There’s something rotten about The Walking Dead, but I haven’t put my finger on it until the last few episodes of this second season. The problem is this: The Walking Dead isn’t about zombies, it’s about the survival of traditional conservative moral values in the face of a social breakdown.
Zombie films are basically war films in which civilians are pitted against an easily defeated invading army. The prospect of zombies is frightening only in their definition: they are undead, which is unsettling to those of us who previously considered death a permanent state of immobility. But they are also slow, stupid, unorganized and as it turns out quite killable, which makes avoiding them or fighting them not especially difficult.
Consider which would actually be worse: to be stalked by a dozen zombies, or by a dozen hungry tigers? And yet that is never the basis of a movie. But it was the basis of human civilization untold thousands of years ago.
The function of zombies in these stories is to destroy the social order without the prospect of it being revived quickly or replaced with a revived central authority. And that is the case in this series as well. There is no cure, and the radio and TV don’t work. Therefore, society is finished and what civilization survives depends on the few survivors.
But The Walking Dead has spent most of this season telling us that the survival of civilization means clinging to that now-dead soziety, in maintaining the traditional conservative American values in the face of their complete obsolescence, as if those values themselves were the sum total of civilization.
Zombies? Sure, the zombies in Hershel’s barn represent his clinging to the past, the unspoken tension between the two groups of people on the farm, and Shane’s bottled rage. But beyond that, the zombies have been little more than fan service, a quick jolt of action to break up the tedium of endless dialogue that focuses on property rights, enforcing gender roles, the sanctity of marriage and relationships, gun rights, and every other conservative talking point.
The Walking Dead reinforces a suspicion I’ve long held: that American television can never be countercultural. It is always slightly right-of-center. It is always safe and predictable, reinforcing the status quo. It is never progressive, never threatening. Film on the other hand, can be countercultural, challenging to the status quo. And it can be dangerous.
At no point in this season of the Walking Dead, which focuses on the clashes between the farmer’s family and the itinerant travelers who have camped on his farm, did any character ever present the idea that they didn’t need to ask for permission to stay on the farm, because the idea of property ownership died the moment the first call to 911 went unanswered. No one suggested that now that society has collapsed, this is a chance t finally build a socialist utopia in which everyone owns everything in common.
Or conversely, at no point did any character ever present the notion that now that the dead walk the earth, it turns out that might actually does make right. That property can be owned only to the extent that its possession can be enforced with direct violence. If Group A has more guns than Group B, Group A automatically owns everything Group B thought it owned. Rick’s group showed up on Hershel’s farm armed to the teeth. Hershel doesn’t carry a gun, therefore Hershel is trespassing on their farm, not the other way around. Priority is irrelevant.
Likewise, we’ve been treated to more scenes of women being maternal housekeepers and men being the hunter gatherers than I could possibly list. Wouldn’t the men be just as relieved to find a house worth keeping as the women that they would jump at the opportunity to maintain it? Wouldn’t women be just as frightened and nervous about the lack of a predictable food and medical supply that they would seize any opportunity to forage, scrounge, or hunt for food or supplies? But we don’t see that. Once they set up camp on the farm, it was Father Knows Best all over again. Women make the food, women hang the laundry, men keep watch, men look for Sophia.
Why are we expected to believe that the issue of Shane sleeping with rick’s wife would cause problems? When society vanishes, taking with it every barrier to marital dissolution, wouldn’t marriage itself vanish as well? Marital relationships are tenuous even now. The world ending would strengthen the institution. “Yes, Rick, I banged Shane when I thought you were dead. By the way, have you noticed that the world has ended?”
Post-apocalyptic stories are typically about how the survivors carry on, about how civilization lasts. No work has addressed this better than The Road. But these stories usually show civilization surviving because at it’s most basic civilization is very simple: we self-organize to help each other. Everything else on top of that, the rules, the morality, and the norms are context-sensitive and unique to the particular circumstances.
But the The Walking Dead confuses civilization with modern society, which in some respects is monstrously uncivilized. Would the homeless be better off or worse of after a zombie holocaust? In the Walking Dead, civilization survives only while the traditional ideas of property rights, gender roles, and family relationships survive, because for the show’s viewers, those things constitute the entirely of our existence. We know of no other form of civilization. But we only have this institutional and moral baggage <i>because</i> of society , which has to reinforce them capitalize on them for the benefit of the many, even if it is to the detriment of the few. But if the few are all that is left, does it make sense to keep carrying that baggage?
If society collapsed, civilization might be better served by abandoning these ideas. In fact, a scenario like the one depicted in this show–in which the social order collapses but society’s collective knowledge is still retained–might call for an entirely new set of ideas, ones that turn the small population, the vast stores of knowledge, and the complete absence of central authority, and the consumer society into advantages.
Yes, the dead walk the earth, hungry for the flesh of the living. But look on the bright side.