I’m not exactly someone who might be called a trendsetter. I’ll be celebrating my sixty eighth birthday in November and attending my fiftieth high school reunion in October. Still I’m not a fuddy-duddy either. I eventually made it to Facebook albeit at about the time that many young people were losing interest in it. I even opened a Twitter account but still haven’t unlocked the secrets to participating in its fast paced chatter. I try to keep up with the happenings in the world and I have a somewhat modern tolerance for the outrageous. I even read the Fifty Shades of Grey books and disliked them not so much because of the storyline but because the writing was atrocious. I often get suggestions for staying with it from my younger friends and former students. They have guided me to some of my all time favorite movies and television shows.
I would never have seen Breaking Bad were it not for my younger consultants so when they also urged me to watch The Walking Dead I should have at least given the first episode a try. Instead through six seasons of one of the top rated series I held on to my smug belief that my intellect was far too superior to be drawn in by what appeared to be a silly plot about zombies. Even when my granddaughter insisted that I was misjudging the program I withheld my openness and mentally noted that she is only a middle school student who in spite of her intelligence still doesn’t fully understand the world and how it works. I reluctantly sat with her one evening to watch a selection from the sixth season and I was so hopelessly lost that my interest was not piqued in the least. It took a visit to Universal Studios and The Walking Dead house of horrors to plant a tiny bug of interest in my brain.
I became intrigued at the theme park as we walked through a recreation of the desolate atmosphere depicted in the popular series while the strains of The Walking Dead soundtrack created a realistic sensation of apocalypse and dread. I had to admit that I wanted to know more about this show after that experience so that I might understand why some of the most intellectual people that I know are huge fans, including my rocket scientist and totally rational brother. When a two week long rainy season kept me from venturing too far outside I found myself with some free time and a sudden desire to see what everyone was applauding. After viewing the first episode I was hooked and I have spent time here and there attempting to speed watch the series so that I might be ready when the seventh season airs in October.
Perhaps I am reading more into this program than is supposed to be there but my English major background has led me to think rather deeply about the story and its characters. It is a dark tale of a dystopian society that has broken down as badly as the island inhabited by the choir boys in Lord of the Flies. Those left to deal with the aftermath of a deadly disease that somehow both kills and brings people back to life have to embark on a complex heroes’ journey in which questions of right and wrong, good and evil are never easy to answer. The survivors are forced to revert to a hunter gatherer kind of existence where their lives are uncertain from one moment to the next. They have to reimagine the definition of life, political systems, the greater good. It is as though they are the first of our species who have been expelled from the Garden of Eden to fend for themselves, only this world is even more dangerous than the one that Adam and Eve had to face.
The Bible has a subtle but constant presence in the story. There are characters like Cain and Able, one time friends and brothers who differ on how to deal with the realities of the situation. We see a symbolic Moses who only reluctantly accepts the mantle of leadership and makes horrible mistakes in the process. We find both sin and redemption. It is as though the entirety of the human story is being replayed with challenges not unlike those that mankind has faced before, albeit without zombies.
We only get hints as to what may have caused the illness that so quickly overtook the world. In fact, since the story mostly plays out in a rather limited area where all communication has been lost we are never completely certain that the problems exist all over the world. A kind of hopefulness remains that somewhere, somehow the people fighting so hard to carry on will one day find the safety that seems so elusive.
I still have three more seasons to watch. I don’t want anyone to spoil the story for me and I don’t intend to give away anything to those who have not yet tuned in to this remarkable series. I have become emotionally attached to many of the characters but I keep thinking about something that one of my professors said when I was taking an education psychology class many moons ago. She remarked that it was not until the twentieth century that societies became so focused on issues of children. Sadly the mortality rate among the young had heretofore been so high that most parents understood that they might lose some of their kids before they became adults. My own grandmothers each lost two babies of whom they never spoke. They had steeled themselves against the realities of the way things were. We, on the other hand, more often have the luxury of modern medicine and conveniences to make death a less common part of our existence. We allow ourselves to become very attached to the people that we know and love believing that they will in all probability have long and fruitful lives. Those who die young have become the outliers. In The Walking Dead the possibility of death is as constant as the fight for life.
I suspect that we are drawn to stories of dark dystopian worlds because somewhere in the recesses of our minds we believe that in spite of all of our progress it would not take much for society as we know it to collapse. History has shown us that once cultured and advanced nations are capable of devolving into horror. Our hope lies in the fact that when pushed to the wall the better spirit of mankind somehow finds ways to defeat the darkness. We are an imperfect lot that has warred and enslaved and murdered but we keep trying to get things right. Our lives can at times be brutish and we can feel as though we ourselves are surrounded by walking dead, unfeeling, unthinking creatures who bear only passing resemblance to humanity. Our challenge is to keep the lights of our better selves burning and we know how difficult that may be. Still we soldier on mostly attempting to do the right thing. That is what differentiates us from the beasts.