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.