'The Walking Dead': This Is What a Zombie Apocalypse Looks Like

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Our TV Roundtable on Season 3, Episode 4, "Killer Within"

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Goldberg:

Gentlemen, I'm sorry I won't be with you for this round. I'm heading for the Middle East, which is appropriate, because a number of Middle Eastern countries come to mind when I think about The Walking Dead. Really, how different is life in Aleppo for innocent Syrians than it is for Rick and his group of survivors, who live in fear of proximate and gruesome death? 

But I wanted to mention a catastrophe closer to home that might explain the uncanny popular of The Walking Dead, which is, after all, a derivative of what should, by rights, be an exhausted genre. I'll quote from The New York Daily News from this weekend.

When night falls in the Rockaways, the hoods come out.

Ever since Sandy strafed the Queens peninsula and tore up the boardwalk, it's become an often lawless place where cops are even scarcer than electrical power and food. Locals say they are arming themselves with guns, baseball bats, booby traps--even a bow and arrow--to defend against looters.

Thugs have been masquerading as Long Island Power Authority (LIPA) workers, knocking on doors in the dead of night. But locals say the real workers have been nowhere in sight, causing at least one elected official--who fears a descent into anarchy if help doesn't arrive soon--to call for the city to investigate the utility.

"We booby-trapped our door and keep a baseball bat beside our bed," said Danielle Harris, 34, rummaging through donated supplies as children rode scooters along half-block chunk of the boardwalk that had marooned into the middle of Beach 91st St.

Bow and arrow. Think about that for a minute. In New York City. This is exactly the appeal of The Walking Dead. As my Twitter friend Daniel Drezner says (he's the author of Theories of International Relations and Zombies), zombie movies aren't about zombies; they're about how humans react to zombies. Sandy is a zombie invasion. Katrina was a zombie invasion. 9/11 was a zombie invasion. A zombie invasion is simply a metaphor for any situation in which the government cannot protect its citizens.

Okay, enough thumb-sucking. Well, a little more. The reason this season has picked up so dramatically is that the Drezner theory of zombie obsessiveness is now playing out before us: It was (mostly) fascinating to watch Rick and Shane, and their group, react to the existential threat of zombies, but now we have a completely different model of reaction to watch as well. I suspect we're in for a great ride this season precisely because we're going to witness two radically different models of post-apocalyptic governance, rather than just the one we've been experiencing. 

But could I ask you to discuss one question that's been nagging at me? I made the point to someone the other day that I find The Walking Dead more credible, within its own context, than I do Homeland, which exists in a real-life context I know something about. Homeland has always struck me as incredible. The Walking Dead seems like a realistic depiction of what life might be like in a science fiction scenario. But this person I was speaking with--and this isn't the only person who has brought this up--responded with one word: cholera. Why aren't these people dead from the quotidian illnesses that should strike people living in the conditions in which our band of survivors find themselves? Am I wrong to suggest that The Walking Dead presents a plausible picture of what life might be like for human survivors in a zombie uprising?


Meslow:

Let's start with plausibility. I'm inclined to look at The Walking Dead as "realistic" in the same way I'm inclined to look at any other TV series as "realistic": It's an extremely heightened version of what life in that scenario would actually be like, cut down to the most interesting bits for the benefit of viewers like us. For the same reason that I don't need to see Homeland's Carrie Mathison sitting at a desk analyzing data for eight hours, I don't need to see Rick and company going about the day-to-day business of basic survival, because I'm happy to assume they're doing all the boring stuff when the camera's not on them. Drezner can have the version of The Walking Dead where the heroes spend an hour rummaging for fresh socks so they don't get gangrene; I'll take the version where they run around shooting zombies.

I don't care whether The Walking Dead presents a wholly plausible picture, as long as it keeps getting the broad strokes right--and the broadest stroke is that people would be dying on a near-constant basis.
Which is another way of saying that I don't actually care whether or not The Walking Dead presents a wholly plausible picture of life in a zombie apocalypse, as long as it keeps getting the broad strokes right--and the broadest stroke of all is that people would be dying on a near-constant basis. Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman has always insisted that no one on this show is safe, and the program seems to take a certain joy in finding more gruesome, ingenious ways to dispatch humans and walkers alike. A body count, as we were horrifically reminded in last night's "Killer Within," will never be The Walking Dead's problem.

