s hardcore fans of The Walking Dead already know, the show isn't really about zombies. The flesh-hungry walkers simply underscore the danger of the show's post-apocalyptic world and they occasionally propel the plot forward by forcing consequential decisions. At base, The Walking Dead is a meditation on the notion of civilization. In one sense, viewers are invited to grapple with the bounty civilization once promised by tracking Rick Grimes’ group of survivors as they make their way across a post-apocalyptic landscape. Civilization is the consumer society that is quickly slipping beyond the horizon, a point touched on when Michonne needs toothpaste or when Denise politely asks for a particular can of soda. It is the amenities the survivors once took for granted, like hot showers at the turn of a knob.
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.
Beyond sociology, there is also an impressive history of critically exploring the idea of civilization in tales of speculative fiction. To take just one example, the 1973 film Soylent Green was about a civilization on the precipice of ruin due to the pressures of overpopulation. The protagonist, played by Charlton Heston, discovers the key ingredient of the food ration upon which the teeming masses unknowingly depend for sustenance. “Soylent Green is people!” Heston’s character famously shouts. In Soylent Green, turning people into food signals the end of civilization, but it is also the surreptitious strategy that keeps bellies full, thereby just barely holding civilization back from a steep, violent decline. But the strategy cannot stave off what is a much slower rot from the inside. Heston’s character is horrified by his discovery, not simply because he was duped into eating people, but because everyone was duped. The unspeakable horror is that cannibalism has been institutionalized and it is now a part of the calculus of survival. Thus the line, “Soylent Green is people!” could have well been written as “What have we become!?” which is always the question one asks when they foresee the end of civilization. It might have also been written as “What will become of us?” which is always the question one asks while setting out to find civilization again.
“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.
Whatever civilization is in this post-apocalyptic world, it is not Terminus and the cannibals of Terminus are not civilized. But these conclusions that “They are not like us” are also answers for those who worry about “What we’ve become?” and “What will become of us?” The effort to distinguish the civilized from the barbarians, friend from foe, is part and parcel of any quest for civilization, and it foreshadows a major development in the story.
he search to determine “What will become of us?” is one riddled with anxiety in desperate need of resolution. After finding a sedentary life behind the formidable walls of Alexandria and even a bit leisure time, the members of Rick’s group must come to terms with what they are willing to do in order to keep it. The Alexandrians have begun asking themselves: Is it okay to kill, torture, and maim those who are in every respect just like us, and who are desperate for a share of our resources because their lives depend on it too? This is Carol’s crisis in season six, and because she couldn’t come to terms with the killing, she resorted to a self-imposed exile. Carol knows that her friends aren’t the “good” group simply because, unlike the operators of Terminus, they haven’t broken the taboos of their earlier lives. The Governor’s group of season three killed people she loved, but she also knows that this fact doesn’t mean that he and the members of his group were the “bad” ones. All of her “enemies” were effectively following Rick’s advice to do what was necessary in order to survive.
Despite the immediate danger posed by Negan and his band of Saviors, I’m convinced that Carol’s dilemma will remain a lurking problem for the Alexandrians in the upcoming stories. But whether discussing storylines of The Walking Dead or the geopolitics of the real world, societies are in some sense always returning to questions about what they will do to maintain the promise of civilization and whether they can live with themselves in the aftermath. To resolve the anxiety, to kill, maim, and torture while retaining one’s sense of goodness, enemies are all too often re-imagined as something other than survivors “just like us.” When societies believe the fate of civilization hangs in the balance, new ideas tend to emerge about the difference between the civilized “us” and the uncivilized “them,” those walkers, the heathens, the barbarians, and the illegals of the outerlands.
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.
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