Nothing quite says, “Happy Holidays,” like ravenous rotting corpses and blighted hope, so it was with anticipation that I tuned into the season finale of AMC’s “The Walking Dead” this past Sunday. I’ve been impressed with the series so far; primarily because of its pacing, character development and attention to the better parts of the zombie horror movie sub-genre: biologic bender followed by post-apocalyptic hangover, the reanimation of tribal affiliations, and consumption of the fine grey matters of morality. Not to mention an army of shambling flesh-starved metaphors for the shiftless masses. In case you watch the show and haven’t seen it yet, there won’t be any spoilers, and if you haven’t seen the show at all, or care to, there won’t be a lot of, “Can you believe Lori hooked up with Shane that quickly?” Television is a great way to check the cultural barometer; it doesn’t necessarily tell you when it’s going to rain, but you at least know a storm is percolating, so let’s check the barometer.
Matt Seitz over at Salon has written a couple of nice articles on the zombie genre in general and “The Walking Dead” in particular, and I’d encourage you to check them out if you’re interested. Seitz points out that the Zombie genre has essentially taken over for the Western as the vehicle of choice for the modern American morality tale. It’s a great point, and “The Walking Dead” expertly fulfills Seitz’s assessment of the genre as a whole, which is, “when most of what you knew and loved is gone, is there any advantage in being kind–or any difference between rational self-interest and flat-out selfishness?” There’s a reason for the displacement of the Western, of course. I mean, is it any wonder that in a multi-cultural age the only guiltless villain is a re-animated corpse? Ever since Kevin Costner taught us that Native Americans aren’t mindless savages in Dances with Wolves, we haven’t been able to kill them with the same guiltless abandon. The Western was on its way out before that, however, after being demythologized by the Italians with their low budgets and annoying habit of focusing on Mexicans and their obscure revolution against the Spanish; plus there’s the ambiguous heroism of their cutthroat protagonists. Leave it to the Europeans to take all the fun out of wiping out a culture.
It’s not just the unalloyed disgust we’re able to muster for the zombie, however, that makes the series work. It’s the way in which the series struggles with a familiar conundrum: when you’re beleaguered, is it better to circle the wagons or push ahead? Do you focus on defense or offense? Do you divert money from the space program to social programs, build a gothic cathedral or minister to the starving, close the borders or welcome immigration? One of the sherrifs, Rick Grimes, is basically still trying to save the world, and the other, Shane Walsh, is just trying to bear it. Of course, it’s not quite that stark; defense may win championships, but no one is suggesting you shouldn’t have 11 players on the field when the offense starts. Neither character is one dimensional, which is what makes the show engaging, but they each clearly demonstrate these respective proclivities.
The show has clearly set up Rick Grimes as the poorly calibrated moral compass; any doubt of that was dispelled when Rick, the dream-the-impossible-dream sherrif, put Shane in his place after the let’s-play-defense cop loses his cool–something that happens several times throughout the final episode. You didn’t have to see it, though; just know that the space program wins, and we throw open the borders and welcome our new off-white future. It’s not a clear solution, however; Rick’s do-good attitude directly endangers his family and the precarious coalition they’ve established. Of course, the really interesting dilemma isn’t whether or not Rick is right and they can save the world; that’s the sort of pablum reserved for Armageddon and the slightly better Deep Impact. The movies in which it’s a really good thing we built all these nuclear weapons because now we can use them to save the world instead of destroy it–whew! No, the real dilemma is whether or not the belief that we can improve the world is indispensable to coping with it.
After all, we are the walking dead–four chambers away from fertilizer, one errant cell division away from getting pwned by death. And no, we aren’t slowly decomposing gluttons for flesh… Well, okay, maybe we are slowly decomposing gluttons for flesh, but we’re definitely not so mindlessly habitual in our routines, repeating the only patterns we know until we drop… All absurdist reductions aside, these loose associations are part of the genre’s poignancy. But even though references to the dead wrecking havoc on the living go all the way back to the Epic of Gilgamesh, the zombie genre is clearly crawling through a post-theistic world. Whether it’s because we are bodies alone, or because we are the remainders of God’s wrath, the point is that not only has salvation lost its army, it doesn’t even have a mascot anymore. The genre backs what makes us human into a corner and watches it fight for survival.
Struggling for meaning beyond mere survival is what Rick Grimes’s character embodies throughout Season 1, and given the reactions of some of the other characters in the season finale, the show clearly sides with the believers. We need to believe a better tomorrow is possible. If there’s no tomorrow, today is pretty uninspiring. Fears about the browning of America, the rise of China, the invasion of the homosexual, all imagine a great spiritless mass threatening the chosen few who are keeping the tribe free from foreign bodies, isolating the rag-tag nation and protecting the family. And under the old codes a certain sense can be found even in the paranoia, but it’s a new world, and the walking dead have to believe there’s the possibility of a better tomorrow. Here’s to Season 2.