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.

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There are Still Whiny Teenagers in the Apocalypse

My husband and I have been catching up on the second season of AMC’s The Walking Dead while simultaneously watching Revolution, NBC’s new show about the post-apocalyptic world after “the power” mysteriously goes out. Revolution has been mocked for numerous reasons, not least for its ridiculous 5th-grade understanding of basic physics and chemistry. However, for me the most annoying aspect of the show is its young characters, especially the portrayal of its heroine, Tracy Spiridakos’s Charlie Matheson.

Slate called out Charlie, even before the season began, as Katniss-lite, and argued that she represents a weak attempt to paint a strong female character because the show is trying to capture the elusive audience that normally gravitates to the CW. This comes at the expense of the much more interesting grown ups populating post-apocalyptic Illinois (alas, Maggie, a particularly fascinating character was killed last night to little fanfare and less narrative sense). However, I think the real problem lies with the fact that Charlie is an unbelievable character. She isn’t actually bland. She has backbone, “spunk,” shows a clear moral outlook, but is also willing to put herself on the line when she realizes that a task needs to get done. She has her flaws, not least that she is whiny and entitled, prone to a certain amount of moodiness, and headstrong. Basically, she’s your typical modern American teen.

There’s nothing wrong with that, except for the huge problem that Charlie isn’t, or at least shouldn’t be, your typical modern American teen. She grew up during the apocalypse for crying out loud. Her mother shot a dude right in front of her when she was like 4 years old. Most everybody she knew as a child, including her mother (at least so Charlie believes at this point), probably died terrible deaths. She probably saw some of them die. She’s gone hungry, cold, and slept on the grounds for probably years. Despite the terrible costuming in the show, a real Charlie would never have been able to shop at The GAP. Instead she and her family have learned to forage or grow their own food, sew their own clothing, build fires and shelters, and generally rough it. Don’t get me started on the terrible medical conditions that have developed, even with a character like Maggie around to bring a little bit of modern medical knowledge into the apocalypse. Danny, her brother, probably shouldn’t even be alive given how bad his asthma is.

I think this disconnect between what we honestly know a post-apocalyptic teenager like Charlie should be, compared to the unrealistic portrayal of her, is what ruins the character. Instead of the jaded, strong, and pragmatic young woman we expect, we instead discover an 18 year-old acting as though she’s been transported to the apocalypse from the mall. I’d compare her to Lori and Carl from The Walking Dead, both of whom have received a lot of criticism and fan hate. The trouble with Lori is that she can’t adapt to the necessities of life in the zombie apocalypse. She knows that certain nasty things need to be done, in order for the safety of the group or her family to be preserved, but she can’t really bring herself around to stomaching them. She’s the one who objects to a group of abandoned cars being ransacked for supplies, she tells Rick to kill his friend Shane, but then can’t deal with the reality of Shane’s death – even after he tried to murder her husband. Every time the group chooses the lesser of two evils, it’s Lori questioning their decisions.

But Lori’s character makes a lot of sense. She’s a modern American woman who grew up in comfort. She was married to a Sherrif’s deputy, picked her son up from school everyday, and kept her house Pinterest worthy. When the apocalypse hits, she grabs the photo albums instead of anything useful, because she’s developed in a world where emotional connections are far more important concerns than where your next meal is coming from, much less protecting that meal from bands of other people trying to steal it, and protecting yourself from becoming the meal of half-rotted corpses roving through Georgia. Lori is what Charlie will be like in about ten years. Which makes no sense, because Charlie did not grow up with that kind of life. This is why Charlie is an annoying and bland character.

Instead, Charlie should be a bit more like Carl. Carl’s character has received a lot of criticism as well, mostly because he fails to do what his parents say and constantly puts himself in unnecessary danger. “Stay in the house Carl” is the most uttered and most defied phrase on the show. And viewers blame him for the death of Dale, one of the most popular characters. But Carl’s character, even though he’s annoying because he’s a little kid, makes a lot of sense. My husband actually thinks the development he is going through is one of the most interesting on the show. Because we’re watching what happens when a previously sheltered child begins to process the collapse of life as he knows it.

Given that Charlie was even younger than Carl when her version of the apocalypse hits, it makes no sense at all that she hasn’t gone through Carl’s development. Sure, her dad is an altruist who was lucky to make it 15 years into the future without electricity. But he still wouldn’t have been able to shelter his kids from the kinds of changes that they would necessarily go through. And yes, no-electricity apocalypse is not as bad as zombie apocalypse. But Charlie saw her mother kill a dude, remember? The same dude threatened to kill her if her parents didn’t give him all their supplies. Presumably she has seen lots and lots of other nasty deaths over the years. She’s witnessed the behavior of the militias. She hunts for her own food, can apparently fight, and takes care of her weaker brother.

If Charlie is going to be less annoying, her character needs to become a lot more believable within her own context. She can still be an altruist, she just needs to be a lot more like Dale, and a lot less like Lori.