But more than technological conveniences and consumer goods, civilization also refers to social organization. In contrast to the fragile bonds that threaten to scatter to the wind each time Rick’s group is interdicted by a horde of walkers, civilization also refers to the notion of a bounded society, one that has been sedentary long enough to establish an organic solidarity: The Hilltop farmers know they must rely on Rick’s battle-hardened group to protect their food stores and Rick’s group knows the worth of the farmers who feed them. Civilization is more than a prison or a city block encircled by a wall; it’s a network of interdependent settlements, and this network is the difference between being trapped behind the walls and being protected by them.
Civilization simply denotes the conditions that make living in one moment different from living in some previous moment, but as the German sociologist Norbert Elias once observed, civilization also “expresses the self-consciousness of the West. One could even say: the national consciousness. It sums up everything in which Western society of the last two or three centuries believes itself superior to earlier societies or ‘more primitive’ contemporary ones. By this term Western society seeks to describe what constitutes its special character and what it is proud of: the level of its technology, the nature of its manners, the development of its scientific knowledge or view of the world, and much more.” Civilization is, then, an aspiration, but it’s also an idea people in the West have drawn on to set themselves apart from others.
“What have we become?” and “What will become of us?” are on the minds of individuals in Rick’s group as well, and having the luxury of multiple seasons, The Walking Dead has been able to offer answers. One such answer is posited in season five, when Rick Grimes explains that the survivors of the zombie apocalypse are the real walking dead. Huddled together in a dilapidated church, Grimes tells his group “We do what we need to do, and then we get to live…This is how we survive: We tell ourselves that we are the walking dead." The true threat to civilization isn’t really the undead, and Rick isn’t really worried about surviving the dead, for everyone knows how to stop the slow, shuffling advance of walkers. He is referring to what it will take in order to survive the threat posed by the living (Not surprisingly, “Fight the dead. Fear the living,” is the slogan AMC prints on The Walking Dead gear). What Rick’s group must become is a band of survivors, who will savagely execute other survivors in their sleep, without a trial, and as a speculative preemption of a future attack. Rick’s speech also reveals that as time wears on, the business of surviving is paradoxically becoming the greatest threat to civilization. Rick’s group seeks civilization, but fans have also witnessed his group slowly acquiring a new habitus, a new set of dispositions that lead them to regard all strangers as guilty until proven innocent and which lead them to kill first and ask questions later.
The effort to distinguish the civilized from the barbarians, friend from foe, is part and parcel of any quest for civilization...in (re)building civilization, those inside the walls construct schemas for identifying those who are unworthy of it.
With the exception of a fleeting stay in a prison, the group chases civilization, even when it’s a mirage. Take the city of Terminus, which was introduced in season four. Just as all roads once led to Rome—the Western dream of civilization—the sign posts the group encounters in season four suggest to them that all roads now lead to Terminus. But shortly after arriving, Rick, Carl, Michonne, and all the others who followed the bread crumbs soon learn that beneath the façade, Terminus is a death camp. The technologies of industrial killing honed during the great wars in the years before the zombie apocalypse have reemerged in Terminus. We watch as the camp’s butchers carefully and efficiently sever the carotid artery of their momentary human prisoners so that the blood will flow from their bodies into sterile collection trays, presumably to minimize the messiness of killing, but almost certainly to also efficiently collect the nutritious ingredients of a blood sausage or some other meal.
Although not explicitly explored in The Walking Dead, this wall-building and fortification moment is the one typically accompanied by racial formations, where new speculations coalesce regarding the internal essences of those on the outside and those speculative essences get attached to some perceived set of physical characteristics. Thus the paradox of civilization, at least in the West and that which is explored in The Walking Dead, has been that in (re)building civilization, those inside the walls construct schemas for identifying those who are unworthy of it. That is, they construct new ideas about why outsiders are inherently uncivilized, less than fully human, or even demonic. Members of Rick’s group may have cheered beside Negan’s band of Saviors at an Atlanta Braves game only a few years earlier, but immersed within this new civilizing habitus, they’ve lost track of the humanity they once shared with those who now happen to call themselves Saviors.
Like the ocean zombies of Fear the Walking Dead, the American public has been swimming with zombies for more than a decade. Somehow, these rotting and reanimated corpses and the stories which they populate have proven capable of tapping into deeply held fears. In some stories, the flesh-hungry zombie is a symbol of the dog-eat-dog world of capitalism. In other stories, the mindless zombie is a thinly veiled critique of the mindless consumerism that threatens to infect all of us. The Walking Dead explores the zeitgeist of the current moment, which is one defined by an intensifying xenophobia and a fear that civilization may slip from our grasp. Their Alexandria is our civilization. Carol’s conscience is our own. We watch as they defend Alexandria from atop their walls, and then we return to the news of the real world and wonder why people are galvanized by the prospect of a wall between the U.S. and Mexico.