My family has all but given up on me. I’m am unabashedly crazy about The Walking Dead. I started with TWD from day one. I’ve been terrified of zombies since I was a kid. Everyone has their monsters and mine are zombies. As I got older and especially after I started teaching, there was nothing more frightening to me than someone without a brain trying to do me harm. When fast zombies emerged with the newer movies, I almost shut down. Now there were zombies you couldn’t outrun without a brain trying to do you harm. I watched them feverishly in a vain hope of becoming desensitized.
Intellectually, I knew there were no zombies. Emotionally, not so much. I’d been around people who were drunk or on drugs or watching sports television for hours or all three at once. They were pretty brainless. Fortunately, they weren’t the newer version. They were more like the Sean of the Dead kind, which only added to my paranoia. Maybe there were zombies. Maybe they walked among us. Who knew? It could happen, right?
O.K., maybe not, but when I heard that there was going to be a television series about zombies AND that Gale Anne Hurd would be Executive Producer, I was intrigued. I mean, who doesn’t quote dialogue from The Terminator and Aliens? You may not even know it because both are such a part of our culture now. In any case, this was 2010. What would zombies be like every week? Would they be slow and ambling or runners? Would it be about a pandemic or chemical spill? Would they be freakishly strong? What would the people be like? When my son told me a friend told him that every week one of the main characters would die, I thought, “How realistic is that? You can’t live during an apocalypse and not have at least one of the major players die. O.K. Gale Anne, I know you’re going to keep it honest. I’ll risk the nightmares. I’m on board.” And I have been ever since.
From the first show, they’ve covered the issues of living in a situation that is unrelenting, on-going, and unexpected; basically, full-blown oppression. This is similar to a decades long war or years of famine or impending climate change or hopeless poverty or being in an abusive relationship or having to deal with chemical or mold or electromagnetic sensitivity. The zombies weren’t just there to splatter blood all over the place, although they did plenty of that and is probably the main reason so many people started watching it and continue to watch. If that were all there was, I would have stopped watching at episode 2. The writers are thinkers, explicitly or not.
Now, I don’t know if the writers let the characters arc or if they chose an arc and let the character play it out. I do know that the storyline shows people who have gotten caught up in the tragedy of life and are changed. First, they have to fight zombies. We all know zombies today. They’re alcoholics, drug addicts, the hopeless, the angry, the bitter and the hardened, me on a bad air day. They’re the people around us who for whatever reason have lost their humanity and walk with the crowd mindlessly. They follow you around in the mall, through television ads, during breaks at work usually talking about characters in a reality show. If there’s just one, you can handle it, but “in a crowd…” they will take you down. You have to “watch your back.” For me, they represent the mindlessness of our culture whether it’s making bad food choices or charging up credit cards you can never pay off or denying climate change or ignoring the possibility of becoming homeless or telling someone their symptoms from chemical exposure are all in her head. They are the unthinking crowds, the monsters that will “eat you up.” That’s bad enough, but then the writers added people who hadn’t succumbed to becoming zombies. Now that's real-- these are the people attending political rallies shouting profanities.
Our characters also have to fight people who took a bad situation and turned it toward their evil advantage. They are worse. These new flesh and blood monsters are the real threat to life, to our humanity, to all the things that make us human. Now, in addition to constantly searching for food and water, medicine and a safe place to sleep, there are marauders, rapists, murderers searching for anyone to harm. Today these would be your wife beaters, child abusers, human traffickers, hedge fund managers (maybe not all of them), oil and gas company executives, environmental polluters, perfume/cologne wearers, torturers, advocates of genocide, genetic engineers, your political rally organizers and your every day serial killers, etc. When society is working, they end up in jail. During an apocalypse, these monsters have full reign.
