For various reasons I have found myself watching The Walking Dead. This US produced TV drama is based on a comic book and features a post apocalyptic –zombies- take-over -the-world (or rather the USA)-scenario.
Zombies are very popular at the moment but apart from finding it hard to stomach the gore, they have never ‘made sense’ to me in the way that (ludicrously) vampires or werewolves do. Why do the zombies always want to eat human flesh- or indeed any flesh? How can their digestive systems still be working when the rest of them is rotting? In The Walking Dead how have they managed to defeat and destroy the police/army /tanks/ helicopters when they move so slowly and do not appear to be able to use tools or weapons, or even open doors? Ok they have the overwhelming force of numbers- but really…
Nevertheless, I did get drawn into the first series by means of the (living) characters and their relationships and remained reasonably engaged until roughly two thirds through the second. At this point the drama created a breach in the mental filter which allows me to suspend the critical functions (even in terms of the sort of questions indicated above) that would prevent me enjoying fiction which, if I stopped to think about it, I might find politically a bit off. I would suggest many of us have such filters and I’m not advocating this as a ‘good thing’- just acknowledging it.
My problem is not necessarily that The Walking Dead is primarily centred around male characters. Its central protagonist is unquestionably ‘Rick’, who pre-zombie plague was a local sheriff and who now takes up the role of leader to a small group of survivors. While there is a strong focus on Rick’s relationship with Lori (his wife) and Carl (his son), the emotional ‘core’ of the piece always actually been as much, if not more, about his relationship with Shane his best friend and professional partner. In the early days of the crises, when they believed Rick was dead, Lori and Shane became lovers, with Shane established as a surrogate father to Carl. Kept secret from Rick when they meet up again in Series 1, this was a source of feelings of both guilt for Lori and Shane but also of rivalry on Shane’s part. This latter emotion comes to the fore in Series 2 when Lori discovers she is pregnant and is unsure which man is the father. Shane starts questioning Rick’s attempts to maintain a sense of the moral and ethical values that governed their pre-zombie lives, on the basis that in their current situation this makes him a weak and ineffective as both a leader and as a husband and father. By contrast, Shane shows himself willing to brutally sacrifice others to survive and to protect Lori and Carl. As the series progresses Rick is forced into making similarly questionable decisions for the good of ‘his family’ and for that the group as a whole. Yet unlike Shane he remains conflicted and deeply troubled by such choices and by the finale is on the point of mental collapse.
In this Series overall, the drama is exploring scenario whereby the characters are gradually giving up hope in the possibility of a return to ‘normality’ and coming to terms with the horrors and extremities of their situation. They have found refuge on a still working farm, where the family who own it have had their own terrible losses but which so far has escaped being over run by zombies. This temporary respite (albeit constantly under threat) allows the group time for reflection, and the fact that, as emphasised by lingering long shots of the charming house and beautiful countryside, in ‘normal’ circumstances the farm would be an idyllic environment, underlines all that has been lost, apparently forever.
The Shane/Rick relationship becomes an exploration of how, in such extreme situations some individuals might take on a ‘survival of the fittest’ ethic. This is the theme of a wide range of ‘fantasy’ and horror fiction and fine with me, except in this instance this also appears to demand a return to distinctly ‘traditional’ gender roles. Noticeably, in their conflict with each other, both Rick and Shane increasingly speak about Lori, Carl and the unborn child in terms of ownership or ‘property’ and this echoes other sets of relationships, whereby with the exception of Andrea the one more ‘feisty’ female character, women are firmly positioned as wives, daughters, mothers and as ‘dependents’. Whereas in series 1 and early in series 2 most female characters did occasionally show signs of agency and engage directly in the zombie action, most now settle into doing the cooking, the housework and focus on emotional concerns, with some retreating into hysteria, suicidal tendencies or religious sentiments. When Lori does try to take action, it is as reckless and ill thought out as her son Carl’s attempts at independence, and just like Carl, she has to be rescued by Shane. In a later episode Lori calls Andrea ‘selfish’ for wanting to continue to take an active part in protecting the farm alongside the ‘menfolk’ when she could be helping ‘create stability’ by doing the laundry. While all this is occurring it is noticeable that the role of ‘T-Bone’, the one (surviving) African –American character in the cast, which has seldom been ‘central,’ dwindles to almost nothing. Interestingly, I also note that so far in The Walking Dead no gay men or lesbians appear to have escaped the zombie plague, or at least none who are ‘out’.
