What We Can Learn From Cable's Most Popular Show, "The Walking Dead"
Norman Reedus in the role of Daryl Dixon.
Photo Credit: Frank Ockenfels/AMC
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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. AndTWD 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.”
Then there’s the guns. Sometimes TWD feels like a comic book written by Wayne LaPierre. Ammo is currency, and even the gentler characters, like Hershel and Carol, have learned to kill or be killed without a second thought. That, too, is a righty’s dream: Make the libs admit we’re right about the use of force and have been all along. Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic writes:
I've been arguing that The Walking Dead is a conservative show in some obvious ways, and not simply because its position on gun-control, while unstated, is obvious.
Conservatism … means in part that you grapple with the tragic reality in front of you, rather than make believe that the world, and human nature, are things that they are not.
On Free Republic, “manc” makes the classic winger argument for apocalypse more bluntly:
The tree hugging, anti-gun view would be gone in a heartbeat if the world came to sort of an end.
Dog eats dog and you stay with those you trust.
Oh and I think the redneck [Daryl] is brilliant and by far my best character, if TSHTF then he is the kind of guy I want beside me not some pansy, tutu fairy girlie boy/man.
Oh yes, redneck in tooth and claw, mankind is. But for what it’s worth, a 2011 survey found that TWD is one of conservative Republicans’ least favorite TV shows. As for redneck Darryl, he’s turning into a deep-blue dreamboat.
Anyway, if you just redefine the hordes to be not commies or immigrants but Wall Streeters or Kansas state legislators, The Walking Dead can be read as a moderate Democratic morality play. Zombies have been played for comic effect almost as much as for terror—they are, after all, former Everymen. In George Romero’s 1978 Dawn of the Dead, the undead mob a mall because, as one character says, “This was an important place in their lives.” A trailer further explains that Dawn’s apocalypse is a “vision of the mindless excesses of a society gone mad,” spawning a savagery that will “consume us all.”
And that doesn’t even touch on something no one watching on Easter Sunday could fail to notice: Zombies are a heretical perversion of the Judeo-Christian belief that souls will rise from the dead and rejoin their fleshly bodies.
Besides, liberalism more or less prevailed this season. Good guy leader Rick pointedly renounced his earlier edict that his band of survivors was “not a democracy.” Like the tepid Dems who fell for Bush, Cheney and their wars after 9/11, Rick finally realizes (d’oh!) that you can’t trust the ruthless Governor, head of the upscale, walker-proofed town of Woodbury; the Guv told one lie after another to gin his people into fighting a war they were totally unprepared to carry out. (This subplot unwound right as we were commemorating the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq.)
Now, you can certainly argue that TWD sucks on social issues, as Lorraine Berry does at Salon, callingWalking Dead “a white patriarchy” where “African-American men have become interchangeable” and the big decisions are made by the pale menfolk.
And yet you can always make the progressive case that zombies represent what we try to bury but can’t—war crimes and bankster crimes, spent nuclear fuel and carcinogenic chemicals, really anything that went wrong in the Bush years.
If the show’s politics resist sharp definition, that seems entirely in sync with the times, like Grand Bargain-pursuer Barack Obama himself. Is he a socialist or a Republican Lite? Is he betraying us, or is he exercising a necessary political patience?
Will he—will the nation—remain with the living, or become a Walker? And this time, we do mean like Scott.