'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"

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.

I still think Jeff's right that the show makes a central theme of what it means to "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." I just don't think that's what the struggle against the zombies represents. Grappling with them, after all, ultimately means realizing that you're up against creatures among whom human nature is precisely and entirely beside the point. More than that, when you over-learn from the new world, when you over-adapt to it -- becoming cynical and suspicious to the point of your own inhumanity -- you don't necessarily become better suited to it; you may just become Shane.

Or maybe you were a latent sociopath all along, in which case the zombie apocalypse might be a whole new liberation for you. ... Oh, hello, Governor.


Let's start with the "struggle against the zombies," which I Dreznerianly submit is not what The Walking Dead is about anymore. When was the last time we saw anyone struggle against zombies? Other than the first zombie encounter by the prisoners, who were quickly taught the fine art of head-stabbing by Rick and company, every major "zombie attack" this season has actually been a thinly-disguised person attack. Michonne wouldn't have had any problem with the zombies surrounding the prison if she hadn't been injured in her escape from Woodbury. And Glenn's Jason Bourne-esque fracas with a zombie while tied to a chair was essentially a fight with Merle. Like Jeff, I was struck by Oscar's reaction, but there's a brilliantly understated scene in "When the Dead Come Knocking" that conveys the same idea even better: Rick and the gang, making their way to Woodbury, pass a zombie stumbling toward them in the far background without giving it a second glance. On this "zombie drama," the zombies have literally become a part of the scenery -- so unremarkable that neither the characters nor the series even bothers to comment on their presence anymore.

Which means, of course, that this is a human drama. Jeff, you say that the subject matter of The Walking Dead is "How far do you go to defend your own life, and the lives of the people you love?" But there's another question buried in that question: How do you decide which people you love enough to defend them? Carol's grief upon learning that Lori has died is a moving reminder that our core group of survivors has become a makeshift family. But even the closest and most loyal of the bonds formed has its limits, and limits that the extremities of a zombie apocalypse may actually force our characters to face. Rick may not have forests to burn or pandas to slay, but I'm willing to bet that he'd throw Carol, Daryl, Hershel, and the rest to the wolves -- or, more precisely, the zombies -- if it meant keeping Carl alive.

We've talked a lot about inhumanity on The Walking Dead this season. Jeff's non-zombie professional background has given him the tools to view The Walking Dead as a Holocaust allegory, which I think is a plausible read of the show. (If you don't see how creepy Milton's experiments could at least theoretically lead him down a Mengele-like path, you're not watching the same series I am.) But like John, I'm less inclined to view it as a precise allegory and more inclined to see its "world suddenly dominated by radical inhumanity" as (an admittedly gory) playground to discuss human nature in general. My own professional background, which lies in film and television, means that I'm focused on how The Walking Dead fits into in the TV landscape, and on why it has resonated so deeply with contemporary viewers. Some have argued that the show is an outlier among AMC's original programming lineup, but the more I think about it, The Walking Dead is dealing with the same themes that dominate shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men. Questions about morality and humanity/inhumanity have dominated fiction of every type for thousands of years, but there's something about the contemporary murkiness of these questions that has made shows like The Walking Dead, or Dexter, or Homeland, uniquely resonant to modern viewers. Zombies are just the icing on the morality-play cake.

And while we're on that subject, I think John is right about the danger of becoming Shane -- a danger that Rick is almost certainly conscious of with every morally-dubious decision he makes -- but I also think we're getting an evolved (and far more dangerous) version of Shane in the Governor. I don't think it's by accident that Andrea's two post-apocalyptic hookups have been with Shane and the Governor; these men have plenty in common, but the Governor is exponentially more dangerous in his rationality. The most disturbing thing about Shane's death is that he wasn't done in by his amorality; he was done in by his volatility. Shane was so governed by emotion, and so quick to fly off the handle, that the qualities that made him uniquely well-suited to survive -- natural leadership, resourcefulness, and an amoral streak that gave him an edge over his fellow survivors -- were undone by his instability and his tendency to make unnecessary enemies.

The Governor is Shane with all the rough edges sanded off. He has no problem with ruthlessness, and no squeamishness about the depths he might sink to in order to survive, but we've never seen him make a rash or emotional decision (in public, at least; his soft spot -- the zombie daughter he keeps alive, seems, in the interest of dramatic irony, the most likely thing to be his undoing). The Governor's enormously unsettling way of "comforting" the topless Maggie -- who he had tormented to the point at which she had steeled herself to be raped -- became even more disturbing when he cooed and massaged Andrea in the exact same way at the episode's end. This is a man who has reached the top by using friends and foes alike, because in the end, his "friends" mean just as little to him.

But before we all end up mired in a post-apocalyptic funk, I'd like to praise "When the Dead Come Knocking" for offering another way. When Rick thanks Daryl for taking care of the newly-Christened Judith while he was off doing his best Haley Joel Osmont impression, Daryl offers a characteristically blunt response: "That's what we do." That is, of course, the real way to survive in a "world suddenly dominated by radical inhumanity" -- not by giving up your humanity to survive, but by relying on your humanity to survive. This isn't a show that seems likely to end happily, but if there's any bright spot in its perpetually-stormy cloud, it's that "that's what we do" is still a motto that people -- even people in the post-apocalypse -- can live by.