* This post contains spoilers about The Walking Dead, Season 6
I’ve been a fan of the zombie genre for years now. I think I can trace my fandom back to when my wife gave me a copy of The Zombie Survival Guide by Max Brooks for Christmas; an incredibly detailed introduction to what causes zombieism, the characteristics (including strengths and weaknesses) of such creatures, and strategies for seeking refuge, choosing weapons, and what essentials to carry with you from one location to another after society has become overrun.
The brilliance of this book lies in the serious tone with which the author approaches creating his universe. He maintains an earnestness throughout, whether describing the most effective ways to neutralize a threat or how to assess the best options to set up camp for a while. He completely commits to the narrative, and paints a thorough picture of a world in which you need to see everything around you in a certain way in order to survive.
Among other on-screen depictions of people striving to live in their new zombie-infested surroundings, The Walking Dead remains one of my favorites. The main character, Rick Grimes, and his group have endured quite a lot of trauma over six seasons, with surely more to come as the seventh premieres this October. Those who keep up with the comics on which the show is based know that for every step forward Rick and company take, there’s bound to be two or three steps back.
One of the enduring stories of this series—both on the page and on screen—has been the evolution of Rick himself. In fact, creator Robert Kirkman admits in his introduction to the graphic novels that he is more concerned with the living characters than the dead ones: “With The Walking Dead, I want to explore how people deal with extreme situations and how these events change them. I’m in this for the long haul. You guys are going to get to see Rick change and mature to the point that, when you look back on this book, you won’t even recognize him.” (from the Introduction to Days Gone Bye)
I think Kirkman here names the real reason I find zombie books and shows and movies appealing: they invite us to consider the question of what we become when our world of convention and mutual understanding of societal function disappears. What happens when on the one hand we’re faced with a common threat, but on the other hand all sense of order and community devolve and in many cases disintegrate; when the primary concern for each person becomes survival no matter the cost.
The Walking Dead hypothesizes that groups would end up forming; that no individual truly would or could fend for themselves. But not every group would pursue their goals in the most honorable ways. In fact, any character that displays a sense of honor eventually abandons it, compromises in ways large and small, or succumbs to an attack by the undead. True to what Kirkman writes in his introduction, we see Rick attempt to maintain his own sense of respectability and ethics in the show’s early seasons, but the longer he lives in this world and the more trauma he experiences, the more this sense evaporates until, indeed, he becomes someone wholly unrecognizable relative to where he began.
One of the most poignant scenes in season 6 is simultaneously one of the most understated and brutal. Faced with the menace of a powerful group that is extorting resources from other survivors in the area, Rick and his fellow travelers hatch a plan to remove the threat via quiet infiltration and ambush, killing many members of this group while they sleep. Before they enact their plan, Rick’s final words to his co-conspirators are, “This is how we eat.”
By this point in the show, Rick and others have been able to rationalize for themselves that killing those who may threaten their survival is an acceptable course of action. Never mind that many other groups they’ve encountered by this point have had the same philosophy, yet have been portrayed as somehow being more sinister in their intentions. Yet when observed objectively, they ultimately are in pursuit of the same goal of surviving, and often say so even if they don’t choose the same words as Rick.
I struggle with the question that The Walking Dead and other pieces of zombie lore ask: What would you do to survive? How far would you go? Is there such a thing as ethics in such a world? Would everything boil down to a highly utilitarian and situational sense of right and wrong, dependent on the needs of one’s own fellow survivors even if it’s at the expense of another group?
Our world may not be overrun with zombie hordes, but we can still observe many instances of this philosophy already playing out between nations, and in the current political climate of the United States. We’re regularly privy to political leaders, TV and radio pundits, and anyone with a Twitter account stating in various ways that what’s best for me and my group is what I think should happen. Calls for equality, consideration of another perspective, or attention to the destructiveness of such approaches and attitudes are met with accusations of “political correctness run amok” and other rationalizations that ultimately depict the other as a sinister threat to one’s own survival that must be eliminated.
At another point in both the comics and the show, Rick makes an astute observation about what life is like for all those struggling through their new reality: it isn’t really the zombies who pose the biggest danger, but those still living as they figuratively eat each other alive. “We are the walking dead,” he concludes, having seen what humanity is capable of doing and how far it is willing to go to justify its own actions.
This is how we eat. But at what cost?
(Welcome our first guest author! Jeff Nelson is a UCC pastor, spiritual director, and author of the book Coffeehouse Contemplative: Spiritual Direction for the Everyday. He regularly blogs about spirituality and pop culture athttp://www.coffeehousecontemplative.com.)