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.