America is under an epidemic. Every Sunday evening millions of viewers turn to AMC and watch The Walking Dead and its talkshow, The Talking Dead. I won’t lie and say I’m not among the viewers—I am. In fact, fellow bloggers Kendall Lyons and Mark Davis are not only running a marathon of our favorite episodes but routinely engage in zombie jokes and serious “prepper” discussions. Kendall and I usually tweet every new episode at #TheWalkingDead, #TheTalkingDead, and #RayntsRant.
The Walking Dead is a cultural phenomenon, a major piece of the puzzle of zombie fascination that has swept the nation, at least as far back as the first George Romero movie. Something about a dangerous apocalypse with mindless monsters—formerly human but twisted by a variety of causes, everything from virus, radiation mutation, chemical contamination, or just plain death.
Well into its fourth season, The Walking Dead has gained momentum. First spawned by a long-running comic book series by Robert Kirkman, it now has grown to include its own talkshow, toys, board and video games, clothing lines, “prepper” materials, webisodes, and even a scheduled spinoff series coming in 2015.
So why are so many millions fascinated about “walkers”? It has been said that zombies are a metaphor for cultural and societal problems. Like in the genre of fantasy, zombie movies and shows contain significant real-life applications; raising philosophical questions about spirituality, life, death, justice, children, the elderly, race. The Walking Dead itself has woven questions about abortion and the raising of children, children soldiers, the death penalty, suicide (“opting out”), dictatorship, leadership, murder, racism, sexuality, marriage, grief and loss, sustainability of civilization (and what civilization actually is), courage, faith, and hope.
For all of its extreme gore and violence, there’s solid storytelling, unique characters, distinct themes, and compelling characters. The latter reasons are why I watch—and frequently look away during the violence and gore. I don’t want to see it, neither do my companions in watching (hence Twitter as a great means to look away). We want the stories, the thrills, the characters. It’s no different than great epic fantasy, the genre I write and read. Great fantasy draws you in, submerses you into a foreign—or parallel—world, vibrant cultures, dynamic characters, compelling plots, and lingering themes. I see these elements in The Walking Dead, which is why I am so fascinated by it.
Here’s what I believe The Walking Dead has done well and right—and also what I fear is dangerous territory for any show to embark on.
::WARNING: SPOILERS WILL FOLLOW. STOP READING HERE, OR JUST COVER YOUR EYES—and peak through your fingers…you know you want to::
What Has Been Done Well:
- Family – One of the strongest facets of The Walking Dead (TWD) is the focus on family. Family survives together. For the longest time, the First Family of TWD—Rick, Lori, and Carl—both drew on heartstrings and frustrated fans until Lori’s very untimely demise during childbirth. Also, the Greene family has been a captivating foundation since the Grimes began falling apart. Hershel’s acceptance and affirmation of Korean immigrant Glenn (my favorite character) and his relationship with Hershel’s daughter Maggie, and also his youngest daughter, Beth, have been the centers of morality, culture, hope, faith, and strong bonds. Tyrese and his sister Sasha have been tight and supportive, confident leaders. And how can “family” not be mentioned without highlighting the miss-matched redneck duo of good tough guy Daryl and villainous, racist, misunderstood, and eventually redeemed brother Merle. Even the late Dale, Andrea, and Amy formed a surrogate family unit. Abusive husband and father Ed met a zombie fate in season 1, and his and Carol’s daughter, Sophia’s end was shocking and horrific to many of us. Family has been central and key to the show, and though tragedy makes for good drama, in a show about the end of the world, sometimes the bond of family needs to remain strong to give hope.
