Zombie apocalypse yada yada yada: Looking at The Walking Dead

twd-s07e01-negan

Decisions, decisions: Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and his little friend. (Photo by Gene Page/AMC)

The previous season of The Walking Dead ended with a cliffhanger. Many members of what I think of as Our Gang—the collection of characters at the center of the show’s long-running narrative—were captured by a group that calls itself the Saviors, and in retaliation for Our Gang’s having wiped out almost everyone at a Saviors outpost, their leader, the fearsome Negan, has lined up all the captives and intends, to put it flatly, to kill one of them. They’re on their knees, and he’s walking back and forth, hefting his barbed-wire-wrapped baseball bat, which he has fondly nicknamed Lucille, wondering how to decide. “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe,” he was reciting (if memory serves) when last we saw him. In attacking that outpost, Our Gang was trying to deal with a threat before it got worse, but I don’t think this development is meant to point out the risks of being pro-active. Tonight, when Season Seven of The Walking Dead begins (it’s on the AMC cable channel), the question raised by the cliffhanger will be answered, in a deliberate but deliberately random, and probably rather gruesome, act of violence. Apart from reducing the cast list by one, the setup and the payoff will likely serve mainly to assert yet again the show’s dark vision, in which zombies are a constant and potentially deadly nuisance but the real threat, like that hell spoken of in Sartre’s No Exit, is other people.

It wasn’t always like this. The Walking Dead, based on a series of comics by Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore, and Charlie Adlard, was created for television by Frank Darabont, who supervised its first season before leaving. That season struck me as offering something in the way of subtlety, particularized human drama, and even cultural resonance. It achieved a moment of pathos in its first episode that still haunts me; I described it as well as other aspects of the first season and of the explosion of zombie-ana in an October 2011 essay for a blog to which I used to contribute. The show has lost much since then, but even after six seasons, it isn’t devoid of dramatic interest. Drawing mainly from Kirkman’s comics but departing from its plot now and then, the show continues to mine a rich vein of imagination—rich but narrow, because its invention seems mainly limited to the realm of small communities that are either living in denial, hopelessly ill-suited to the world’s new challenges, or (more often) that have instituted new social structures that are ruthless, authoritarian, and predatory. It has grown increasingly horrific. It has for some time seemed to be repeating itself, broadly speaking, because it keeps coming up with new ways to show us an essentially Hobbesian view of humankind in the absence, or for that matter in the presence, of strong rulers. Incidentally, I recognize that the term “Hobbesian” does a disservice to Thomas Hobbes’s philosophy, just as the term “Orwellian” is virtually the opposite of everything that George Orwell esteemed, but there’s no way around it.

New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum, writing in July about the political resonance of Game of Thrones, mentioned in an aside the unremitting sadism of The Walking Dead, and for good measure labeled it “airless and acrid.” Her main point in that remark was to say that, at its lowest moments, Game of Thrones feels the same. In a way, it’s a good comparison, and in another way it’s not. I’ve seen the dragons of Game of Thrones discussed in terms of nuclear weapons; I’ve seen the macroeconomic situation analyzed; I’ve seen no end of other thoughtful commentaries on the show and/or the books it’s based on. I don’t recall seeing the rich interpretive possibilities of The Walking Dead discussed anywhere, possibly for the reason that it has none.

That’s not to say it has no metaphorical value at all. The tendency among almost all of the show’s survivors has been to retreat into walled compounds, which may call to mind the gated communities of the upper middle class. At least one of the show’s communities turned out to prey on outsiders, which can be taken as showing how the privileged (owners of property, of businesses, of resources) profit from the deprived—the haves feast on the have-nots. One might even say, though it’s not exactly a compliment, that the show’s repeated displays of herdlike behavior, not only in the zombies (who really have been herded on more than one occasion) but also to some extent in the humans (there’s almost no room for individualism in this world), are paralleled by its viewers. The problem is that none of these analyses and analogies can be taken very far.

And yet I’ve kept watching, mainly because a small number of friends are watching and discussing the show. It’s surprisingly tempting to follow the herd. But I plan to stop sometime soon—really, I do.

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11 thoughts on “Zombie apocalypse yada yada yada: Looking at The Walking Dead

    • I don’t remember now why I watched it the first time. As I’m tired of being articulate (or trying to be), I’ll just say it was probably because some zombie stuff is, like, pretty cool, and I hoped this would be too.

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  1. As an official “Zombhead” who has loved all things zombies since WAY before they became hip (My sister and I still have long and sometimes violent arguments about if the movie “Night of the Comet” is a zombie movie. It is by the way!) , I can officially say I am getting sick of the Walking Dead. I still have the entire season of “Fear The Walking Dead” on my DVR unwatched, and I can say with commitment, and some regret, that I lack a complete sense of urgency to watch this season of TWD… even with the cliffhanger last season. I think I will go back and finish the comics instead.

