Whether a basic, human-seeming decency can withstand catastrophe is an animating question in The Walking Dead.
We are surviving here. We are day to day.
-- Shane (Jon Bernthal)
Judging solely by the trailer for Frank Darabont’s The Walking Dead, one could easily mistake it for simply another "zombie outbreak" story. You see abandoned buildings and ruined machinery, serried ranks of body bags, and finally, the clambering, undead horde. Across this dread landscape rides another archetypal (or clichéd) figure: a lone man on a horse. But the show, adapted from Robert Kirkman's comic book series, quickly moves past its familiar premise. It's about what happens after the apocalypse, in the struggle to remain human after society's collapse.
In the series premiere, County Sheriff Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) wakes up from a coma, having missed the end of the world. He finds himself in a desolate hospital, where one room -- chained shut from the outside -- bears the spray-painted warning, "Don’t open. Dead inside." Of course, the dead don’t stay dead: pallid hands begin grasping through door, sending Grimes fleeing into the light of day.
As he sets out in search of his wife Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) and son Carl (Chandler Riggs), Grimes finds a world where a viral fever has produced legions of "walkers," human beings once dead, now regressed to a bestial state. They hunger, and they hunt by smell. Sound draws them, like dogs. They’re more active after dark. And, as survivor Morgan Jones (Lennie James) explains to Grimes, "They will bite you. A fever will kill you, burn you out. And after a while, you come back." The walkers occupy a liminal, uncanny space, resembling human beings, but without recognizable humanity. The walkers most often evoke pity rather than fear. Husk-like, they serve as stark reminders of our slowly failing bodies and increasingly vacant minds.
As Grimes comes to understand what's happened, so do we. Discovering a former colleague, now a walker, he pronounces, "Leon Bassey: didn't think much of him. Careless and dumb, but... can't leave him like this." He shoots Bassey, one of several walkers dispatched at close range. Later, he shoots a small girl he initially mistakes for a survivor, in part because she carries a teddy bear. If he shoots these ghouls so he can survive, we see that he's also redrawing a line between the living and the dead. Ever the lawman, Grimes needs to police that blurring line.
Morgan Jones (Lennie James) and his son Duane (Adrian Kali Turner) have a more complex understanding of the walkers' place along the life-to-death continuum. They've hunkered down in a small, suburban-looking neighborhood, preparing an escape to a rumored refugee camp in Atlanta. Jones’ wife was bitten, he explains to Grimes. "I should have put her down, I know it. I just didn’t have it in me. She’s the mother of my child." Now she wanders the streets outside, her face recognizable and yet absolutely strange. Some nights she comes to their barricaded door and turns the knob, as though wanting to come home.
Grimes rejects the complexity embodied by Mrs. Jones, determined to believe that his own is still human and that Morgan's ambivalence is a sign of weakness. For his part, Jones remains unwilling to begin his exodus to Atlanta, and instead takes up shooting his rifle from a second story window. His crosshairs find the face of his wife, her eyes blank, her mouth working like a fish struggling to breathe air. He looks from her face now to a picture of her face before, vital and lovely. Tears fill his eyes.
Grimes keeps his gaze focused ahead. On his way to Atlanta, he gets out of his police cruiser to face a walker that’s not much more than a crawling torso. (The series is matter-of-factly gory, not sensationalizing viscera but exposing it repeatedly.) Before he fires a bullet into her head, Grimes says, "I’m sorry this happened to you." This raises a question: whom does such killing benefit? The living or the undead? (In The Walking Dead, walkers explicitly lack subjectivity, in contrast to George Romero's Land of the Dead, where zombies can be "evolved" enough to demonstrate recognizably human desires. Still, that, doesn't resolve another possibility, that zombie wants and needs, however different from those of humans, are still worth respecting -- the zombie as radically Other.)
Grimes' own notions of humanity depend primarily on individuality. The walkers, Jones notes, become a threat only en masse; when Grimes can recognize one as separate from the horde, he grants it a modicum of respect. Grimes assigns Leon Bassey an identity based on his driver’s license. This body, he says, used to be a man with a name, used to own a wallet with a picture of a pretty girl inside. This abstract connection can't compare to Jones' love for his wife, but such pragmatic decency -- a modification of "respect others as you would respect yourself" -- offers the beginnings of a renewed social contract.
Whether such decency can withstand catastrophe is an animating question in The Walking Dead. Most of humanity has already fallen into pure bodily appetite, though the zombies, unlike their human brethren, never turn on one another. Contagion is not the only way to become undead: to become an unthinking, unfeeling survival machine is to make yourself a zombie, a walking body dead inside. Grimes leads us on a search for answers, a way to remain decent among the ruins.