- Character Deaths Propelling the Plot Forward – SPOILER!!! – In season 1, Jacqui’s decision to “opt out” at the CDC explosion hung over certain characters who weren’t sure they wanted to live through the apocalypse. We know her decision haunted Rick during his depression. Dale’s last words in season 2 haunted the group, clearly defining it and seemingly drowning them until the fate of the Governor caused healing and growth. Shane’s betrayal and near-murder of best friend “brother” Rick turned Rick into a frantic, guilty dictator. Shane forever impacted members of the group who knew him. I’ve already mentioned Lori’s death during childbirth, which sank Rick into a crazy hallucinating depression and launched Carl deeper into towards becoming a child soldier. Eventually, though, with the guidance of Hershel, the two rebounded and are gradually bonding as father and son—and right now are totally unaware of baby Judith’s survival (thanks to “Daddy” Tyrese). Speaking of Hershel, I can’t think of another character who really impacted the group when he died. He managed to not just save dozens of lives—all for naught thanks to the Governor’s militia—from the flu, but he gave hope, morality, faith, the courage to overcome addictions, to “come back” from dark, dark places. His memory and ideals still live on with those who survive, especially his daughters and near-son-in-law, Rick, Daryl, and others.
- Poor Preparation—Imagine a world that hasn’t watched movies like 2012, Armageddon, or Night of the Living Dead. Imagine a world that isn’t fascinated with the end of the world, or has survivalists or “preppers”, and is unaccustomed to the dark underbelly of life. That’s the world these characters live in—even the two deputies (Rick and Shane), firefighter Sasha, troublemakers Daryl and Meryl, and military men Bob and Abraham—haven’t fully understood. Common mistakes the group has made has been 1) failure to secure a perimeter, 2) trusting the wrong people, 3) infighting and lack of group morale—until the time between season 3 and 4, 4) not stocking up on certain guaranteed needs like medical supplies, food, and water, and 5) “fire” escape plans and meet-up locations. These failures have cost the group a number of lives, the last greatest one, not tracking down the Governor, giving him time to raise a militia that eventually laid siege to the peaceful “prison” community, likely killing several dozen denizens in the process.
- Redemption stories—I love that certain characters get opportunities for redemption. Even the villainous Governor had a chance for redemption, ultimately ending up with a final confrontation with Rick, Hershel, and Michonne. He rejected the chance, murdered Hershel and launched the fateful battle. However, other characters, like Merle, Daryl, Tara, awesome ninja gal Michonne, Carl, even Rick and former-alcoholics Hershel and Bob chose life. (Though other forces didn’t work out for some of them.) My hope is that the same chances for redemption are extended to certain characters, like young Lizzie and surrogate “don’t-call-me-mom-grieving-gone-emotionally-guarded-and-hard” Carol. Even the Governor’s former henchman, Martinez, seized his chance to change–which the Governor didn’t like but I really did, poor guy. So if he could, why can’t Lizzie? Time to deviate from the source material, perhaps?
- Strong Male and Female Characters—TWD is full of amazing, sacrificial, providers and protectors, strong male and female characters who are well-developed. Tyrese saved baby Judith and caught up to Lizzie and Mika, protecting the three children until Carol arrived, and the group formed a delicate, unwittingly dysfunctional family. (Not touching the Carol/Tyrese issue with a ten-foot pole.) Glenn is an intelligent, sensitive, brave, and caring leader, a strong son and (almost) husband figure. Daryl’s arch is amazing. Many fans prejudged Army medic Bob, newcomer in season 4, early on—likely because of his addiction to alcohol, unintended causal of Beth’s boyfriend’s death in the season premiere, and comic book alter-ego who served the Governor. Last week, in “Alone”, we learned that Bob was literally alone for likely a YEAR, having been the sole survivor of 2 groups. So his seemingly rare smile and joy at being with Sasha and Maggie radiates from the fact that they’ve survived together, have a plan, and hope.
Hershel stood as a solid father-figure and elder, one who is sorely missed. Now, let me turn to the strongest female characters I’ve seen to grace TWD screen: Maggie, Sasha, and Michonne. All providers, leaders, risk-takers, strong—ala “Alone’s” epic Maggie/Sasha tag-team zombie fight or Michonne’s wielding her katana against a 21-strong walker herd—yet very feminine, caring. Maggie and Sasha’s friendship has been one of the strongest female relationships on the show. Even Tara’s attempt to aid Glenn in his search for Maggie post-battle, trying to atone for her involvement, shows a strong female character despite her loss of her entire family and lover. Beth brings culture and hope to the group when they sorely need it. What she has contributed has been morale-boosters. Just watch her impact on Daryl—despite the drinking game. There are certainly very strong characters of both genders, and are very endearing.
