The Walking Dead and What Makes a Story Essential

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The Walking Dead is a corpse of a show, dragging itself along as leads and fan favourites fall away, never to be seen again. This is far from true for the show’s first season; a tight 6 episode miniseries from Frank Darabont that if it had not been followed by 9 seasons of inconsistent noise would already be considered a classic by now. An uncharacteristically brutal lead performance from Andrew Lincoln and the role that made Jon Bernthal a star along with restrained and regularly horrifying production created an atmosphere that made the show stand apart from the rest of the TV landscape at the time; while also helping to set in stone the trends that would eventually define it.

Like a lot of people; I fell off watching The Walking Dead years ago, when after months of waiting, the show’s most exciting character was unceremoniously clubbed to death in the season’s first 10 minutes before things kind of returned to normal, making inescapably clear the pattern that the show seemed permanently stuck in. New home, new threat, say goodbye, and move on. While not totally devoid of highs, it was not the show so many of us had signed up for anymore. Despite my well established distance from the show, recently I’ve found myself drawn to that first season and upon a rewatch this past week it became strikingly clear why. Beyond the direction, writing, and performances, it is direct almost to a fault about the ways in which the world would fall apart if faced with a global crisis but also passionate about the things that we can never let go of.

From about 30 seconds into the coronavirus pandemic, people have been fascinated with just how our media would respond to it going forward; the idea of 2020 as a year being practically impossible to condense into a functional story canonised by countless memes. At the same time, corporate media was having similar conversations on a much larger scale; late night hosts relocated to their sheds, TV news became far more scraped together and every celebrity to ever grace a carpet scrambled to be a part of the next serious appeal to their front camera or uncomfortable zoom reunion. At the same time, Michael Bay and undoubtedly numerous others are preparing projects inspired by the pandemic to be produced afterwards and hopefully capture the feelings of the moment in some capacity. While I don’t doubt that some of these things may in fact be good or at least somehow cathartic for a world so fundamentally changed, I also believe that that aim to be the essential coronavirus story is the exact reason why they can’t be.

Following 9/11, Hollywood poured enormous amounts of money into films either thematically or literally about an ideological war with the middle east, defining the pop culture of the 2000s in ways that are still felt today. While 9/11’s influence on our media is well defined and recorded, I don’t believe there is anything close to a consensus on which film did it best, which film captures the mood or changed people’s minds or even simply managed to be great. I don’t expect the world’s response to a wave of coronavirus movies and TV shows to be any different due to the simple fact that like 9/11, no one’s experiences of the pandemic are really the same. People of colour are disproportionately dying from the virus, class is inextricable from how people will experience it and there is the ultimate division between people who get it and people who don’t, not to mention the people who don’t even believe it exists. It is nigh impossible to pinpoint the cultural mood of a moment so defined by disagreement on what is even happening, without even touching on the shifts that have happened in the months since the pandemic began within racial justice and politics. I don’t know what Michael Bay has to say to a nurse that has watched more patients die in the last 6 months than her entire career beforehand.

If not forwards, where?

I think people are genuinely looking for stories that will put this pandemic into some sort of perspective; when it became apparent that we were in this for the long haul, Soderbergh’s Contagion became the most watched movie on Netflix. What we’re not looking for is condescension, for some Hollywood millionaire isolated in a mansion to tell us what it was really like. We already know. The inevitable turn to stories that already exist was motivated not simply by escapism but because a show or movie that happens to touch on things that have become inextricable from our lives will generally tackle those topics with far more depth and sincerity than something born out of a desire to be The Coronavirus Movie.

And that’s where Frank Darabont’s The Walking Dead comes in. Adapted from Robert Kirkman’s blockbuster comic of the same name, it tells the story of Rick, a Georgia police officer who wakes from a coma months into the archetypal zombie apocalypse and has to track down his family while coming to terms with a world already gone. It is far from a direct parallel to our current situation but the emotional underpinnings are surprisingly prescient of just how society has and hasn’t kept it together in the past few months. The show’s first season is about accepting that we have to let go of things we had previously taken for granted for the safety of the people around us. This comes to a head in the fifth episode, where survivor Andrea is unable to mourn her sister as she would have liked because she could turn at any moment and they need to put her down to guarantee the group’s safety. There is a sense that death is robbed not only of dignity but purpose, as communities are no longer allowed time to grieve before they have to consider the danger posed to everyone still alive. This is not a one to one match to the real world, Covid-19 victims do not become more dangerous in death but in a world where one funeral could lead to 5 more, it is a more earnest reflection of our fears than what a show trying to intentionally make that point could ever pull off. The show’s genre connections are hugely important here because while there is very little dramatic potential in the image of someone not attending a funeral, the immediate danger created in this scene feels like a far more efficient representation of those fears than a story created in the real world ever could.

