Today, I’m reading about Detroit and thinking about The Walking Dead. A February 18, 2014, article in The New York Times focuses on the former, describing a census of blight in a block-by-block analysis of the 139-square-mile city. Once, 1.8 million people called Detroit their home. Only 700,000 residents do so today. The thriving middle class has long gone. Whole neighborhoods, abandoned and decaying, could serve as ready-made sets for the zombie apocalypse series.
In the mid-season premiere Walking Dead episode, teenager Carl spends a wistful moment in an upscale house. He looks longingly at a giant flat-screen TV and a collection of electronic games that no longer work; the power has been out since the series premiere. The characters have learned to live in a post-industrial world that resembles the most wretched landscapes of the Third World – those in which children scavenge for scraps in landfills.
So Carl does what he has to do: he pulls out the cords and uses them to tie the front door shut, in case the zombies come to call. This isn’t particularly different from what happens when, in real life, living-wage jobs disappear. Luxury items become memories. In the world of minimum-wage, 30-hours-a-week at Walmart, you remember with regret, cut the cords, and adjust to the new world and its diminished expectations and hopes.
Once more, TV mirrors the nation’s fears and dreams. I grew up in the ’50s, when mass media presented three basic formats: In the Western, we celebrated post-World War II expansionism – our manifest destiny – a better way of life through hard work, ingenuity and a reliance on family. In the sitcom, we assumed that the values of the middle class would help us stay there, comfortably. Men nine-to-fived it for a living wage, women wore tight-waisted dresses and children were polite. In science fiction we found a “safe” vehicle for exploring fear – of communism, nuclear war or other forms of destruction. And it’s in this light that The Walking Dead is most appropriately viewed – and a possible reason for the show’s runaway success can be found.
I started watching The Walking Dead from its first episode. Channel-surfing one night, I stumbled on its opening scenes. The first few seconds show a world that has been upended: on a rural road, traffic lights are out. Smashed cars have not been cleared. And there are bodies. The protagonist, still wearing his starched sheriff’s uniform, carries an orange plastic gas container as he approaches a gas station. There, he sees a small child with long blond hair. She is walking away from him, wearing dirty bedroom slippers and holding a tattered toy rabbit. Her awkward slippers might account for her shuffling gait. They might not. He calls to her, offering help. But when she turns, the sudden close-up reveals that half her face is missing. Her eyes are lifeless. Like a wraith, she seems to glide toward him, snarling and predatory. Her humanity and reliance on social norms have been stripped away. Only the most basic part of her brain – eat and survive – remains. She will attack and eat him, and he knows this. Confused and heartbroken, he shoots her.
Survival Without Conscience
Historically, we have multiple myths in which adults kill their young or children kill their parents, from the Greek god Cronus, who, to gain and maintain his power, killed his father and ate his children, to the Grimm brothers’ Hansel and Gretel, with the witch who simply preferred to live alone in the woods and dine on the flesh of children. For the gods and witches of myth, or the zombies of TV, the goal of feasting on others, particularly family members, is often primordial: they seek to survive, without the inconvenience of conscience or social constructs. The world these beings inhabit focuses only on the ultimate “me.” Ayn Rand would be proud.
Not surprisingly, those myths remain with us today – and not only in a television series about zombies, although the show provides a safe vantage point from which to view them. In a culture that extolls the Tea Party rhetoric of “makers” versus “takers,” we find an apt metaphor in an image from The Walking Dead: The teenage Carl sits on a roof, holding what may be the last big can of pudding in the world. He is eating it all. A zombie, unable to open a stuck window, flaps his hands and makes guttural noises in the background. From a high and safe vantage point, Carl surveys an empty, decaying Main Street – shades of Detroit – extending in all directions. The middle class is gone, society is gone, and only a few survivors, and the zombies, remain.
Who Are the Zombies?
In the real world, who might embody the primordial world view of the zombies? It depends on whom you ask. The Tea Party would have us believe that the zombies are the poor and elderly who use entitlements to rob the young and wealthy. The story goes that these shiftless, purposeful “takers,” if left unchecked, will gobble up our world and leave it as desolate as the small-town vistas of The Walking Dead. They will, in effect, eat us, if we don’t eat them first. Similarly, the young take from the “makers” through preschool programs, Medicaid and other services, consuming resources to which – the “makers” would say – they are not entitled.
But who, really, is most at risk to be eaten, metaphorically, at least, by the zombies in real life? The members of the middle class, who exist, too often, in a world marked by fear of the future and an awareness that many – our parents, our children, we – are just a paycheck from disaster. Culturally and economically, we are rapidly becoming equivalent to the ragged band of survivors in The Walking Dead, searching for our own private tin of pudding, rummaging and scrambling for an existence among the scraps of our old lives.
Of course, in The Walking Dead, the “makers” have probably met the same fate as the “takers.” It is unlikely that there is, somewhere, a haven for the 1%: a gated community or an island immune to whatever it is that has ravaged the world. But perhaps, even in a zombie world, those with enough resources have insulated themselves, somewhere, and are just waiting for the zombies to die, real estate prices to drop, and for the gold rush to begin again.
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