In some ways it is silly for me to critique this drama. After all, it’s based on a comic book and its about zombies.But I am doing so, because actually this is a fairly expensive ‘high end’ drama produced by AMC, the production company that makes Mad Men. In the US it has attracted widespread critical praise, award nominations and audiences of up to 9 million. On all these counts I might class it as a ‘postmasculine drama’ comparable in some ways to other highly acclaimed series like Deadwood, Sons of Anarchy, The Wire and to an extent Series 1 of Madmen (amongst others) all of which can be seen as following in the wake of HBO’s The Sopranos.
These are dramas that make claims to ‘quality’ and ‘seriousness’ through high production values and through an emphasis on the complex psychology of white, male protagonists in (for TV) extreme and often extremely violent situations. As part of this these shows tend to be set in contexts outside the contemporary ‘norms’ (e.g: historical settings, environments dominated by institutions with ‘separate rules’ like the mafia or a Hells Angels motorcycle club or drug gangs ) which ‘justify’ the portrayal of sexism, misogyny, racism and homophobia.
All of this could be seen as expressing nostalgia for profoundly ‘traditional masculinity’ and, for example, the besieged rural/farm setting in Series 2 of The Walking Dead and the nature of fight over ‘values’, suggests a reading through the structures and mythology of the ‘classic’ US Western. No doubt The Walking Dead has already been read by at least one critic as a metaphor for the zeitgeist of contemporary America and the (yet again) destruction of the ‘American Dream’. This without acknowledging that however many times this ‘dream’ (based on white, colonialist, patriarchal values) is declared ‘dead’, it seems to keep getting up and ‘walking’. In these terms ,perhaps the current popularity of the Zombie in the US and the UK might be explained by the fact that they although they have a recognisable human form, they are no longer human on any count, so that there are no tricky political or ethical issues in enjoying watching their wholesale slaughter. This is actually put into question by some characters in Series 2 of The Walking Dead but they are forced to recognise the folly of their ways. On the level of metaphor, I can’t help thinking about this in relation to some of Judith Butler’s arguments in Precarious Life, which explores how post 9/11, certain types of aggressive political rhetoric can be seen in terms of an extreme (colonialist) racism that seeks to define who counts as human and what sort of lives count as lives.
This aside, a key characteristic of ‘postmasculine’ TV shows is that they use devices (zombies for instance) that allow the drama as a whole to signal something of an ‘ironic distance’ from the dubious attitudes and behaviour of their main characters. This ‘ironic distance’ is another aspect of their claim to be ‘serious’, quality drama but does not actually constitute an unambiguous critique of the characters sexism (or racism, or homophobia). In fact, at core these dramas might be said to display a profoundly ambivalent relation towards feminism and other twentieth century movements that were concerned with challenging normative, white, heterosexual patriarchy. Meanwhile, under the protective cloak of ‘irony’ they put the straight, white male right back into the centre of things, relegating the experiences of any ‘others’ to the status of the secondary, the dependent, the walk on part or in metaphoric terms, the not ‘properly’ living. Yes a lot of TV, highly praised or otherwise, has always done this but am I dreaming or was there a brief period in the 1990s when it had at least (sometimes) the grace to be embarrassed about it?
Maybe all this shifts in Series 3 of The Walking Dead. If not I’ll probably be watching anyway because after all it’s only a fantasy. However, whereas in Series 1 I was flinching at the gruesomeness of the zombie scenes, if it does not, I may be doing so at an affirmation of a set of values some of us hoped were mouldering in the grave.