'The Walking Dead,' Like All Zombie Stories: ... Not About Zombies at All


Our TV Roundtable on humanity, inhumanity, and Season 3, Episode 7, "When the Dead Come Knocking"



Daniel Drezner, the Walter Lippman of zombie-policy studies -- he's the author of Theories of International Politics and Zombies -- says that that zombie television shows (and movies and comic books) are not so much about zombies as they are about how humans react to zombies, zombies of course being stand-ins for a whole menu of apocalyptic threats facing humanity.

Zombies are quite one-dimensional as characters (all you ex-people do is eat!), and so they're deeply uninteresting: Zombies are very much like terrorists in this way: They're monochromatic and unthinking and quite bad company. Which brings me to this week's episode, which is actually one of the most satisfying I've seen, because it makes such a close study of human adaptability, and of the human reaction to stress, and also such a close study of Glenn's taped-to-a-chair superfantastic zombie-fighting skills. But I'll leave that last subject to Gould, who would be among the best zombie fighters at The Atlantic, if it ever came to that.

The most interesting moment to me in tonight's episode: the reaction of Oscar (the new noble -- and obviously expendable -- black character, who has conveniently replaced the previous noble black character, the now-eaten T-Dog) to the decision by Rick and company to throw the corpse of an essentially innocent man to the zombies so they could sneak past them while they were dining. Oscar, you'll remember, had been sequestered in prison during the collapse of civilization, so he is unused to the new reality of the outside world. The instantaneous, almost unspoken, decision to feed the zombies the body caused Oscar (played by Vincent M. Ward) a moment of well-acted consternation. And it stopped me short, too: Could you imagine Rick allowing such a thing to happen three or four months ago, or at least happening without a great deal of hand-wringery and arguing with Shane?

Oscar's reaction is bookended by the naive belief advanced by Milton (the Governor's mad scientist, and a guy so unsympathetic that if his liver is not eaten soon I'm going to write a letter to the producers) that walkers retain some unconscious vestige of humanity that can be exploited in order to mollify them. Andrea tried to convince him out of this position, and was forced to stab a walker in the head when Milton's experiment went sideways. I've been arguing that The Walking Dead is a conservative show in some obvious ways, and not simply because its position on gun-control, while unstated, is obvious.

Conservatism, as I understand it (and not necessarily how many conservatives understand it) means in part that you grapple with the tragic reality in front of you, rather than make believe that the world, and human nature, are things that they are not. People who have survived into the 8th and 9th months of the zombie apocalypse have survived because they have adapted (Hershel is a case in point), and that adaptation leads to some ugly moments, as we saw in the cabin with the corpse. This episode brought to mind something Walter Russell Mead wrote recently about climate change advocacy. Mead made the point that those who argue for responses to climate change that might affect a working person's ability to make a living have no idea just how powerful the human instinct to survive is: People in distress, he wrote, "will butcher every panda in the zoo before they see their children starve, they will torch every forest on earth before they freeze to death, and the cheaper and the meaner their lives are, the less energy or thought they will spare to the perishing world around them." This is precisely the subject matter of The Walking Dead: How far do you go to defend your own life, and the lives of people you love?


Really, if people start referring to The Atlantic's "Dreznerian" TV Roundtable, I think we should embrace it. When Jeff first suggested an allegorical connection here between The Walking Dead and the Holocaust -- with Scott pointing out how Glen Mazzara had even tweeted that every writer on show was required to read Viktor Frankl's account of concentration-camp survival -- I found the thought instantly compelling, to the point of shame that it hadn't occurred to me before. But something about the connection nevertheless seemed off:

What the allegory couldn't get to, it seems to me, is the hardest thing there is to understand about the Holocaust: the nature of the human evil that drove it. What transforms people into walkers, after all, isn't a moral phenomenon. It's utterly amoral and separate from the human heart; it's literally a disease.

Drezner's framework says of course The Walking Dead doesn't get at the nature of the human evil that drove the Holocaust. It isn't about the nature of human evil at all. It's about -- maybe this would be a more exact way to put it? -- human survival in a world suddenly dominated by radical inhumanity.

Which is why I think The Walking Dead has essentially no political reference point in the world we live in -- whether that would be with the global-civilizational conflict between liberal democracy and genocidal fascism or with the relatively intramural stakes between contemporary liberalism and conservatism.   

The decision to become a Nazi, let alone to enable the Holocaust, is a human decision: It implicates the will; it turns on choice; it marks a shift in the heart toward something monstrous -- but still human. In this sense, the idea of European civilization that the Reich represents remains more radical than the end of American civilization that The Walking Dead imagines. To accept that this is a walker, not my brother anymore, is to accept my brother's physical death. To accept that he's become a Nazi who'll participate in the systematic extermination of European Jews is to accept something worse, not just about the world but about him: his constitutive failure as a human being. In another sense, though, the idea of zombie domination is more radical, with all of civilization upended by creatures who look like us, who walk in the dead bodies of people who were until recently just like us, who were even our friends and loved ones, but who now have no purpose at all other than to devour and assimilate humanity as it remains. (Say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, dude ...)

The elementary struggle for survival in the zombie apocalypse isn't a struggle against evil; it's a struggle against an amoral horror. But it's also the context for another kind of struggle that determines all of the drama in The Walking Dead: the struggle among the survivors to remain human, to maintain their human identity. And as we've seen through Rick, through Andrea, through everyone from their group, this isn't a struggle against change as such; it's a struggle to change, to adapt, without losing yourself.

As the show has explored this struggle, it's brought us through different evolutions in the group's shifting orientations in this world: Glen's dispatching of the zombie he'd been locked in a room with, despite being duct-taped to a chair, is indeed superbadass; but it's not at all implausible now in a way it would have been a year or two ago. Glen's adapted; he knows how to fight, he expects to fight, he understands the stakes of losing; and jacked up on adrenaline with his life on the line, he's focused and fierce. Oscar, meanwhile, a presumably hardened criminal -- if not an altogether bad guy -- in the old world, who's still getting used to this new one, is, as Jeff points out, morally shocked and momentarily disoriented by Rick's and the others' unhesitating decision to heave the body of someone who'd just died out the door as decoy zombie feed.

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