Apocalypse and the Walking Dead

I like my TV viewing to go hand in hand with life’s big existential and theological questions, who else? (What? only me?!?) Whether it’s questions about family (The Sopranos), death (Six Feet Under), addiction (The Wire) or Choices (Breaking bad/Better Call Saul). I just feel more connected to a TV programme when I understand the questions (I believe) they are asking and attempting to answer. The answers they give don’t even really matter, what matters is how these programmes share a perspective. How they can make me consider my viewpoint. 

In March 2020, as the world began to slow its pace to a stumble, I started watching AMC’s The Walking Dead. 18 months and 147 episodes later and I’m right up to date. Janey, when I put it like that, it is quite a lot! So, with The Walking Dead firmly on my mind I figured I’d take a stab at nailing down what has attracted me to the series and kept me wanting more. I will do this without major spoilers, though the odd name or quote might appear. 

What is The Walking Dead? 

From the opening strings of the theme song you can sense what you are in for. It follows a small group of survivors as they struggle in a post-apocalyptic world in which zombies (or walkers, the term zombie does not appear in the program) have wiped out most of mankind.  Originally a comic book, in the world that Robert Kirkman created, Rick Grimes and his fellow refugees face moral and ethical questions on a daily basis as they seek to adjust and survive the new world they inhabit. This helps to make the series the perfect vehicle for philosophical and theological questions.

Let’s begin with Good vs Evil. 

I think Peggy dropped us off here a few weeks ago when she tackled Light and Dark. Despite its roots in horror, The Walking Dead focuses more on the people of its narrative rather than the walkers they face. As the series begins the world appears black and white. You have people (good) and walkers (bad). It’s all pretty simple…until it’s not. The struggles of staying alive while finding food and shelter, escaping run-ins with small bands of other survivors, and even dealing with questions of leadership brings the black and white together into a mesh of greyness. In the midst of a zombie apocalypse how do you decide what is right or wrong? Does acting morally even matter anymore? Or does everyone just write their own rules?

It turns out that the walkers are not the worst thing you can face. In fact, by season 3 and beyond, the walkers are simply the backdrop. The real evil is conducted by people and no one is immune, even those that just look at the flowers. By the time the Governor and Negan arrive, the walkers seem like no trouble at all, neither good nor evil they simply exist and consume. People though, people are much more complex and can create much more evil.  The living-on-living violence is more chilling than the often slapstick violence inflicted by and on the undead.

Each character has their moments of apparent goodness and evil. Even those that begin as clearly evil have their moments of showing love, grace and sacrifice. The people we are rooting for often wrestle within themselves about what paths to take. The real battle we witness is not one of living vs dead but is within the hearts of the humans who are left, and the danger they face, is not a physical death, but an inward one—a refusal to risk themselves for the sake of life, even in the face of suffering. We witness this time and again in the lives of Rick, Carl, Michonne and yes…even Negan. 

‘We have to choose to be the good guys, even when it’s hard.’ Michonne Hawthorne

That wrestling is often about what is valuable? 

What is valuable? Money? Resources? Security? Comfort? Power? Revenge? Peace? Friendships? Community? Family? We witness all these value systems and more during the 11 season run.

The Walking Dead universe begins with Rick Grimes waking up from a coma. As a police officer he has been shot in the line of duty. Weeks later he wakes to find the hospital empty, except for walkers. He stumbles out and finds a bike to take him home to reconnect with his family. His wife, Lori and son, Carl. They aren’t there. 

In these opening scenes he connects with Morgan and his Son Duane. I think this is all done on purpose. The first episode focused on these two men, Rick and Morgan. In them we see that they apparently hold family in the highest of value. And that’s great, family is important. But as the series continues, we will witness, yet again, a greyness fading into that picture. Through grief and anger. Hurt and misunderstanding. Both men will come to question again, what is valuable? What’s important? 

Rick and his merry group of nomads will bump into many varied characters throughout their story and therefore, many different value systems. These differences will at times create conflict and affect the way our group sees the world. It will change them. Change what they value. They will be forced to confront themselves and what they deem to be important, forced into life-altering decisions. After all, not making a decision, is a big decision. 

‘My mercy prevails over my wrath’ Rick Grimes

In a landscape filled with walkers and the knowledge that any humans you run into may cause you even greater harm, it’s a wonder why the characters continue. Each day waking up and doing it all again. There are little to zero luxuries. There is no respite. A simple full night sleep never a guarantee.

‘If you don’t have hope, what’s the point of living?’ Beth Greene

The theme of hope lingers around The Walking Dead like the smell of decay. It can’t easily be shaken off. Often Rick and his group have difficultly putting this hope into words. They appear to exist just one moment to the next. Overcoming one day, to do it all again the tomorrow. Rarely do they even have the time to discuss or consider meaning or purpose, yet some hope appears to remain.

This struggle that our cast inhabit becomes emphasised in season 5 when they come across Father Gabriel. An Episcopal priest who isolated himself from the outside world at the beginning of the outbreak, after shutting out the members of his congregation from his church building, causing their deaths. He struggles to come to terms with the new reality he faces and his own faith. He portrays the struggle of trying to understand faith and God, and what we do when our faith and God make no sense.

Everything is meaningless. Wisdom is meaningless. Pleasure is meaningless. Work is meaningless. Advancement is meaningless. Wealth is meaningless. Everything to come is meaningless. Utterly meaningless. For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing. There seems to be nothing to gain.

None of this is particularly uplifting right? And yet they keep walking. Keep going. Keep moving. This is not naive, but rather it is facing up to the absurdity of world in front of them. It’s the harder path to choose. Despite the storms they have weathered, they keep the course anyway. Keep hoping for a better tomorrow. Keep hoping for purpose and meaning. Keep trusting that one day salvation and redemption will come. It could be argued that The Walking Dead is simply a dramatised version of Ecclesiastes.

‘Anything is possible until your heart stops beating.’ Father Gabriel Stokes

All in all, I think The Walking Dead is apocalyptic in all the right ways. You know, I often translate apocalyptic wrongly in my head. I assume that it is about destruction and future-predicting but really it is not about those things at all. Apocalypse in the root meaning of the word, is actually about revealing the true nature of something, pulling up the curtain, a epiphany if you will. Or we could say a revelation! (I think there’s a book about that) 

You see apocalyptic stories are not about doomsdays and tomorrows. It’s about reality and today. What The Walking Dead does, is it creates a world in which the characters have to confront who they are, the choices they make. Masks are removed and the whispers are amplified. 

The apocalyptic asks pointed questions about human and cultural claims. It takes the nice, neatly packaged way we try to contain and control life and sets it on fire, making it clear that the nice, neat way we like to pretend life is, and could be, is silly, foolish and unsound. It ‘highlights, exposes and lampoons the moral bankruptcy of our imaginations while teasing us toward a better way of looking at and dwelling within the world.’[1] It seeks to pull down and pull apart the generalised assumptions of the day, not just for destructions sake but to call us towards something more, something better.  

In this sense The Walking Dead is truly apocalyptic. It exposes our human ways. Calls us out of our over-simplified good vs evil rhetoric, shows the foolishness of the things we over-value and questions what we do with our faith and hope in days of darkness. 147 episodes is a lot, but you never know…it might just be worth it.     

[1] Dark, David. Everyday Apocalypse

Theme photo by Sergiu Baica on Unsplash

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