The show uses these same ideas of reappraising what we can keep in how its characters come to terms with what community looks like in this new world; with Rick and Shane acting as the two sides of the danger posed by the nuclear family unit in a world where macho posturing has become more than useless in the face of a threat that doesn’t care to look you in the eyes. The group of Atlanta escapees that Rick and his family are welcomed into is more than simple circumstance but an argument for community solidarity as the solution to something ironically keeping us apart. While this may seem in conflict with the recommendations to stay physically distant from people with whom we do not live, the ultimate message is the same; that we have to think bigger than our immediate family to keep people safe. This is another example of how The Walking Dead is not about the world we have found ourselves in but is not without merit in that world, the show holding this as a point of contention to be accepted and understood but not simply repeated is again more effective than assuming people will simply agree. The messy morality of a story not committed to presenting reality allows for a more thorough argument for these ideas in that reality.

And maybe most importantly of all is that in a lot of ways, The Walking Dead got it right. Before rewatching this season; Rick being a police officer is something I knew would have to be addressed in some capacity, though I was unsure how. On rewatch it became immediately apparent that the stripping of power from that role is in fact one of the show’s most important decisions. The Walking Dead’s apocalypse is a well populated one with maybe hundreds of survivors having appeared to date. Despite this, Rick’s identity as a police officer crumbles because there is no longer capital to protect; the season’s second episode takes place against the backdrop of an abandoned department store where Rick allows Andrea to take a necklace hammering this point past home.

What persists in the world of The Walking Dead is something intrinsically human beyond law or property and without those things there is no need for police. The show suggests Rick understands this more than Shane, who becomes more violent and possessive as the show goes on but eventually, there are no more cops. Similarly, the military’s involvement in preventing the disease is absolutely minimal and not remotely helpful. The hospital where Rick wakes up is surrounded by abandoned military equipment and the final episode reveals they were there not to save people but to kill them in hopes of minimising the spread. While these two story elements do not directly reflect the reality of the last 6 months and both perspectives predate the show by decades, they are in line with feelings held by people, both in growing support for police abolition and criticisms of government reactions to the pandemic letting people die needlessly in ways a show making those points directly in response to recent events would likely not get away with. I don’t think it is worthwhile to suggest any active prescience behind the scenes but the fact remains that watching this show now is a significantly different experience than it was a decade ago. There is a kind of compromised escapism in understanding where our world fits into this template for collapse.

The end.

The final episode of The Walking Dead’s first season takes place entirely within the CDC in Atlanta; as the group slowly realises that it is not a safe haven but a ticking time bomb fated to kill them all. This is, despite how it may sound, not a condemnation of the work done at the CDC or equivalent locations around the world but the point of no return in accepting that the world they knew is not only gone, but was never built to last. The decision to make their way to the CDC is motivated by the faint hope that they might have found a cure, only to discover one remaining employee and a building rigged to explode and while it is very likely that in the real world, a vaccine will be found; this is also a case study in just how fragile the systems that are expected to keep us safe can be when stressed. The CDC may not have collapsed but world economies did; people were made homeless and jobless while the rich only got richer because these systems have failed in their ultimate promise to create a world where your survival is not tied inherently to what you own. While this on its own is not news to most people, the absolute paradigm shift caused by a global crisis also offers the hope of building something better going forward. The Walking Dead’s first season ends not on a heroic sacrifice or infuriating cliffhanger, but with its characters driving into the unknown, away from what they had been convinced the world had to be.

To conclude, I want to talk about Jim. Jim is a survivor who is a constant presence at the camp from the first episode though he doesn’t become a major one until the third. After a strange dream he begins digging graves next to their campsite, scaring the rest of the residents and eventually being tied down to prevent total hysteria, only to realise what he’d seen coming when the camp is attacked by walkers. Though it is not made clear at the time, Jim himself was bitten during this attack and is inevitably going to turn. What this prompts is two tangentially related but diametrically opposed conversations over both the morality of keeping Jim alive and whether he even wants to be. Daryl Dixon, now fan favourite character, argues in front of his face the merit of killing him where he stands and has to be talked down from doing it himself. Jim eventually asks the group to leave him behind to die on his own terms, understanding it is the most effective way to keep them safe.

These conversations are not new, but they have become an all too familiar part of modern discourse, with conservative pundits and their centrist enablers arguing that sometimes you just have to let people die while those same people are going to work to keep people safe and fed and housed because they know what is at risk if they don’t. Jim acts both as a proxy for victims of the disease itself and the people who do all they can to help despite it. This was never planned. The writers of The Walking Dead didn’t know 10 years beforehand that people would be dying from an unstoppable pandemic. What they did know is that there will always be people who put the safety of others ahead of their own, and people for whom that is unfathomable. This is why stories become essential, not because they released first or knew exactly how things would go, but because they understood the world in some way that even decades later will help people make sense of things that maybe never will. Frank Darabont’s Walking Dead is a messy but genuine show about holding onto the parts of life that really matter even as a world of things that don’t crumbles around you and that will never cease to be relevant.

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