Academic journal article CineAction

The Walking Dead as a Critique of American Democracy

Academic journal article CineAction

The Walking Dead as a Critique of American Democracy

Article excerpt

In 2002 The Wire awakened many Left film critics to a new area of serious study-television. When the series ended in 2008 with no successor in sight, it seemed reasonable to consider it an anomaly. With the cultural space previously monopolized by feature films eroded by the popularity of television dramas the situation seemed dire. Because studios were able to make changes whenever convenient, there would be no more Left narratives that "sneak through" (e.g., They Live, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, etc.) and we were to be relegated to watching literally days of 24 only to conclude that it was imperialist. While attacking all that is bad in capitalist film/television should be the main concern of the anti-capitalist critic, wading through the muck to find a gem of social critique is ever more important in an age where points of shared reference are increasingly coming from our TVs. But in 2010 such a gem appeared: The Walking Dead, a show under the guidance of "show-runner" Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, Green Mile), that used a small group of survivors in a zombie apocalypse to portray the real situation of American democracy.

However, when someone tries to exalt the "real" radical nature of something as widely popular as The Walking Dead we might safely assume there was a degree of finding-what-you-were-looking-for. To be sure, this is not a secret manifesto for which we should throw away Marx and Bakunin. Rather, I will argue with a small leap of Leftist faith the narrative is unmistakably critical, even beyond the progressive DemocracyNow!ism of The Wire. This leap is that Rick, the Sheriff turned group leader, is in charge because of implicit power dynamics, not simply his natural abilities. We see the drama that surrounds him coming not from a sincere will to fulfill his duty as a Sheriff to protect others, but instead from a desire for power and dominance over the group to protect his family. The radical critique developed under Darabont (fired in July 2011) survived under Glen Mazzara in the third season but withered under attack from new show runner, Scott Gimple, in the fourth. My analysis will focus on the first three seasons with a brief analysis of how the critique was dismantled, character by character, in the fourth.

But first we need some coordinates. Who are the characters? Delinquents and misfits? An elite, best-of-the-best team? The underdogs with a heart of gold? No, the characters represent a cross-section of the general American population. From the initial group of survivors we have the whole spread of token American demographics: white bigots (Ed, Merle), good-natured working class whites (Carol, Daryl), blacks (T-Dog, Jaqui), Latinos (Morales family), Asians (Glen), liberal, middle-class whites (Dale, Andrea), and a political class (Rick, Lori, Shane). The dynamics of the group are not meant to show how people change in extreme situations but to reflect how people already are under capitalist democracy.

The opening sequence of every episode confirms that the show is about people not zombies. We see places where we know zombies really are (the streets of Atlanta, open fields, abandoned stores) totally empty. The zombies function as a natural disaster irrelevant to the storyline. Digitalspy.com quotes Darabont as saying, "I don't know if I can bring anything new to the zombie metaphor, so my focus is the human part of the story. (1)" The only agents capable of affecting the story are people. As Subcomandante Marcos, mouthpiece of the Zapatista movement in Chiapas, Mexico, wrote in a communique in February 2013:

   Yes, we sympathize with the zombies, not only
   because of our physical resemblance, (even
   without makeup we would take every spot in the
   casting of The Walking Dead). Also, and above all,
   because we think, like George A. Romero, that,
   in a zombie apocalypse, the craziest brutality
   would be the work of the surviving civilization,
   not of the walking dead. … 
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