Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Walking Dead is just talking about morality, not showing it

The Walking Dead's discussions of morality are as slow and stagnant as
this rotting zombie. Source.

A piece that ran yesterday on The Atlantic examines the "post-apocalyptic morality" of The Walking Dead, and gives the zombie series a lot of credit for its depiction of a world unmoored from traditional morality.
In a recent, revealing tweet, Walking Dead showrunner Glen Mazzara said that every writer on the series is required to read psychiatrist Viktor Frankl's legendary concentration camp narrative, Man's Search for Meaning. The connection between a true-life account of the Holocaust and a TV series about zombies may initially seem tenuous, or even crass. But it also shows that Mazzara and his writers are taking The Walking Dead's pulpy premise very, very seriously. Man's Search for Meaning chronicles Frankl's unimaginable philosophical journey: from shock, to apathy, to bitterness and despair, and eventually to purposefulness, after having survived one of the most dehumanizing experiences imaginable.
It's a real-life version of the despairing process that's beginning to happen to the protagonists on The Walking Dead, who have begun to confront how best to survive in a world of utter hopelessness. For the dearly departed, becoming a zombie is dehumanization in the most literal sense of the word. But The Walking Dead's subtler, more insidious dehumanization is what's happening to the still-human survivors.
The author of the piece, Scott Meslow, then goes on to detail the full spectrum of the group's moral decay with quotes from the more recent episode, "Judge, Jury, Executioner." Dale's fast grip on the morality of the old world is phrased as "Keeping our humanity - that's a choice." Rick's slow descent into a more pragmatic mindset is represented by "We have to eliminate the threat." Andrea's fatalism gets a "Who says we're civilized anymore?" while Shane doesn't get a quote, because everyone knows that Shane is evil (or so I assume).

The real problem that Meslow's article illustrates, however, isn't the long, slow slide into savagery that's taking place within the world of the show. The problem, as illustrated by the sheer quantity of incredibly on-the-nose quotes available for his purposes, is that the show's discussions of morality are by no means "subtle" or "insidious." They are blunt and ham-fisted, illustrated by contrived dialogue rather than action. Discussions of morality, philosophically interesting as they may be, tend to stop the show in its tracks and let it rot there, stagnating, instead of building tension.

This disconnect can be illustrated by one of the best scenes of the second season, the tense confrontation between Rick, Glenn and Hershel (on one side) and two outsiders (on the other) at a local bar. Part of the reason this scene is so good is the presence of Michael Raymond-James, who is talented enough to elevate the other performances. The real reason the moment works, however, is the palpable, growing sense of urgency - what starts as a not-unfriendly conversation between survivors begins to feel off in a way that can't quite be pinpointed. Rick, Glenn and Hershel don't know why they don't trust these men; they aren't even sure that these are bad guys. But the scene is played out in such a way that the strangers' deaths at the close of the scene are inevitable.

That final moment of inevitable slaughter is highly salient for the show's morality narrative. Rick and Glenn have just murdered two men who did nothing that firmly established them as a threat. The episode ends with the characters - especially Rick - having to come to terms with the fact that two men were shot in cold blood just because something felt off.

These deaths are an unmistakable moral turning point for Rick, particularly because the murders are a way to keep the men from coming to Hershel's farm and draining its resources, despite the fact that Rick had spent the past few episodes trying to do the exact same thing. The violence was an entirely pragmatic, survival-based decision that was all the more powerful because there was nobody talking about the shift into a new morality. Letting the characters - and the viewers - figure out that moral shift for themselves is much more effective than having someone narrate it. If The Walking Dead wants to address issues of complex, post-apocalyptic morality, the characters need to stop talking and start acting. After all, a slide into a pragmatic theory of morality only makes sense if the viewer feels the fear and uncertainty that justify the change.

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