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.
But The Walking Dead isn't set in just any frontier community, and in this case, location matters. The Walking Dead has the potential to be the best, most elegiac fictional look at the fall of Atlanta and the return to the countryside since Gone With the Wind. In recent years, the most prominent Atlanta television shows have been the family dramas Meet the Browns and House of Payne out of Tyler Perry's shop; the near-farcical Real Housewives of Atlanta; and now the upcoming Sex-and-the-City-in-the-South show Single Ladies. Unlike these shows, The Walking Dead takes Atlanta as seriously as a beacon of hope and a symbol of despair as Gone With the Wind did, even if no one's going to recover from Walking Dead's horrors by opening up a pie shop.
Unlike Gone With the Wind, The Walking Dead doesn't give viewers much of a look at Atlanta (though we do know one of the survivors, an African-American woman, was once a city planner, a nice touch that references Atlanta as a major hub for black professionals) before the fall, though there's something sad about seeing Rick ride past an abandoned Marietta Street. And so far, the group of ill-matched survivors don't have a spiritual home to match Tara. But the power of Rick's hope for Atlanta, where he has been told the Centers for Disease Control is developing a cure, is as powerful as Scarlett O'Hara's hope that Rhett Butler, in jail in Atlanta, will lend her the money to save Tara.
They both find nothing but disappointment there. And once back in the countryside, both Rick and Scarlett have to adjust to a wildly disrupted social order in order to eke out a meager survival. Just as Scarlett finds herself working side-by-side with African-Americans her family once owned, Rick points out to his fellow survivors that the apocalypse has erased racial difference.
"There are no niggers, no inbred, dumb-as-shit-white trash fools, neither," he tells them. "Just white meat and dark meat."
And just like Scarlett found herself relying on Archie, a dangerous, misanthropic ex-convict, to protect her as she opens a business in lawless Atlanta, it's clear from the first episode that Rick's group of survivors will depend on two of the less pleasant men in their numbers, the Dixon brothers.
There's even a bit of a gender-inverted Scarlett-Melanie vibe going on between Rick, blondish, pale and upstanding, and his best friend and former police partner Shane, who is dark, passionate, and profane. In Rick's coma-induced absence, Shane banded together the group of survivors Rick later joins, and took up with Rick's wife Lori, who assumed her husband was dead. So far, Rick is as innocent of their coupling as Melanie was of Scarlett's passion for her husband Ashley Wilkes. But in the bloodier environment of The Walking Dead, it seems likely that Shane won't be content with revenge marriages and barn-yard clinches.
Given the role the Civil War plays in so many Western stories, whether it's the lost Confederate gold in The Good, The Bad and the Ugly or the origins of the James gang as Confederate guerrillas, it's fitting that one of the best recent Westerns set in the present day should return to the site of one of the Civil War's most famous campaigns. Only this time, it's the zombies who will never be hungry again.