The Walking Dead isn’t About Zombies

The cast of The Walking Dead work in formation to kill Zombies.

Slate’s culture blog Browbeat ran an article last July that aimed to convince viewers not to “binge-watch” television shows. Its somewhat convincing premise is that watching too much of a series too quickly ruins the experience. I’m not sure that I totally agree that binge-watching ruins a good show (and it’s hard to be in total agreement with somebody who includes “TV characters should be a regular part of our lives” as one of the five pillars of his argument). But I would definitely say that watching a season, or several seasons, in a short period changes the way that the viewer perceives many aspects of the narrative. Presumably the effect is different with different shows. I can’t imagine that 24, for example, is best viewed in huge doses, both because the conceit falls apart and because the level of stress that Jack Bauer’s days bring to the screen would be overwhelming. But then again The Brady Bunch has proven imminently watchable to me, and I’ve only ever seen it when it was on network tv re-run marathons.

The Walking Dead, however, appears to be improved by binge-watching. Or at least by watching an episode or two a night for a couple of weeks, as my husband and I just did with season 2. We went into the season knowing that critics in the US had complained, bitterly, about how slow and meandering the second season was. “Where is the action? Where are the zombies? And why can’t Lori and Carl just die already?” they asked. We had the opposite reaction. The character development and conflict between characters was more than enough tension, and the threat of walkers in the woods, coupled with the knowledge that the arrival of a herd must be inevitable, injected a lot of tension into the respite of the Green’s farm. The second season is character driven, not a thriller or an action movie. I can see how that would seem boring if it was drawn out over a few months, and especially if the audience really wants and expects a high-paced and scary show. However, we actually enjoyed the focus on character development. As did the Atlantic’s J.J. Gould, who apparently also binge-watched his way through season 2. As he puts it in this recap (second section) of the first episode of Season 3, the zombies are a major device moving the plot along, but they don’t have to be the central all of the time. “The Walking Dead wasn’t just reinterpreting a genre; it was displacing the role of that genre in the overall story—putting zombies at the center of the narrative but moving them to the periphery of the action.”

This focus on the human characters, who are now struggling to learn how to survive a world riddled with walkers, is what makes The Walking Dead so interesting. To quote Fakko, a commenter on the Atlantic’s recap, “Zombies have always been a vehicle for exploring our social structure, to lay it bare. Just as good sci-fi is less about the aliens and the technology and more about how humanity reacts to it (Contact) or employs it (Gattaca).” It’s not about how they deal with the zombies. If humans survive long enough the walkers will all either rot away or be put down. The real question is how the humans survive each other. This is the central conceit of all post-apocalyptic narratives, from The Giver to Resident Evil (although I make no claims for equal adeptness at manipulating the conceit). It’s what makes them particularly interesting, not the survival techniques the characters use or how many walkers die. Zombie narratives are particularly “action-y” because there are dead things trying to eat everybody. But the central question will still be, how do these people re-constitute their society?

Season 2 was about how Rick’s group worked out leadership and how it values human life. These issues were worked out through Lori’s pregnancy and the Randall sub-plots, and obviously the major Shane-Rick rivalry and the less explosive Rick-Hershel rivalry. Presumably season 3 is going to show us what happens when the Ricktatorship comes into contact with other groups of survivors. There may be more walkers jumping out of dark corners to please people clamoring for more action. But what will keep me interested in the storyline is how the humans help or hinder each other through their survival efforts.

Government Should Fund Scientific Advancement

A few months ago I sent this meme to a friend of mine, an engineer who works for NASA. It’s the famous photo of Buzz Aldrin on the moon, with the caption “We got here with a camera less powerful than your cell phone.” I thought it was both amusing and mind-boggling. Needless to say, today the calculations that go into all parts of a space mission, from conception to execution, are almost all carried out on extremely advanced computers. My friend, however, saw something completely different in the image. His first response was, “It tells you that space exploration is a political will problem being sold as a technical problem.” And I think he is right, in a very important way. Extremely complex technical problems could be solved if only there was the political backing to propel us to the solutions.

We all have some idea of the national narrative of space exploration during the Cold War. The “space race” is a recognizable phenomenon that brings to mind Sputnik, the Apollo missions, and a national direction of energy, money, and imagination toward space. NASA, Space, and “the future” were exciting and there was a national narrative that looked forward to American dominance of the starry skies, backed by positive public opinion and strong government support. The political highlight may have been Kennedy’s backing of a “moon race,” saying “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” There was also, at least so we remember, a turning of the american imagination toward space and the future of technology, represented then by movies and television series like The Jetsons, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Trek, and a proliferation of B horror and sci-fi movies about space exploration and aliens.

Popular support for the space missions and, especially, the funding of NASA, was not  as strong as we like to remember. In fact, almost all of the enthusiasm for the new space program may have been generated by children, who were eager to play with space-based toys and imagine themselves as astronauts, while their more practical parents worried about the huge expenditures that were devoted to NASA in a foolhardy race toward a rock a few hundred thousand miles away.  Public opinion polling showed support for NASA at less than 35% for most of the 1960’s. Despite this negative public opinion, the fact is that the government and nation did decide to turn their attention strongly and resolutely toward the solution of a scientific problem, and that decision resulted in huge advances in many fields of technology, science, mathematics, and engineering.

Of course, NASA and space exploration do not necessarily remain the most important direction of today’s political will-power. That is not to say that I think NASA should lose its federal support. The percentage of NASA’s budget within the total national budget is less than 1% which is not a cause for major consternation, and the program still provides important scientific and economic development. But new, major directions in government funding for science and innovation, especially in areas that have major economic importance, should be seriously considered.

There are several areas that could warrant a new focus from our political leaders, new medical research and new energy policies for instance, but, unfortunately, none of them are as sexy as space travel, moon landings, or jet-packs. It is hard to imagine a group of kindergartners playing at being hydro-electric engineers or photovoltaic technologies experts. Designing new genetic therapies while considering their ethical application isn’t exactly the stuff that dreams are made of. And this only speaks to the children. New advances in technology, and the money it takes to achieve them, are viewed by adults with less enthusiasm than hostility.

The counter-argument to this is that the adults are right, the government should keep out of scientific development and the new advances that will prove profitable will be supported by corporations. As Fred Kaplan argues in a piece on bio-fuel and the military, sometimes the government is the best point for the initial development of new technologies. This is because corporations are all, necessarily, looking out for their bottom lines, sometimes without the ability to turn their organizations in radically new directions that may or may not pay off. Research and development is an expensive proposition, and the government can help cover some of those necessary expenses. As Kaplan says,

But some of modern history’s most revolutionary devices started out as too expensive; and they would have stayed that way—they might never have got off the ground—had the federal government not created the market. And since, in American politics, the military and space programs have been the federal government’s only sources of manufacturing, it’s the Pentagon and NASA that have created those markets.

The solution to this needs to be a political leadership that cuts through a lot of the political opposition to new technologies, and instead brings us forward. Instead of politicians who are worried about public perception, we need leaders who recognize new areas that need to be explored and who are unafraid to chart a course toward them. Ultimately, the solutions will validate the struggle to achieve them.