This last (2015-2016) season has been fascinating to watch the dynamic play out. Granted, all the seasons have been building up to this point, but this year the trajectory of what to do when “evil” things happen to you is discussion worthy. Do you lure everyone into your place and then kill and eat them? Do you go out and look for others so you’ll be stronger? Do you jail and then try to change murderers because all life is precious and anyone can change? Do you go out and kill the threat before they come and kill you? Do you kill people on the road because you know they’re going to kill you? How well do the three questions work when someone is willing to lie, when someone isn’t trustworthy, and how can you tell before it’s too late? What happens when you just can’t kill anyone any more, but you know you will in order to protect the ones you love? Do you ever get a break? There are bad people who do bad things and sadly good people join them and do bad things. What is life like in a world like that? What are you like in that world? And the zombies just keep on coming without fail, at the most inopportune time, unrelenting, unceasing. Do you become hard, bitter, cynical, even evil in your own way and feel justified for it? These are the questions I raise with my husband who is unabashedly NOT crazy about The Walking Dead or any zombie show, movie, book, etc. He says it’s all about the guts and blood and violence. I no longer try to explain that it’s more than that, it's about never-ending, unceasing, constantly being vigilant so you don't get exposed. You know-- chemical/mold/electromagnetic sensitivity. Duh. He doesn't get it even though he has asthma, and sometimes I would like to share so…
The questions being explored in The Walking Dead and I’m hopeful that will be in Fear the Walking Dead are ones that writers should be examining. I’m pleased to see that these writers are going their own way and not doing only what the fans demand. Sometimes we need to think about difficult things, work through what-ifs and what would you do’s. We may surprise ourselves and turn out to be a hero like Carol or be disappointed and become a coward like some of the others who have died or disgusted and become one of the oppressors and do worse than the zombies. We won’t know until we’re tested, but watching the characters evolve as their stories unfold allows us to imagine what humanity could be and what humans might become both positive and negative. These are the kinds of issues I want my characters to grapple with and the themes I want my stories to explore. Examining them gives me hope, makes me encouraged, and helps me feel supported.
As strange as it sounds, watching The Walking Dead gives me hope. I see the characters struggle with a problem that is never going to go away. They keep looking for strategies, thinking of ways to do better. Early in the show, they would find someone who had committed suicide and the message was clear that you don’t just give up, you don’t just quit, you keep going. With all that’s facing us, that’s a powerful thing to say to the millions of people now watching. Keep going if for no other reason than to be the person who carries the memory of the people who didn’t make it. It gives me hope that there are writers willing to say those things, risk the ridicule of going against the trend of cynicism and pessimism. They are willing to write counter to many of the comments on the discussion boards and not kill a character that seems uninteresting or to kill a popular character despite threats and protests because it is what the story demands even if it hurts. It gives me hope that TWD has such a large audience that continues to watch even with those strong messages. Yes, I know many of them are only there for the blood and the guts and the overabundance of violence, but I also know that the message is seeping in just like other messages do when they’re watching shows, movies, and ads that are encouraging them to be personally destructive.
I actually find TWD to be encouraging. Again, it’s the writers. They are putting forth big, important, existential questions each season and doing it in an entertaining way. Their writing has integrity and honor. They’re honest in allowing the characters to change as they face trauma, violence, untold grief that never, ever gets to heal. Sometimes they change in ways that are uncomfortable, that are negative, that could possibly be considered evil and wrong. The writers let you see them struggle. Sometimes, they add another character as the foil so there are two sides, even three, and sometimes more. They turn the situation around by degrees and let the characters speak about that point of view. I may or may not agree with the outcome. I’m encouraged that there are people willing to look at an issue from different angles and I’m especially encouraged that there is a major studio willing to give them air time to do it. They don’t always present the best, most convenient, most acceptable solution. Life is messy like that. I’m encouraged there are people thinking about these things and willing to admit it. There is no pat answer at minute 52. Oddly enough, there isn’t one in life either.
For me, I find TWD to be supportive of my beliefs and values. No one has all the answers. Things get ugly. People make horrible mistakes even for all the right reasons. Circumstances change and the decisions we made two seasons ago may not be the same ones we would make today. The rules you had three seasons ago may no longer apply because you see a bigger, fuller picture or maybe you’ve become bitter or scared or war weary or more sensitized. To see characters admit they would do things differently today than they did in the past, to see them make mistakes again and again, but not give up, to see them have conversations about what they believe now versus what they believed then based on the things they’ve experienced means there are people (the writers) thinking about these things. I’ll admit that frequently writers don’t realize they’re thinking about these things, but it shows in the dialogue, in the story arc, in the reflections on what happened, which means they are thinking about it, even unconsciously. So seeing that there are others who are actually considering how life changes people for better or for worse, who are using their characters to show that there are no absolutes, who are embracing vulnerability by putting themselves and their ideas out in public for judgment and to be tested is refreshing. It’s frightening to put your beliefs and values on display, but if they are willing to do it, then so can I. So can you.
We all have stories to tell. We are all grappling with serious problems that seem unceasing, unrelenting, never-ending, dangerous, and hopeless. For each of us, it is different. There are no right answers except the ones that allow us to stay hopeful, to be encouraged and encouraging, to feel supported and to support others in being their best. Those are three traits that will keep us alive when the zombies come. And the zombies will always come. They’re also three traits that will ensure we are the best representatives of life, that we keep the highest ideals of our humanity, that we stay our most human when the monsters come. And the monsters always come.