Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Walking Dead, a post-Modern Western Tale.

 Except for 28 Days which was a happy surprise, let's face it: most shows with zombies tend to be utterly ridiculous or gross. 
Why do people find zombies so scary anyway? 
Sure, they can bite you, but really, they can't run, they can hardly move (although Michael Jackson remarkably challenged them into dancing), they can't think, they give themselves away by growling, they're constantly spilling blood, and easily break into pieces and, finally, they are the butts of a number of parodies and comedies to the point that you almost feel sorry for them.
So it was no surprise that I missed the first season of The Walking Dead, despite hearing good things about it. After all, I also heard good things about shows like Buffy and never liked it either.
Finally, last summer, a French radio program on the comics Walking Dead turned my attention to the series once again, and I thought I'd give a chance to the TV show and so of course, what was bound to happen, happened: I was literally mesmerized, and ended up watching season 1 and 2 in a compulsive marathon over the end of the summer. Then I tried to make sense of this new craze.

But what makes The Walking Dead so interesting is precisely that it is not really about zombies (who are a mere excuse to get a bunch of people in a post-apocalyptic world). It is in fact more a post-modern Western than a horror show. 

It is not the basic story. The pitch is rather simple - a sheriff's deputy, Rick Grimes, who awakens from a coma to find the world dominated by flesh-eating zombies (just like in 28 Days), called "walkers", decides to try to find his family and meets other survivors along the way. So it is essentially about a small group of survivors living in the aftermath of a (zombie) apocalypse. Been done before. 

As Erin Obervey writes in The New Yorker, it has all the elements of the Western: the "reluctant sheriff, a wilderness to be explored, and “savages” to be fought". It does consciously play with the western motif: the hero is riding a horse, and his cowboy hat becomes the obvious symbol of manhood and authority for his son. There is even a shootout in a saloon and gun duel at dawn between tow major characters.

 The camp at the beginning of season one looks like a wagon train circling as a defensive maneuver against Indian/Zombie attacks, and the heroes out to the city arrive right on time to save the party, just like the cavalry did in westerns.  
In the second season, a farm becomes the last outpost of civilization and the group takes a heroic last stand in fighting off the attackers who are taking over thanks to their numerous superiority. (whose motif dates back to at least D. W. Griffith’s The Battle of Elderbush Gulch, 1913) Then, the wandering group, like the knights errant of old European medieval tales, becomes the pioneers looking for a promised land in a hostile wilderness invested with savages.
In season three, which just started, they find a prison where they hope to find peace and safety (the irony!). It has the shape and function of the defensive fort against the zombies/savages so common in the old western narrative.

If westerns find their roots in old European medieval tales and 17th century rescue narratives, they primarily offer the great advantage of taking the heroes back to a state of nature (the wilderness) before the dawn of civilization embodied by law. As such, it gives a chance for the audience to consider what makes us humans outside our modern world.

In The Walking Dead, not only are the characters confronted with the wilderness and the constant dangers of the zombies (or for that matter of other dangerous human beings), but they also have to deal with finding motivations for staying alive in the face of adversity ('suicide' is an option clearly laid out by a number of characters) and what it means to be and remain a human being. The good thing about this show is that, contrary to most American shows, it does not give you an easy answer and the characters are all struggling to find a reason to move forward.
As in classic mythical tales, The Walking Dead also relies on a series of simple opposites you can easily identify:  humans/non-humans, country (which may offer some peace) vs. cities (which are treacherous), civilization vs. savagery, living vs. dead. Because they have a common enemy (the Walkers), not only are humans forced to see what's essential about their human identity, they also have to put aside their old bias.

"There are no niggers, no inbred, dumb-as-shit-white trash fools, neither," Rick tells the others. "Just white meat and dark meat." 
Incidentally, it is quite fitting then that this story should take place in the south, and in Atlanta, which made some critiques see it as a fusion of Clint Eastwood and Gone With the Wind.

But the narrative of The Walking Dead goes beyond the classical morality tales of old Westerns or medieval tales because the threat comes essentially from within the community and the self. This is true at so many levels: members within the group, like trigger-happy Shane, can be a threat to the ethics of the community, but they are all potential threats because, as it turns out, everyone is infected by the virus and could turn into a zombie at some point. Death itself is a threat and only total annihilation of the enemy (the destruction of the body) can bring safety. But the most important and undermining threat is that of inner violence.
No one is immune to the consequence of their actions: at the end of season two, even Rick, our hero, turns into a small dictator by declaring to the group that there is no longer a "democracy" (within the community). It seems that in the process of becoming the unchallenged leader of the group, rick may have lost some of his soul.
The beginning of season three is in this way very meaningful: the first five minutes show the group seven months later killing walkers in a house to try to find shelter in total silence. No word is uttered as if they had become hunted animals themselves. The first episode is one of the most violent ones and some scenes are disturbing.

Violence is probably the most important theme in the story. Little by little, all the characters learn how to kill and they do it brutally as they ought to make sure of the total destruction of the walkers (I forgot to mention that if you bitten, they will turn into zombies themselves), which means destroying their brains by knife, sword, gun, arrow, metal rod or baseball bat. As the stories move forward, you see the characters' desensitizing to brutal killing.

But at the same time, no one is immune, and you also experience your own desensitization, and this may be more problematic. Of course, it is a bit like watching a Tarantino movie - the violence is so crude and the walkers are so monstrous that it may be hard to relate. In this respect, it is easier to see zombies killed than native Americans. However, there are scenes where the walkers are simply executed and even though you know they're not human beings, they do look human enough and their massacre is somewhat disturbing (and the characters themselves are disturbed).
This use of violence is also what makes The Walking Dead quintessentially American:
What is distinctly “American” is not necessarily the amount or kind of violence that characterizes our history but the mythic significance we have assigned to the kinds of violence we have actually experienced, the forms of symbolic violence we imagine or invent and the political use to which we put that symbolism. Gunfighter NationRichard Slotkin 
As much as I love The Walking Dead, I'd give it a word of caution before I'd let my teenage son or daughter watch it. When I asked my high school students (age 15 or so) the other day if they ever watched it, a majority of them had seen it online and were familiar with it. When I told them it was too violent to show in class, they laughed it off of course. 

If nothing else, it seems the violence in The Walking Dead (or in other shows for that matter) should be discussed with the family. I may be a bit too French about this, but I fear that exposition to violence is potentially worse than to frontal nudity, which so many Americans seem to fuss about. 

That being said, and this warning in mind, I would highly recommend  The Walking Dead for its cinematic quality, its character development and also for providing an opportunity to reflect on our notions of savagery, justice and civilization. 

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