It’s intolerably bad. The Walking Dead tries to be a straight drama with zombies, but fails to deliver any character development. The action becomes quickly repetitive and tiresome and the moral dilemmas constituting the plot are dealt with superficially. All characters refer to zombies as ‘walkers’ betraying total detachment from the Western culture they inhabit. This undermines further the plausibility of the story, prevents characters and story from tapping into popular culture and knowledge of zombies and sounds incredibly silly. The series is an NRA advert celebrating patriarchal machismo.
Plot: The show is set in the picturesque countryside outside Atlanta. It begins with a cop, Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), who gets shot and falls into a coma. After what maybe months, he wakes up and is ready to jump around and fight zombies. Zombies are fine, the ridiculous premise lies in someone waking up from a coma and being able to talk, walk with no brain damage or muscle waste. Our hero makes it and joins a group of survivors, which includes conveniently his wife, son and former police partner. They later find their way to a household belonging to Herschel (Scott Wilson) and his extended family. The first season is thankfully short, but, already after a few episodes, you wonder whether all the action is confined to the protagonists being attacked by zombies. It is!
The Patriarchal Family & the Cult of Guns:
The ever-present family of American TV (as argued here) dominates in the most sinister and reactionary way in The Walking Dead. The family is here unbelievably patriarchal. Each group is led by a man (no, no chance of democracy) and, specifically a father, despite the fact that people unrelated to Rick belong to his group. “You’ve got to do what is best for our family” is the mantra, which places the family well over and above the common good. Herschel thunders “I control my people, you control yours”. There is no a trace of democracy, even though most of the decisions are life and death decisions.
Women need to submit to the authority of the father. They are regularly patronised and dismissed. Women do the washing and cooking dutifully and have babies. The possibility of abortion for Lori is brushed aside quickly and never really thought about it seriously. Rick’s wife, Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) comes after her male child in the pecking order. The son is allowed to participate in the search for a female child, who couldn’t even find the way back to the group.
The trite motif of Romantic survival and fight against evil nature fluctuates between old-fashioned sexist machismo and an NRA commercial. The worth of a man lies in his ability to shoot and kill. The physically weak die or are simply a burden. In a cringing rite of passage moment, he becomes a man by being initated to hunting and shooting. Masculinity is constructed through violence, which is justified on the basis of a very weak premise of survival. Women need to kill too, but they are always property of a man or the clan. [Update: this is just a reminder of the 994 mass shootings in the US in the last 1004 days]. TV shows and movies reflect our culture, but also provide us with frameworks of reference. The relentless depiction of masculinity through violence and, specifically, a man with a gun ‘protecting his family’ shapes a powerful, yet flawed, normative narrative that influences how people think of themselves and the world around them. This is perhaps why about half of Americans do not see the need for stricter gun controls; what about the other half?
The series doesn’t explore community building and group dynamics in an extreme situation, preferring to celebrate the macho father ruling above all. This is empirically flawed. As sociology of disaster shows, it is certainly the case that in disaster situations, people tend to follow gender lines and applying a division of labour, but disaster and its aftermath tend to be limited in time. In contrast, people under extreme circumstances quickly establish normality and organise. Shantung Compound, Langdon Gilkey’s memoir of his time in a prisoners’ camp in China during WWII, is a brilliant testimony of how prisoners organised the camp, elected their leaders, and engaged in everyday activities that belonged to their pre-war lives. In reality, people always attempt to re-establish normality. They co-operate and seek to make decisions through consensus. Like in Sunshine, the writers of The Walking Dead fail to grasp this.
In series 3-4 The Walking Dead gets ridiculous, here is my comment.