Won’t somebody rid me of all these troublesome themes?
I know, I know, The Walking Dead is another show from the midden depths of a decade ago, like a half remembered dream of some halcyon days before Covid-19, when the plagues were on the TV and not outside your window. I was very surprised to discover it’s apparently still on, though who quite is watching I don’t know. Well, me, I guess, if I’m stuck inside here for much longer. It’s all on Amazon Prime anyway, if you – like me – watched roughly four episodes of it in 2011 and then gave up, only to revisit it nine years later.
I guess I’m feeling nostalgic about zombies, which as everybody knows, are so played to death maybe they’re not anymore. Zombie stuff gets a bad rap these days, but it wasn’t like it was all terrible. The original Day of the Dead exists after all, and Army of Darkness, which is a gloriously mad piece in which Ash Williams goes back in time to fight zombies in the middle ages, if you’re not familiar. It was mostly just bad; puerile and uninteresting and not as clever by half as it seemed to think it was.
Here’s a question for you, dear reader. What is the difference between post-apocalyptic fiction, and zombie post-apocalyptic fiction? The first is an expression of the themes of what it means to be human, what is life, what is death, of divine retribution, of the losing battle each human being combats daily with the scourge of entropy, of man’s relationship with nature, of our reliance upon the comforts and conveniences of our sheltered modern lives and our existential fear of losing them.
The second is also all of that, but there are zombies in it.
In all seriousness, zombies do possess some unique themes. What themes these are is often difficult to discern, but they’re there, they surely must be? Zombies are a visceral expression of the motif of humankind literally consuming itself, and you can’t get much more thematic than that, I guess.
So, it’s blunt, a bit heavy-handed, and an unsubtle excuse for a spot of ultra-violence. But it’s zombies – you already knew that.
The two main figures of the piece form a sort of Yin and Yang duality of the zombie-apocalypse protagonist. On the one hand you have Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), which yes, sounds like a male porn stars name. Lincoln, a class act by anybody’s reckoning, does a good turn as the lilywhite sheriff’s deputy turned unwilling, post-apocalyptic warlord, painfully agonised by one difficult moral choice after another. He is a classic example of British actors going across the pond and stealing American acting jobs. If you want a guy to play a drawling US southerner on TV, hell, get a Brit to do it. Paha! That ones for the Siege of Yorktown, huzzah, pip pip and God save King George!
Rick’s role in the plot is to naff stuff up, change his mind a lot and grow his beard out very, very slowly. He’s fine, I guess. But he’s no Daryl.
Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus), which yes, also sounds like a male porn stars name, is truly a hero for the new age. A Novis Homo Zombicus, a New Zombie Man, if you will. Formerly some kind of white trash, backwoodsman figure like a southern gothic horror movie villain. Daryl comes to show his innate goodness through his actions, not his empty words. Gruff, prickly, surly, hard to know and harder to like, Daryl comes into his own throughout the series as a man with the implacable strength and mental fortitude of a warrior monk and the gentle patience of a saint. He wields his crossbow and knife with the bearing of Kratos from God of War and lets his hillbilly heart of gold keep him safe and secure against the ravages of the beast within, never losing touch with his innate and immutable humanity.
The difference between Daryl and Rick is Rick doesn’t really grow at any point, he has no arc. He sort of oscillates between square-jawed action man and quivering, broken wreck, depending on the circumstances. Daryl’s arc progresses like the ocean swallowing a mighty cliff, a piece at a time he grows stronger, each new hardship bringing him ever upwards and onwards in mind, body and spirit as he walks the path to godhood.
Wow, okay. Swiftly moving on from that remarkably homoerotic piece of character commentary. At first, I was tempted to label The Walking Dead as a kind of post-apocalyptic soap opera, in the way in which it handles family, love and a never-ending turnstile of morality plays. It isn’t that though, it’s just a comic book. Like all comic book adaptations, or at least the relatively faithful, you get much the same fare. Characters come and go, they die and they come back, with no real rhyme or reason except the capricious whims of the authors. Stuff just sort of, happens, at seeming random, one thing after another, with never a dull or relenting moment, and there’s a very real sense of God in his heaven, sadistically thumbing through a book of misfortunes and going “right, throw that one at them next”. Death, War, Famine and Pestilence, all four horsemen in the arsenal of the almighty get their run out throughout the show’s anarchic and unremittingly brutal plot trajectory.
I’ll be straight with you, it’s not the Iliad, but that doesn’t mean there’s not some kind of heart beating down there under so much necrotic flesh. What The Walking Dead does well, through its volatile veering between explorations of human nature and it’s boom-splat-gore-guns set pieces is reveal something semi-profound about life itself. It teaches us that life comes with great suffering, loss, and pain. But we choose to keep on living, because that’s what living is! It’s the rough with the smooth, the duality of emotion; love and loss, pain and pleasure. In that sense, life in the zombie apocalypse is not much different from before, it’s just a lot more elevated and extreme.
So, I guess what I’m trying to say is… It’s zombies, dude. Take it or leave it. It’s all just “braaaaains” and such like.
Image from Daniel Means, Flickr.