There’s nothing wrong with a little entertainment. We all need to burn some steam every now and then and take a break from the stresses of our lives, and nothing helps us escape the modern world quite like a show about the apocalypse. With that said, you are what you eat, and that includes the media. The books we read, the movies we watch, and the shows we enjoy, all inform our world view in subtle ways, and there’s no avoiding it.
So we should ask ourselves what we’re “consuming” when we watch The Walking Dead. What kind of world is this show pushing on our minds?
I would argue that it’s not only a twisted, cynical world, it’s an inaccurate one. And I’m not talking about the zombies. Believe it or not, The Walking Dead is not a show about zombies. They’re merely a minor plot device. It’s really about people and how they deal with adversity. If anything, the title of the show is not referring to the undead, but to the survivors themselves.
But for a show depicting ordinary people struggling to cope with extraordinary circumstances, it sure gets everything wrong about human nature. Specifically when it comes to how humans can and should organize themselves. The biggest mistakes this show makes, is failing to portray just how good people are at working together, and completely underestimating our ability and desire to rebuild civilization.
If they tried to portray that, then the last few seasons would have these characters raising crops, rebuilding roads, and discussing who in the group would be the best candidate to teach their kids algebra.
Seriously, the show is almost nihilistic in that regard. It’s almost like nobody in this show’s universe is interested in building a functional society. In our world, history tells us that that’s all we’ve been trying to do for tens of thousands of years. We work together way more often than we fight each other, because it’s beneficial. While there have been brutal and chaotic periods in history, we never linger there for long.
We always go right back to building a civilization because it gives us the best chance for survival. In fact, we’re so excellent at building societies that our planet is littered with them. We’ve reached the point where the only thing on Earth that is capable of making us extinct, is ourselves. Has any other species ever pulled that off? And we did it because setting aside our differences and working together to shape the world in our image, is just who we are and what we do (almost) every day. It’s second nature.
But not in The Walking Dead it isn’t. If you don’t believe me, stop and think about every society the main characters have ever come across. (spoilers)
When the characters run into Woodbury, they find a society that is ruled by a psychotic despot who is hell bent on killing and looting any large groups of survivors they come across. He does this while absorbing smaller groups, and concealing the true nature of his community to outsiders, and his own people.
Then they discover Terminus, which advertises itself as a refuge, but in reality is a trap designed to lure in wayward survivors so that they can butcher and cannibalize them.
Most recently, the characters arrive in the Alexandria Safe Zone, whose inhabitants could be best described as naive. Carol is quoted as saying “these people are children” and Michonne even suggested that they could have deposed their government and let Rick run the show. By themselves, I suppose these societies are possible, but the fact that they can’t find a single decent settlement, suggests to the viewers that building a moral and functional society is impossible when the chips are down.
Alexandria also reminds me of another problem I have with the show. They correctly portray these communities as “the bad guys” but they fail to recognize Rick’s own tyrannical tendencies. At the end of season two Rick is famously quoted as saying…
And they happily oblige. They practically hoisted that role upon him, and waited for him to say it out loud. Then he spends the next couple of seasons losing his mind and making terrible decisions. He eventually steps back from his dictatorial role, but the audience has no illusions as to who’s really in charge. There’s even a brief period of time where his group is run by a council, but the show never really explores that angle. That community is killed off by disease, and then it’s back to business as usual.
The Walking Dead basically says that society isn’t worth fighting for, because it will always turn into either a tyrannical nightmare or a parade of wishy washy idiots, though it tends to lean more towards the former.
Think of what that implies. They’re saying that tyranny and banditry will be the only successful models of human organization when the lights go out, and the only way the good guys will win, is by stooping to their level. That only the strong and ruthless will survive to lead their flock. That nice guys finish last.
But is that really what we’ve seen in the real world? Hasn’t history shown that freedom and cooperation are almost always more successful? And don’t tell me that this situation is special because zombies are involved. They are literally walking corpses. They can be easily dispatched by a flock of hungry seagulls, much less intelligent humans with guns. They would be a minor annoyance throughout the rebuilding of civilization. If anything, history has shown that even the most bloodthirsty humans will work together if there is a common enemy, and no enemy fits that role better than a zombie. In the real world, the zombie apocalypse wouldn’t last a month before millions of armed humans snuffed them out worldwide.
But that’s not the story people want to hear. They don’t want to watch a show about people banding together to quickly dispatch a pathetic horde of shambling dumbasses, and then rebuilding a decent and free society. They want to see Rick take control and save the day, because the American public is still very attached to the notion that we need tyranny to survive a scary world. If we didn’t, then this show would have never been such a big hit.