"Your world's about to get a lot bigger": Political Realities on the Walking Dead
The Walking Dead
Season 6, Episode 11 - "Knots Untie"
Andrew Lincoln, Steven Yuen, Lauren Cohen
Regular airtime: Sundays, 8pm
US: 28 Feb 2016
I mentioned last week that some of The Walking Dead‘s most hardcore fans complain when the show’s action ebbs. I don’t think we should expect any long term end to action-oriented plots, but I do believe the nature of the threats Rick (Andrew Lincoln), Daryl (Norman Reedus), Carol (Melissa McBride), and Glenn (Steven Yeun) will face is destined to change, and I’m not sure how some fans will respond. Beyond their tangle with the governor, most of their battles have been existential face-offs with the walkers themselves. Of course, those walkers remain an existential threat, but this show has larger thematic aspirations; the reality is, it always has.
The Walking Dead has never been simply about survival; it’s about how society rebuilds itself in the wake of disaster, and exploring that theme means moving beyond desperate one-on-one battles to the death and into larger, more stable communities. As Jesus (Tom Payne) says early in this week’s episode, Rick and company’s world is “about to get a whole lot bigger”. I suspect that life for our survivors will increasingly be less about fighting zombies, and more about fighting other communities.
To understand what’s happening means thinking about just exactly what genre The Walking Dead fits into. Many people assume post-apocalyptic stories are simply a particular brand of science fiction. In fact, post-apocalyptic works have very different origins. Most science fiction might also be called “dystopian”. Such stories take a flaw or potential problem in society and magnify it into a disturbing vision of the future.
Orwell’s 1984, for instance, imagines life under a top-down communist regime; Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale imagines life in a world where fundamentalist Christianity dominates the government; any given episode of the original Star Trek series offers a world where mobsters rule, or children run things, or race dictates political power. In the end, these kinds of stories allow us to think critically about our own society, or own flaws.
Post-apocalyptic stories, on the other hand, spring out of early social contract theory, efforts by philosophers like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean Jacques Rousseau to describe the “best” form of government by trying to imagine how society began. Suppose—such tales usually begin—we imagine man in his most primitive state, living alone, subsisting on what he can catch or grow. Why would he give up his “freedom” and “liberty” in such a situation? Only in exchange for benefits, like “security”.
And so on, and so on, until the given philosopher has established why democracy or monarchy or communism obviously makes the best form of government, given these beginnings. Even the US Constitution bears the marks of such thinking: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” The point here is to establish the trade-offs to be made between humans as individuals when they join with others in a “union”.
The idea that humans were ever once “noble savages” who developed government to mitigate their “nasty brutish” existences eventually fell into disrepute as science, and especially anthropology, arose and discredited such fantasies. If it was no longer possible to imagine humankind starting anew in the past, it was still possible to imagine them starting anew in the future.
Thus arose the post-apocalyptic tale, in which all of society is destroyed, and those who remain must build a better society in its wake. Novels like The Day of the Triffids, films such as 12 Monkeys, and series like The Walking Dead, all allow their authors to speculate about what might make the best sort of society if it were possible to suddenly start all over again.
This has been an important element of The Walking Dead from the very beginning. It’s there on a rooftop in downtown Atlanta when Rick argues with Merle (Michael Rooker) over whether racism makes sense in a world where most of the population has already been destroyed. It’s there in the agrarian society that develops on Herschel’s (Scott Wilson) farm. It’s there in the form of the governor’s dictatorship. In truth, each and every step forward in this story has been the examination of a new kind of government, from the failure of science at the CDC, to the failure of pacifism among the original citizens of Alexandria.
Yet, where much of this exploration has occurred is in the form of individual characters—Carol’s survival at all cost vs. Morgan’s (Lennie James) zen-like warrior stance—the time has finally come to widen out the conversation and think about the stakes on a larger scale. The coming of Jesus heralds a consideration of societies on a larger scale, and the various ways in which they might govern themselves and deal with one another.
Thus, in this week’s episode, Rick, Michonne (Danai Gurira), Maggie (Lauren Cohan), Daryl, Abraham (Michael Cudlitz), and Glenn, visit a community not so very different from their own. They eventually discover this community has become a kind of vassal state to another band led by the mysterious Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). Our group makes a new deal, promising to serve as mercenaries for Jesus in exchange for food and medicine, and so diplomacy in this new world order begins.
Certainly this doesn’t spell the end of action for The Walking Dead, as we discovered in this episode when Rick steps in to stop an assassination. Indeed, we’re offered the promise of a much larger, perhaps more extended conflict over the weeks and episodes to come. The stakes, howver, have changed for the characters and for the show, as they must for The Walking Dead’s narrative to continue to grow and develop. Maggie’s efforts at diplomacy may not make for the same heart-pounding action of Rick trapped alone in a tank, but what they tell us about ourselves—especially in a topsy-turvy election year—may be more important.