Speaking of "Killer Within": Let's start by pouring one out for our fallen protagonists (Lori, we hardly knew ye; T-Dog, we never knew ye). "Man, can't we just have one good day?" said Glenn early in the episode, providing our requisite dramatic irony as the group faced one of its worst days ever. "Killer Within" is the kind of episode that The Walking Dead has always done very, very well. The show managed to draw some pathos out of obnoxious, hypocritical Dale's death last season, and damned if they didn't find a way to make me feel T-Dog and Lori's deaths too. The Walking Dead's creative team has always insisted that this is really Carl's story, but "Killer Within" is the first episode to make me believe it (due, in no small part, to a trio of series-best performances from Andrew Lincoln, Sarah Wayne Callies, and Chandler Riggs).

But in the midst of all this death and undeath, we are also in life, as Lori and Rick's (or Shane's?) baby is born. My favorite thing about "Killer Within" is that it sets up an immediate and ongoing conflict for the survivors: How will they feed it? Who will take care of it? Will its helplessness jeopardize the rest of the survivors? Is Rick too mired in grief to be a father? And will the fact that the baby may be Shane's complicate all of those questions? Without the overarching Rick/Shane conflict to anchor The Walking Dead, the series could easily become too episodic, so it's nice to see the show planting the seeds of story lines it can sow further down the road.

And speaking of ongoing conflicts: I remain excited to the inevitable clash between our heroes at the prison and the Governor's gang, but I was left pretty cold by this week's return trip to Woodbury. To my mind, it was essentially a retread of last week's much far more interesting visit, and it pulled us away from the far more immediate, pressing concerns at the prison. To circle back around to the question Jeff raised: I can't believe that Michonne, who has managed to survive this long, would be stupid enough to openly confront the Governor with her suspicions. If he's as dangerous as she (correctly) suspects he is, why give him a reason to kill her? And now that Michonne has given him a reason to kill her, why doesn't he?

I'm less concerned about realistic survival mechanics than you, but this is where I can run into plausibility problems with The Walking Dead. I'll buy into a zombie apocalypse, but once I'm there, I need the characters to act like rational humans.

John?



Gould:

Elections being, I appreciate, one of the great achievements of pre-zombie-takeover civilization, I won't complain if they cut into my TWD commentary time this week and instead just add the few words I can: I think I agree with Drezner, Jeff, that the power of zombie stories are in the human circumstances they create and not in the zombies themselves. Which, it occurs to me, helps your TWD-as-the-Holocaust theory. It suggests possible analogy between the experience of human survivors in a zombie-infested wasteland and European Jews under the Reich, without necessarily implying analogy between the zombies and Nazis (the latter of which, you may recall, I have a hard time seeing). And I don't know about you guys, but Lori's death was to me the most affecting of the show's many deaths so far, not, I think, just because it was the death of a mother in childbirth -- or even just because it was so violent a death of a mother in childbirth -- but also because it was caused by a fundamental reality of apocalypse (trying to give birth on the run after the collapse of civilization), not the dramatic conceit that represents it (being bitten by a zombie).

I think I agree with Scott, too, that we don't need to see TWD focusing in on the mundane aspects of post-apocalyptic survival "as long as it keeps getting the broad strokes right" -- but only as long as it also maintains a plausible connection between what we see onscreen and what we don't. Whenever writers anticipate an important detail of the world they're creating, which smart viewers would also anticipate, they help make that world more real -- and their story accordingly more compelling. No, despite passing through the CDC for a glimpse of the epidemiology behind the zombie infection at the end of Season 1, our writer's haven't addressed the spread of more mundane diseases like cholera; but then, they did just show us what a mortal risk something as elementally human as trying to give birth to a new life would once again be.

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