Claimers justify brutal acts amongst themselves and others.
Warm and welcoming, the people of Terminus present themselves as a friendly commune, willing to share supplies and resources with others. Everyone in Terminus has a job, from growing fruits and vegetables to taking care of the fortifications to working in the, um, slaughterhouse. Only the slaughterhouse is where human captives go to be butchered for food.
When I imagine myself trying to survive in that devastated world, I like to think I’d be strong enough to rise to the challenge of leadership, gathering others and fighting for community, if not basic humanity. While I worry that I wouldn’t be strong enough, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t descend into a crucible of abomination in order to live one more day.
Like gruesome fairy tales from the 19th century, The Walking Dead allows us to safely ponder, from the comfort of our cozy homes, how we would behave and respond to a worldwide cataclysm, and to ask why some would so easily resort to brutalism and savagery. Does education make any difference? Does religion? Will we be able to draw on lessons we learned as children about empathy and kindness to help craft a new society?
If we don’t, we will become worse than zombies ourselves. They don’t molest, murder, torture, pillage, or wage war on each other. They just need to eat.