Michael and I have finally started watching The Walking Dead. So that means we’re about six years behind schedule. I saw a few episodes, once, a long time ago, with friends, but I never latched on to the Walking Dead phenomenon. I had nothing against the few episodes I saw, but at the time I was more into watching old re-runs of HBO’s Six Feet Under. Ostensibly, I wanted to contemplate death without focusing on unfortunate and unholy resurrections. Plus, Six Feet Under gives death a thorough examination. The Walking Dead sort of dances around it and runs from it, while flaunting it at the same time.
But that evasion doesn’t much concern me now, because I don’t watch The Walking Dead to hear what it has to say about death – at least not exclusively. If you take a group of strangers and situate them fortuitously together in the midst of the apocalypse, you do it because you want to say something about life, about human nature. But I’ve only just finished season one; I don’t know what the Walking Dead says about human nature. No—the Walking Dead hasn’t given me any answers yet. Instead, it’s raised a lot of questions. That’s not to say I won’t try to conjecture some answers in this piece, too, but I should admit from the outset that I’ll be grasping at straws. Indeed, I’m still five seasons behind.
I think everyone who watches The Walking Dead asks themselves how long they’d survive in the Zombie Apocalypse. Indeed, I suspect the show has led to a lot of unwarranted, overconfident bragging, especially over drinks some boring Thursday night. Really. I imagine someone, somewhere has had a little too much, has gotten into a tiff—with a friend or a lover – and has boldly proclaimed, “Yeah, well if we were in the Walking Dead, you’d die first.” There’s an assault on your impeccable bravado. And I’ll be the first to admit, I was, initially, overconfident about my own survival chances.
But whether or not I would survive concerns me less than whether or not I should survive. So far as I can tell, post-apocalyptic Atlanta in The Walking Dead is an abandoned city with corpses strewn haphazardly about. The corpses not rotting on the ground are chasing you with half-dismembered jaw bones hanging down and hearty gurgles in their throats. And the tricky part is, these little monsters can sneak up on you anytime, anywhere. In Season One, the gang of once-strangers gathers in a sort of outpost on the city’s outskirts, but the walkers quickly smell fresh meat and infiltrate the grounds. In a zombie apocalypse you’re always on edge. Imminent death is walking around in myriad five to six-foot growling packages of soul-less decay.
Finding any semblance of peace in that sort of situation would be impossible. Indeed, when the group finds the CDC in season one, they receive the temporary illusion of peace, in the guise of a barricaded building, air conditioning and wine, but this transient security is accompanied by the hellish realization that there is no more CDC, no more government, no more support, of any kind, upon which to rely. Let’s be brazen for a minute and take the zombies out of the apocalyptic equation. Wouldn’t life on a mostly dead and decaying earth be horrific enough, without hungry, half-alive corpses ambling about the premises, looking to extract a chunk of your flesh? Jenner, the last survivor in the CDC, relates that many of its members committed suicide when it was evident that the world was going down. Were they right? What’s the difference between someone who fights for her life in this situation, someone who relents, and someone who takes her life? What does each action say about a person? How could I ever know what I would do?
Such varied responses raise another question: what is sanity in a zombie apocalypse? In contemporary culture, we have a generalizable set of actions that most “sane” adults perform every day: get out of bed, brush your teeth, brush your hair, go to work, and so forth. But the actions that seem sane in contemporary culture become empty, even nonsensical rituals in a zombie apocalypse. Deodorant is still rational, if only out of consideration for the random bunch of strangers you’re stuck battling for your life with. You can accumulate a lot of B.O. running from zombies. But what about a woman who shaves her legs in a zombie apocalypse? This action – which is not just socially acceptable but practically mandated by cultural custom – becomes a gesture of erratic irrationality in a zombie apocalypse. Who cares if your legs are hairy? Would I shave my legs in a zombie apocalypse to futilely grip the last dying breath of Western culture that I detected? No. I wouldn’t. I’d certainly use the world’s demise as an excuse to walk around au-natural.
So it’s insane to shave in the zombie apocalypse. But, is it insane to lock a group of strangers in a building that’s about to combust? Jenner does it, and finally decides to let them go. Initially, the action seems insane, but I’m not completely convinced that it is. Jenner makes a valid point: leaving the confines of the CDC means re-entering a world where a rampant virus has consumed the majority of the population and will continue to consume the living via the virus’s walking, monstrous spawns. I’m not saying that Jenner had the right to decide how the strangers he met should have died, but he believed he was saving a group of people from a slower, more painful death than burning in an explosion. His motives were, at least, understandable.
If Jenner is sane, is it insane to fight to survive? If you know the world is basically over, and it’s only a matter of time until you die, do you do everything you can to stay alive, even if it means spreading human guts on your body to hide your living, human stench and smell like one of the dead? (This scene was easily the most disgusting part of season 1). Perhaps that action was more insane than Jenner’s decision to die in the explosion. Is the struggle to survive insane under the circumstances of a Zombie Apocalypse? Does the evolutionary instinct to survive translate to senseless, unnecessary action in a Zombie Apocalypse? Is suicide suddenly the more rational, normative behavior?
If the undead are meandering around otherwise deserted terrain and suicide has become rational recourse, what does the Walking Dead say about the absence or presence of a supreme deity? Conventional Christian wisdom dictates that when we die, our souls ascend to heaven, and almost all religions believe in some form of afterlife. Is the surviving soul still possible for the unfortunates who turn into zombies?
Jenner says there’s nothing left of the self in a zombie after the virus eradicates the victim’s synapses. In his 3D animation of the disease, the brain turns black. Is it possible that the soul has gone on to an afterlife, after the walking corpse of the undead preys on those left living on earth? After all, even though Jenner says that everything that makes a person human dies with the zombifying disease, don’t we associate the walking undead with the person walking, at least indirectly? For example, the man who lost his wife in episode one sees her in zombie form and cannot bring himself to shoot her. Is there any “her” to shoot?
Finally, The Walking Dead makes me think of if, when, or how the world will end. Grim? Possibly, but apocalyptic literature is all the rage right now, and I almost can’t help but think of whether or not humanity has a shelf life. Austin Powers says, “Only two things scare me, and one is nuclear war.” (Austin P is also afraid of carnies – “Circus folk, smell like cabbage, small hands.”) I, too, have always thought that nuclear war was terrifying, that if humanity ended, it would probably be because we finally blew each other up. But The Walking Dead calls that assumption into question; a rampant, easily spread disease for which we don’t have a cure could occur at any time. If nothing else, The Walking Dead reminds us how fragile humanity is. We better not get too cocky, lest hubris comes back to bite us in the flesh and turn us into walking, feeding corpses.
I scribbled down more thoughts while watching the last episode of season one, but these are some predominant questions I think the show raises. Suffice it to say, I might find some answers in later seasons. But, I see why the show is so popular. It combines compelling human drama with an almost unprecedented level of gore on television, and it raises deeper questions: How do people behave when almost all the good in life is stripped away from them? What are the ethics and correct behaviors in an apocalypse? What’s up there looking down on us, and where are we headed as human beings? The Walking Dead makes me wonder all these things, for which reason I’ll be tuning into season two!