I’m brand new to the series. I’ve always been a late-adopter. Whether it’s becoming a fan of the Grateful Dead six years after Jerry Garcia died, not reading any Harry Potter books until the fourth volume was released, or beginning to watch a show after it’s been on the air for several seasons, that’s just how I am. So if anything I say sounds like something others have said, please chalk it up to a beginner’s insights rather than plagiarism.
Almost immediately, I was struck by the inventiveness of the pilot. Rather than walk us through the beginnings of the plague that has created hordes of zombies, we’re plopped down in the middle of it, trying to figure it out along with the main character, Rick. After leaving the hospital and venturing toward his home, he encounters something grotesque: The head, arms and torso of a woman who nevertheless crawls along the ground, her decaying face looking at him with hunger, her hands reaching toward him. That she’s trailing her intestines, well, that’s the New Normal to which both Rick and the viewer must accustom themselves.
Without a whole lot of fanfare, we’re offered a glimpse of how this new reality works: The living are little more than food for hordes of lifeless, always-hungry walking (or crawling, or stumbling, or shuffling) corpses. It’s the ultimate indignity, really. Rather than bringing peace or an end to suffering, death now is the beginning of a horrible new existence. Who one once was no longer exists; all one becomes is Appetite. That one’s preference is the flesh of one’s former friends, loved ones, neighbors, or a random stranger makes the indignity all he greater.
As a friend wrote on Facebook, it’s a one-note show, really. Of course, most television programs can be reduced to one, simple phrase. Star Trek was originally sold as Wagon Train To The Stars, a western with ray guns, Have Gun Will Travel using a spaceship instead of a horse. A world in which simple survival is the goal of all the characters, particularly in the face of the grim horror of becoming zombie food might seem to fail after a while to hold viewers’ attention. That it has is less about the simplicity of the plot and more, I think, to how many readers can identify with the survivors. Not as vicarious selves who show us our best selves, surviving against incredible odds. We identify with them, rather, because they represent our deep fear that the world we inhabit, somehow without our knowing it (like waking up from a coma!) has changed to something unrecognizable, even dangerous. We who remember how things were are faced with the dual challenge of staying alive while holding on to traditional ways of living, notions of morality and community, and even trust in the midst of small pockets of terrified humanity simply trying to do the same things.
You’ve seen this kind of thing, haven’t you? A meme or post in which someone talks about “the old times” or “the good times” or how children today are spoiled, entitled brats compared to how we were raised. While some of these posts, for me at least, demonstrate a kind of blindness (if you’re complaining about how kids are raised, you might begin at home). I think, however, they also reflect a deep-seated fear, something we dare not name or confront directly. So, we get all passive-aggressive and proclaim that “When I was a child!” is preferable to the way things are now.
We all remember the culture wars, don’t we? They were all the rage in he mid- to late-1980’s. Then, Pat Buchanan spoke at the 1992 Republican National Convention and most folks realized just how frightening were the prospects of politicizing something that exists outside the ability of politics to control. In the quarter century since then, society and culture has become more open, accepting, and laid back. That this is so is easy enough to see in the way our politics has become so frightening and dysfunctional. The power-that-be are unable to control the social and cultural changes; at the very least, however, they can prevent our public institutions from reflecting those changes that seem the most challenging to our sensibilities.
All these changes, it seems, occurred without our input. It’s like the world is filled with these strange human-like creatures that don’t speak, act, or think the way we did. What’s worse, they want the rest of us to join them. Instead of the killing pace of contemporary business life, a slow, shuffling pace gets you where you need to be. Instead of relying on what once was, they all seem to reject it lock, stock, and barrel, making us little more than oddities, facing a dangerous future in which all we knew before is lost not due to amnesia but worse: because of apathy.
All our fears about the future are reflected in The Walking Dead: From living with antiquated values and skills through the fearful notion that we might well get swallowed up by the hordes that create the new normal to the terrifying notion that even death is no release because the new normal includes a way of keeping the dead alive in ways that threaten the living.
I like George Romero’s quip that The Walking Dead is a soap opera with an occasional zombie. That sums up a lot of shows these days: A soap opera with X. In Lost it was weird stuff on an island. In Sons of Anarchy it’s a criminal biker gang. In American Horror Story it’s, by turns, ghosts, monsters, demons, serial killers, witches, and freaks. The Walking Dead offers the extra frisson of showing us how those who run things actually see the world, offering those who fear the present and future a survival guide. Not for a real zombie apocalypse, but something far more terrifying: A world that rapidly antiquates so many who believe their values and ways of living were eternal and sacrosanct.
That’s why I cheer for the zombies.