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What We Can Learn From Cable's Most Popular Show, "The Walking Dead"

Whether you see "The Walking Dead" as an example of left-wing or right-wing ideology gone mad depends on who you think the undead are.

Norman Reedus in the role of Daryl Dixon.
Photo Credit: Frank Ockenfels/AMC


The following article first appeared in the Nation. For more great content from the Nation, sign up for their email newsletters here.

The number-one show on cable had its Season 3 finale Sunday night—and if you needed a reminder of why this series is a staggering hit, you got it Tuesday on  All In With Chris Hayes. Hayes was interviewing Jeff Maryak, a 39-year-old Army reservist whose salary has been axed by sequestration and is thinking of re-enlisting for combat duty in order to pay his bills. Maryak  explained his dilemma this way:

In essence, around the corner, there's a zombie apocalypse, potentially, and what that is, is, OK, what happens after the sequestration--after the furlough is over and we still don't have a response? Then I may lose my job, and so, in order for me to prep for that doomsday, if you will, I'm looking at going back for deployment.

Yes, America’s top cable hit is  The Walking Dead. On Easter Sunday,  the AMC series beat The Biblefinale on History Channel, the  Game of Thrones season premiere on HBO, and its own ratings records. And TWD is the most popular show on TV, broadcast or cable, in the 18-49 demo that advertisers crave more than zombies do your brains.

Most of us watch because it’s a terrific, suspenseful soap opera. But  TWD also comes packed with a central metaphor—the zombie apocalypse—that can be used to explain just about every political point of view, whether right or left, pro-NRA or pro-gun control, small- or big-government, even pro-sequester or pro-stimulus.

Maryak himself seems to reflect this ambiguity. Although the sequester slashed his income from a Ft. Meade desk job by nearly 27 percent, forcing him to take a second job delivering pizza, the combat vet actually favors cutting government spending. He knows he’s one of sequestration’s “casualties,” but he won’t “whine” about it because he apparently buys the conservative argument that without drastic cuts to government spending, we face some kind of real-life version of  The Walking Dead—an “economic and social collapse,” as  Jim DeMint warned yesterday. And yet, like many of us on the left, Maryak also seems to believe that severe austerity itself could spiral into a nightmare and leave us facing…a  Walking Dead–like economic and social collapse.

Either way, most everyone is asking how will we ever come back from the dead-end of unemployment, underemployment—today’s  miserable job numbers show the sequester has only begun to bite—and an American landscape dotted with more than  300,000 foreclosed “zombie homes.” How can we ever return to the pre-collapse, lived-in domestic reality we had before 2008? With exceptions like gruesome makeup and geysers of fake blood, the difference is in degree, not in kind, between our newly homeless and the bands of  Walking Dead survivors squatting in abandoned homes—until a walker (and we don’t mean Scott) serves the ultimate eviction notice.

Whether you see  The Walking Dead as an example of left-wing or right-wing ideology gone mad depends on who you think the undead are.

It’s easy to read the show as conservative. Zombie plots are almost by definition reactionary, because they resemble survivalist fears that the horde of Others is coming to take what’s yours. The horde could be the 47 percent, the millions demanding their entitlements like zombies set loose by FDR. Or they could be the “illegal aliens” snatching up your job, or the unions eating away at your profit. Takers, not makers, are like walkers in that they simply can’t be changed back into productive human beings. As Romney told his donors: “My job is not to worry about those people—I'll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

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