Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Walking Dead : A Western

We live an age of genre labels. Every TV series, book, video game, and movie is forced by critics and promotional campaigns to fit into certain slots—as a result I think deeper meanings and alternative readings can sometimes get lost. Recently, I did a blogging on the Showtime series Dexter, writing that while ostensibly that show's main character, Dexter Morgan, is a serial killer, I also likened him to a real world superhero and cited some of the traits for that genre and how they were present.

Now, I'd like to take another very popular show, AMC's series The Walking Dead, just finishing its third season on the air, and offer an alternative view.

While the post-apocalyptic horror premise and accompanying elements are obvious in the show and reinforced with a very effective use of rural locations and a bare bones visual style, as well as state-of-the-art prosthetic and CGI effects —I would find TWD little more than a pedestrian effort if I didn't also see it as a frontier western and, like all westerns, one that comments on America's violent past and incorporates some of the key themes of the western genre—mainly, a focus on depicting the drama of a family struggling to survive in a brutally hostile world. 

The show's central character, Rick Grimes, a former law enforcement officer, has to protect his family, specifically his wife and young son—and later on in the show, his new born daughter, as well as other comrades-in-arms that he has teamed up with along the way and who form a kind of extended family, most notably, Herschel and his daughters, along with Glenn and Daryl.

In every episode, Rick strives to keep “his people” safe and to give them a fighting chance for survival in a deadly environment where the zombies are not the only threat but rather where we also have humans, such as the megalomaniac “Governor," who seek to create their own petty dictatorships.

All the while Rick is also trying to stay true to his moral principles and to raise his son, Carl, to also maintain some kind of moral center, along with attempting to keep intact his marriage to his wife, Lori. All of this despite living in a “kill or be killed society.” For the Grime's party, their own self-guided morality has replaced civilized institutions.

In fact, the way I see it, the show's message is that the zombies aren't the ultimate threat to Rick and his family and their comrades—but rather human greed, weakness and selfishness.  For me, The Walking Dead's underlying message is that only a stoic, spartan—almost clannish—family dynamic, underpinned by mutual cooperation and self-sacrifice, will lead to survival and success. Those characters that attempt to live outside this dynamic come to terrible ends—not only “The Governor” but also Rick's former friend turned nemesis Shane Walsh—and those who are literally alone such as the outlaw Randall, separated from his marauding band in season two and ultimately executed by Shane. We must also recall Morgan, who loses his wife and son and, while not dying, becomes an isolated and tormented madman.

TWD tells us that the nuclear family, working together and fighting together, is the only solution to how to survive and triumph over life-threatening surroundings and otherwise impossible odds. These are ideas that we have seen time and time again in American Western films and TV programs, as well as in the popular lore of the American West itself.

Other Western traits evident in TWD are the all-pervasive use of firearms; everyone, including children, must learn to employ them as a mandatory survival tool. Even Herschel, introduced as a pacifistic character in season two, has by now armed himself and pledged his unconditional allegiance to Rick as a fighter.

Additionally, as in the Western genre, woman are assigned one of two roles—either, as in the case of Lori, the traditionally supportive wife who performs domestic chores and gives birth to children—or as with Michonne—joining the males as a fighter—albeit exchanging a gun for a katana sword.

It is only Andrea, the other main female character, who deviates from these two roles in that she is the Governor's lover, and while still professing loyalty to Rick and his party, fails to take sides for most of the third season, essentially caught in a moral limbo between Rick's people and the Governor's dominion.

Another trait that we frequently see in Westerns is the marginalizing of intellect and learning—in TWD these accomplish little if anything, as we see with Jenner, the CDC scientist from TWD's first season, who ultimately fails to understand let alone find  a cure for the zombie virus and similarly with Milton whose experiments with the zombies have ambiguous results.

The Western is our American mythology in many ways, and like all mythologies it offers a moral structure. Keeping this in mind, when I watch TWD, its not flesh-eating creatures that really frighten me but rather the prospect of human beings losing their humanity and decency amidst this culture of violence and brutality —I believe that would be the real casualty and tragedy for the show's protagonists. Yet, each week, TWD's writers find amazing and creative ways to let the humanity and compassion of the Grimes party stay intact and even shine through. TWD, like most Westerns, testifies to how resiliant people can be and how they can hold on to what makes them truly good even in horrifically violent circumstances.

Put another way, The Walking Dead reminds us of the dark side to our history, American history, and human history generally, as well as how the traditional family dynamic is not only our primary coping mechanism but our saving grace—we have to stick together, work together, and fight together, if we want to make it.

TWD also reminds us that humans survive at the expense of other humans and civilizations at the expense of other civilizations that cannot adapt.

We have not even broached the question of whether the zombies themselves could be seen as another “race of beings” rather than just mindless sacks of meat and how their extermination, as depicted in the show, could have a larger meaning in the sense of America's “manifest destiny”—nor have I touched on how TWD could also be a commentary on the hopelessness and despair that so many Americans are currently experiencing--in what might be termed our "economic apocalypse"--both discussions for another posting.

At any rate, I'll close by reminding us that all good art is supposed to make us uncomfortable and networks like HBO, Showtime, FX, and AMC have given us shows that do just this while at the same time being incredibly compelling and watchable.

© 2013 Don Berry LLC