Walking Through the Walking Dead (Season 1): Questions the Zombie Apocalypse Raises

Walking Dead OneMichael 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!

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Walking Through the Walking Dead (Season 1): Questions the Zombie Apocalypse Raises

9 thoughts on “Walking Through the Walking Dead (Season 1): Questions the Zombie Apocalypse Raises

  1. Kalie, I think one of the things you hit on that has bothered me watching all six seasons of the show is the fact that personal hygiene has somehow not suffered in this post-apocalyptic landscape. Yes, the characters are dirty, and sweaty, and gross looking at times, but there is still a general sense of personal care that is maintained throughout the show. Perhaps the show runners built certain “stops along the way” (which you will come across going forward) to account for the ability to take care of their bodies, but I still can’t help but wonder at times: why not show the characters start to entirely abandon their self-maintenance? This would surely happen with a lack of caloric intact which, I presume, would be one of the biggest issues I would face in any post-apocalyptic world, and this would naturally affect the body. But weirdly enough, the characters in this show always seem to be well-fed (sans a few moments down the road which you will see) and, other than some long hair (facial and head), no one seems to be suffering from a lack of give-a-damn when it comes to plucking their eye brows. I dunno, maybe in a post-apocalyptic world, obsessively taking care of your looks is a way to maintain sanity…

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    1. Funny you mentioned that. Michael and I had that conversation, and that’s exactly what we came up with: it’s a sort of way to latch onto the old world. I still don’t know if that explanation is compelling enough to explain why they’re all so well groomed. Michael pointed out Shane’s hair gel and said he must have chosen to bring his hair gel with him when the apocalypse hit. It makes me wonder what the producers’/director’s rationale for that decision was. Surely they thought about this issue when putting the series together. I think the show is fairly deliberate.

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      1. Sabrina R says:

        As someone who watches this show religiously and its counterpart, Fear The Waking Dead, I think it weaves in the details subtly. Partly you are right – they do maintain some appearances because it’s clinging on to how things used to be. It gives them some sort of comfort and normalcy. Every so often, you will see them take advantage of amenities when discovered. You will also notice they aren’t always wearing the same clothes. They change them every so often because it does get dirty and bloody, but they maintain the “style” of the character so you have to be looking out for it. In later seasons, you will see them cleaning clothes in a creek or river. Adapting to their surroundings…almost as if camping. Keep in mind in an apocalypse new clothes and brushes aren’t hard to come by. They were left in these homes. No one is fighting over a brush or shirt. You are hording food and medicine. You make these assumptions that they are changing their clothes and taking care of basic appearances along the way. No need to keep showing it – it doesn’t really add anything to the storyline, or not consistently anyways. As far as shaving legs go, notice you don’t see them wearing shorts or dresses, not even when it’s hot out. It’s about survival. You can’t run and fight zombies in a dress. You wear thick clothes and boots to protect yourself from zombies and their bites. In some episodes you will see them duct tape their sleeves because they can then shove their arms into a zombie’s mouth without getting infected. From a health standpoint, you notice in the beginning they are eating but 6 seasons in, they start weaving in how it gets harder and harder to find food. This makes sense. In the beginning of the apocalypse, food wouldn’t just magically disappear. But as time goes on, it becomes scarcer. If you compare Rick from Season 1 to now, he looks drastically worse in my opinion. Last season, Rick hesitated shaving. There was that moment when you could tell he was thinking “this isn’t me anymore…I’m not that clean shaven cop nor do I want to be. Who cares if I look scary…I should be feared. I’m a hunter and killer now.” It was kind of heavy for that moment. Glenn has very visible bags under his eyes. Girls are keeping their hair short or always tied back because how are you going to maintain it? You don’t really see them wearing jewelry unless there is some sentimental value behind it. You stop seeing out of shape people because they probably were the first to go. So it’s less about showing a good looking cast, but rather the most fit and skinny would have a better chance. You eat less, exercise harder, etc. In general, this show is always going to leave you with more questions than answers. How could it not? Perhaps, that’s the point…

        Liked by 1 person

      2. That was great. You’re clearly an avid watcher of the show and you know your stuff. I’m planning on posting more about each season of the show, and the comments. Feel free to keep weighing in!

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  2. Michael J. Miller says:

    I wonder if the main point behind the personal grooming is more a “we want an attractive, TV friendly cast” than a sort of “this is dripping with symbolism” thing. I don’t know. On the one hand, the show is brilliantly put together and clearly filled with deeper meaning and significance. But are the actors “rough yet still well kept” appearances part of that? I feel a bit cynical in saying this but I feel like that one specific issue is more a marketing thing than a symbolic thing. As Kalie points out in the piece, there are certain things we’d do for consideration of others and perhaps some we’d do to fight for a semblance of normalcy. But in a world of no hot water and survival taking up so much of your time, I agree that much of our regular hygiene routine would be tossed aside. And as Jeff says, adding lack of nutrition and lack of calories to that, it all has to have an effect. I’m betting on TV marketing in this one area and pointing to gritty realism and symbolism for the rest.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Michael J. Miller says:

    Oh, also I’ll be the first to say I wouldn’t want to survive in this sort of hellish world! Nor do I think I am capable of surviving even if I wanted to. I sorely lack those sorts of skills. Still, the whole question of survival thing seems to bring us back to a question of hope which naturally loops us back to the final episode in Season One (do you leave in hope or die in peace?) as well as the question of the place of the Divine in this sort of a setting.

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