First up, can I say I don’t like zombies?

Vampires I like. They seem rich and resonant on a symbolic level. They have complexity. You can explore their inner lives. They can represent various different things (the forbidden, sex, drugs, decadence, the Old World vs the New World, etc etc etc). They have a literary/filmic history you can draw on and play with and subvert.

Whereas zombies? No. I mean sure, they’re id figures – they’re always hungry, they never stop, they’re all instinct, no thought – but that’s all they are. They’re a destructive but unintentional force and there’s nothing going on inside them at all. Nothing.

So I had to be dragged kicking and screaming to The Walking Dead. Zombies are boring, I said. Zombie narratives are very samey. One by one, the characters get attacked and gnawed on, and then they turn into zombies too. It’s bleak and relentless, and boring.

But I was dragged, and I did finally get into it, in spite of myself.

There’s something a bit zeitgeisty about TV dramas about the end of the world. Battlestar Galactica is still my favourite example, by a long way, but The Walking Dead is another compelling one. There’s something about seeing characters who really are at the end of things, facing the terror of civilisation on the brink of collapse.

One of the interesting things about The Walking Dead is how little happens episode by episode, almost as if this is a world where so much has been destroyed that decisive action has become almost impossible. Getting things done, in a modern world way, has become fantastically difficult, mostly because of the threat of walkers, but almost as if narrative itself, the possibility of effecting change, has been extinguished. Every episode they’ll set out to accomplish some quite modest task, and by the end of the episode they usually haven’t accomplished it, but some godawful things have happened along the way. It’s not very plotty, there aren’t lots of turning points and cliffhangers and subplots and all that TV business. What there is, are long, sustained sequences where the dread and the anxiety builds and builds and builds. There’s something about those empty spaces with the sun beating down on them – cities, forests, quarries, highways – that makes the tension almost unbearable. And the walkers, too, aren’t quite what you think (what I think) of when I think about zombies. They aren’t covered in blood and going AAAARGGHHHH whenever you see them. They just stumble on, horribly. And there’s something very poignant about the little details of what they’re wearing. If you haven’t watched season 2 episode 1, look out for the shoes.

It’s interesting to compare it to a show like Falling Skies, which is also kind of about the end of the world, but which quickly showed itself to be a much more conventional old-school sci-fi action show, full of characters with plans and vigorous action sequences. I didn’t stick with Falling Skies, but I’m still intrigued by The Walking Dead.

The dominant emotion in this show is a sense of exhaustion, hovering on the edge of despair; a feeling that action – any action – is a struggle against futility. The real enemy here is not walkers, but despair. This is perilous territory for TV drama, and I suppose one of the things I like about The Walking Dead is the feeling that we are being taken to a dark place in the human soul. (Which, I suppose, is what the zombies represent.) And if the character interactions in The Walking Dead sometimes seem a bit thin and surfacey, as Zack Handlen observes in his thoughtful piece on the first ep of the new series –

the character drama still remains Walking Dead‘s weakest link. We don’t meet anyone new in “Ahead,” which means that at least there’s some foundation laid in for the squabbling and discussions, but that doesn’t make the squabbling between Shane and Lori isn’t any easier to take. This is pure soap opera stuff, and it looks even more trite in the face of the epic catastrophe around them.
em.

– then I think it’s because, in a way, the characters have been struck dumb with holy terror at the situation they’ve found themselves in, and everything they say to each other is overshadowed by the enormity of it. That is, what’s happening in the foreground is sometimes less compelling than what’s going on overall. Although, thinking back to season 1, the episode where they take out the abusive husband makes for pretty compelling foreground action.

I don’t know if they’ll be able to sustain The Walking Dead over a long run. The new series has twice as many episodes as the first series, and I understand there has been a change in the creative team, so it’ll be interesting to see where they take it this time around. I rather hope it doesn’t end up turning back into a man-with-a-plan action. But I’ll be watching.

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