What I’m Concerned About:
- Children Playing and Being Involved In Traumatic Roles – I once heard an interview by the actress who plays young Lizzie, in which she said she started having nightmares after playing the role. As season 4 progresses, we’ve seen her dealing with the trauma of the zombie apocalypse by harming animals, losing herself in hurting others—like almost suffocating baby Judith when she was crying and they were being stalked by walkers. The reality of these actors and actresses is that they are being exposed to potentially traumatic scenes, and this can have detrimental effects on their lives. I have the same concern when I see children or young people in roles on different TV shows, like 24: Redemption, horror movies involving demonic content, exposure to sexual themes, etc. If Lizzie on TWD is reflective of characters from the comics, specifically a young murderous Ben who kills his brother and later is killed by Carl, I have grave concern about that being played out on screen. Even greater concern with the next episode, “The Grove”, focusing primarily on the group with “Daddy” Tyrese, Carol, Lizzie and her sister Mika, and baby Judith. I’d much rather prefer yet another redemption story. Sometimes, I believe we reject those “redemption plots” for something more “controversial” or “dramatic”, when in reality, if you look at the list above, redemption stories are just as exciting and wonderfully gripping.
- Killing My Favorite Characters or Further Disrupting Families – I believe severing or further destructing families can have a negative effect on the story, as mentioned above. Already mentioned this. Specifically, the blooming potential romance of Bob and Sasha, and Glenn and Maggie’s looming marriage—if they ever find each other—ground the series with a bit of joy and excitement. Please, showrunners, keep giving us that. And what’s up with Daryl and Beth?
- Zombies, Gangs, Cannibals, and Human Traffickers – In “Alone”, Beth was kidnapped and was driven away by an unseen captor(s). Is she being trafficked? That’s a scary possibility the real world, but in the fictional zombie apocalypse, that could take a whole new meaning. (See my post on the Exodus Road and various posts about sex trafficking, key themes in the early Aelathia novels.) Hopefully, her captor had friendly intentions and panicked. Daryl ran all night longchasing after the car to no avail. Further, there’s rumors of cannibals called The Hunters coming to make an appearance. (Fans of Hannibal, like my cousin, would be thrilled.) Could they already be here? Is this the gang that threatened Michonne, Rick, and Carl and now has forced Daryl, alone on the road, to join them? Oh my…
- Healthcare During the Apocalypse – If you have medical training at all in TWD, you’re in serious trouble. For example: CDC researcher Dr. Jenner, EMT trained Otis, nurse Patricia, Woodbury Dr. Stevens (now MIA), veterinarian Hershel—who was the primary doctor at the prison until … Dr. Caleb who died of the flu, nurse Lilly… You see where this is going? The last health care providers we have left are Army medic Bob, discussed in detail earlier, and so-called scientist Dr. Eugene Porter—his specialty has not yet been explained. In the zombie apocalypse, choosing your own medical provider has its limits. Let’s hope Dr. Stevens is still out there and Bob is long-lasting in the show.
In conclusion, The Walking Dead is a fascinating, multi-faceted show. There are concerns. Parents, I advise you to keep your children well away from it. I advise everyone to talk about it. Let’s not gloat or boast about the death, destruction, mayham, and gore, but let’s enjoy the positive elements of the show—characters, plot, and themes. We can enjoy it for the great fiction it is, even similar in some ways to the fantasy genre, but heeding the warning: some things come with a price. Watching violence, death, gore, and more, if not understood or discussed, or acting in a program like it, may be dangerous psychologically. So have fun. Stay safe. And in the words of Rick Grimes, “Keep walking.”
Thanks for reading, and please weigh in! Love to hear your comments. And see you on Twitter Sunday, 8pm-10pm Central!