Earlier this year I started working my way through The Walking Dead, after only being vaguely aware of the show up to that point. I’m now a little over the halfway point of its entire eleven season run. It has obvious affinities with some of the post-apocalyptic fiction I’ve covered on this blog, such as Day of the Triffids and The Death of Grass — the opening, with Rick Grimes waking up in hospital to find the world has ended being straight from Wyndham, while the brutality and descent into ruthless survivalism is John Christopher cubed — even though neither of those is about zombies. It also has a lot in common with Game of Thrones: both shows started in 2010; both had some pretty addictive storytelling, with ensemble casts and multi-episode subplots; and both had a penchant for killing off major characters with little or no warning. At its height, The Walking Dead attracted an audience of 17 million. Downtown Abbey, another massively popular show that also started in 2010 and which seems (though I’ve never seen it) the opposite to The Walking Dead in every respect, only got 13 million. There’s probably some sociological lesson to be drawn from that, but I’m not going to attempt it.
For the first season and a half, I wasn’t really gripped. The characters — who you need to care about in this sort of story — were mostly dominated by a group of emotionally inarticulate and self-destructive men, shouty and confrontational one moment, lacerating themselves with self-blame the next, while the women in the main did the cooking and cleaning and reminded each other that things like guard duty, expeditions, and making decisions were best left to the men. Then a plot twist arrived midway through season 2 that — perhaps because I wasn’t 100% engaged by this point — was so unexpected, and so brutal, I was suddenly and totally hooked. (It involved zombies in a barn, if you’ve seen the show.)
It still took till about season 4 before I began to feel interested in any of the characters, as they’d finally developed beyond the soap opera level of emotional immaturity (self-blame alternating with self-righteousness, in constant rotation), but the show has been pretty consistently gripping ever since.
I don’t binge watch it, though. However moreish the plot, or cliffhanging an ending, to watch more than one episode a day — or even one a day for an entire week — just feels too much. The show is almost constantly brutal and gruelling. (And gruesome. Every episode or two there’s a reminder of just how disgusting it must be to deal with the half-rotten dead on a day-to-day basis.) Which left me asking, at its worst moments, why do I keep watching it? Game of Thrones at least balanced its brutality with a sort of Sword & Sorcery joie de vivre and a dark sense of humour. The Walking Dead, on the other hand, has virtually no sense of humour, and the closest its characters get to the joy of being alive is a sense of relief they’re not yet dead.
One thing the show has, though, is an engagement with the idea of what it means to be “good people”. People keep telling Rick & co.’s group of survivors they’re “good people” — certainly they are, compared to some of the other groups we meet, who are militaristic, fascistic, opportunistic, or even cannibalistic. But each time someone says this, the latest story arc would end with a moment that seemed to say, “Do you still think they’re good people?”
A formula began to emerge. Rick’s group would encounter another group, and that group would either be actively hostile (one group, for instance, had commandeered a tank, and used it) or apparently friendly but secretly up to some serious nastiness (the aforementioned cannibals). Rick & co. would fight their way back to freedom, and (mostly) survive, but only at the cost of having to sink to new levels of brutality. At one point, Rick — having pointed out that as long as they’re not like the “walkers”, the zombies, they’re not entirely a lost cause — finds himself having to bite a chunk out of his opponents’ neck to win a desperate fight. Just like the zombies do. By the end of a storyline, the group are often so covered in blood — mostly other people’s — that they’re barely distinguishable from zombies anyway. Finally, Rick says: “This is how we survive… We tell ourselves that we are the walking dead…”
With the fifth season, the group arrive at a community that has managed to stave off the worst of this sorely-changed world’s ravages, and suddenly they find themselves in something like the civilised world they used to inhabit — but so battle-scarred and toughened by a series of utterly traumatising and degrading backs-to-the-wall experiences that they’re like homecoming veterans, totally incapable of sleeping because the quiet is too quiet, the calm too calm. At the same time, they don’t see this as an invitation to relax. Rather, they fear losing the edge the constant fight to survive has given them… But don’t worry, Rick & co., something terrible is bound to happen soon to bring those survival skills to the fore once more!
Another thing I like about the show — if like is the right word — is a quality it shares with a lot of the darker types of fiction and film I like, and which I’ve come to think of as bleakness. Bleakness is there, quietly, in the opening scenes of Alien, in the cold whiteness of the Nostromo’s interior and the getting-up-too-early feel of the crew waking from hypersleep, just as it’s there in the round-the-dining-table discussions about how they’re going to survive this killer alien out here in space; it’s there in the unforgiving landscapes of Walkabout, Picnic at Hanging Rock, and The Thing; it’s there in the all-encompassing labyrinth of love, lies and deception in Vertigo; it’s there in the disconnection between even the closest of people in The Silence; it’s there in the harshness of a fascist regime in Pan’s Labyrinth and the helplessness of children in The Institute; it’s there in the fragmented psyches of Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition stories; it’s there in the cosmicism of Lovecraft. It’s pretty fair to say, where this blog is concerned, it’s never far away.
This bleakness is perhaps best summed up as a disjunction between the humanity of the characters and the hostile, or simply uncaring world they inhabit. The Walking Dead has it to a particularly harsh degree, and the question, for me, is always: can they, these characters, hang on to their humanity in the face of such a dehumanising world?
With The Walking Dead, it’s a constantly uphill struggle. There’s no rest, no respite, otherwise there’s no show, and the characters will only be worn down by each loss, each set-back, each moral compromise. (Unless the final episode of season 11 has a happy ending!) And that’s perhaps the thing that has led to me slowing down my watching of the show: it’s just too relentless, at times, in its bleakness. (I confess, I’ve recently started to check Wikipedia to see when long-standing characters meet their inevitable demise, just so I’ve got some warning.) In a world where everyone is forced to be at least a little bit wicked, there’s never going to be any rest…