AMC's new series The Walking Dead is everything you've heard: the queasiest show on any television channel, anywhere; a well-written pitch-black comedy; and a revitalization of the zombie genre on the small screen. But while the gore's gotten much of the attention, Frank Darabont's adaptation of Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard's comic books also lies at a fascinating intersection of two genres that are having hot moments: Westerns, and shows set in Atlanta.
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The essence of a Western is the void and the the unpleasant things that lurk in it. Sometimes that void is physical emptiness: the stretch of land between a man and a train he desperately wants to catch, a remote graveyard where no one will know or care if you dig. And sometimes the vacancy is moral, a place where men and woman have passed beyond the rule of law, and the rule of law scrabbles to regain its hold. Deadwood is such a place, as is the San Francisco of Dirty Harry. To create a void like that today, film and television artists have three choices. They can go back in time, as the Coen brothers are doing in their remake of True Grit. They can find contemporary echoes of past lawlessness, as FX did with neo-Nazism and moonshine on Justified. Or they can scour the landscape with an apocalypse and literally recreate the sparsely populated North American continent. Only this time, the Indians are victims too, and the predators are monsters.
It's this third choice that's been most popular recently in books like The Passage and Year Zero, and movies like Monsters. The Walking Dead is situated squarely, and consciously, in the same tradition. From the moment Rick Grimes (the excellent Andrew Lincoln, utterly transcending his sweet blandness in the role he's best known for in Love, Actually) awakens—gut-shot, in an abandoned hospital, only to find the parking lot full of executed corpses, a vivisected body crawling through a neighborhood lawn and his family gone—we're waiting for him to shower, get back in uniform and ten-gallon hat, and mount a horse headed back to Atlanta.
And mount up he does. The horse—a somewhat obvious allusion done with less subtlety but more wit by the Brits in Hot Fuzz—meets a uniquely disgusting end on the streets of Atlanta in the first episode. But the frontier sensibility continues as Rick finds his way back to a small settlement that includes his wife and son. Trap-lines ring the camp to warn of walkers. Dead game brings danger with it. Rick's friend Shane (the equally excellent Jonathan Bernthal) metes out exceedingly rough justice.
And the show is nothing if not self-aware about those references even as it exploits them. "Nice moves there, Clint Eastwood," the first survivor Rick meets tells him after he accidentally draws a pack of zombies with loud gunshots. "You the new sheriff, come to clean up the town?" "That wasn't my intention," Rick tells him, only to have the younger man dismiss him with "you're still a dumbass." A badge and a gun get you only so far in an apocalypse, and on the frontier.