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  2. Hey, thanks for the comment, badseedgirl. (I recognize your handle from somewhere—is it Betsy Lerner’s blog?) Yes, after a while, these things wear out their welcome if they don’t do something new, and for me, TWD hasn’t developed enough. I guess for you too. I watched FTWD in its recent season and am tired of it as well. I’m not that big on zombies to begin with. As for Night of the Comet, I know the title but haven’t seen it. I respect 28 Days Later—it did something new.

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  3. I’m a bit of a dissenter, though I do agree on many points. Today’s TWD sports the subtlety of a steamroller and the stench of scorched earth, but I still believe it’s one of the most finely rendered and just plain gripping shows on TV. (To each his own airless, acrid taste, right?) Still . . . still . . . I was sickened by S7E1. Not grossed-out sickened, soul-sickened. And while I think that was/is the creators’ point, there’s a fine line between barbarism as metaphor/warning bell and the more gratuitous variety. It’s one of those lines everybody has to suss for themselves. As for me, I’ll keep watching because a) I have to see how Negan gets his, as horrific as I know it will be and 2) I can’t help but salute a show that has the nuts to off a couple of beloved . . . what did you call them? Our Gang members in such a perilously close to gratuitously barbarous fashion. Vive, Michael Cudlitz. Vive, Steven Yeun. And vive to you for the nice piece.

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    • I’m often aware of the possibility of different viewpoints, even in political matters, and if I had taken more time with this post, I might have tried to say more about the show’s overall quality as drama—why I’ve favored it in the past, why others have and still do. Thank you for filling in a bit of that.

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      • One more note re: the thinking behind the violence, courtesy of the show’s Greg Nicotero:

        “It’s graphic and it’s horrible. We wanted to push it a little bit. When we shot the Season 5 premiere, we had everybody at the trough and we went down the line and you saw these guys being murdered and drained of blood. That was purely a mechanism just to show how bad the people in Terminus really were. With Negan, you only have to see that once or twice to know this guy means business. The haunting remnants of that episode are very, very similar to how I felt when I read the comic book and I experienced that sense of loss and the futility of trying to step in. Rick Grimes is powerless to stop this and that’s something we’ve never seen on the show. I think the violence and brutality are a part of the helplessness. Seeing our hero completely crushed in front of us is more disturbing than the actual violence for me.”

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  4. Clay, thanks for the further note from Greg Nicotero. I think S07E01 probably did just what its creators wanted; it conveyed the things Nicotero talks about in that quote. What happened fit the dramatic situation as well—this establishes the kind of thing that Negan does to assert control. It’s absolutely brutal and totally inescapable, and it’s believable in that such things are known to us from human history in the real world. What may be gratuitous is the character of Negan himself; if he’s going to be a part of the story, as he already is in the comics, then it seems to me such a thing more or less had to happen, had to be shown. My question, for myself, is what he and his group add to the world picture of the show. I’ll keep watching for a while, but maybe not long enough to learn what happens to Negan.

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  5. Two quick notes on responses to the latest episode.

    A New York Times article dated 10/27/16 reported high ratings for the seventh-season premiere, but also nodded to distaste: “The question is, what will next week’s ratings look like? An intensely violent and gory show, ‘The Walking Dead’ went too far on Sunday, according to some viewers.” That article, which includes a handful of links on negative responses, is here.

    A friend located a next-day review on The Verge that he said was pretty scathing; it’s here. I haven’t had time to read it yet.

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  6. I agree that the first season was far more thoughtful than what we’ve seen since. If the current show runners had been responsible for those episodes, I doubt I’d have been impressed enough to follow the series. And discussing episodes among friends is my main incentive for still sticking with it, too. In fact, I have a bet with two friends that has yet to be resolved, but I’m optimistic that the events of this week’s bloodbath will expedite that. The bet: Maggie will give birth to a zombie baby. This is due to the little stab in the abdomen she received toward the end of last season while escaping from her female captors, and the fact that it wasn’t then and hasn’t since been addressed by her or any other characters. My newest theory: Glenn’s horrific death will provoke a miscarriage. My friends insist this is a crazy bet, because they’re convinced I’m certain to lose. But I’ve got three burgers that says I’m right, and I’m curious what the other commenters here think.

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    • Longing for a zombie baby, are you? Perhaps in time for the holidays? I guess it could happen. It would reverse the situation of Judith’s birth in Season Three, in which the show verged on “delivering” to viewers a zombie mother. Though the idea sounds garish, it could probably be dramatized to avoid that, by focusing on the human responses. Incidentally, that’s why I hesitate to call the deaths of the S07 premiere gratuitous. One can question what happened and the directness with which it was shown, but given that it happened, the show must be credited with giving a great deal of weight to the anguish of the other characters, both before and after the two deaths. In simple terms, violence is gratuitous if it doesn’t seem to matter, and it certainly mattered here. But to get back to the zombie baby idea, I know of a movie in which you can see one, Mr. Nix. To avoid spoiling that development for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet, I won’t name it here. I don’t expect to see such a thing on TWD, though.

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