What I’m Watching Right Now

I haven’t been able to get to many films lately, but I have been doing a better job keeping up with television. So, here’s a list of the shows I’m currently in the process of catching up on, or have recently watched. If you’ve been following any of these shows, please feel free to ask me questions or raise topics of discussion in the Comments section of this post. Keep in mind that I’m not totally caught up on all of these shows, but these are the programs that have caught my attention recently.

- Breaking Bad

- American Horror Story

- The Walking Dead

- Homeland

- Real Time With Bill Maher

- Game of Thrones

- The Newsroom

- The Killing

- Dexter

- Ray Donovan

- Archer

- House of Cards

- 666 Park Avenue

- The Americans

- Revolution

- Eastbound and Down

- Boardwalk Empire

- Luck

- Girls

- Last Resort

- The Bachelor/The Bachelorette

The Walking Dead’s Shifting Social Outlook

When I last wrote about The Walking Dead I strongly criticized the show’s social/political outlook and worldview in this article. Since the beginning of the show’s run, The Walking Dead has promoted a narrow, individualistic, survivalist philosophy which can essentially be summed up with the motto “kill or be killed.” But as the third season of the show drew to a close a noticeable shift in philosophy occurred, as I’ll explore in more detail later.

The zombie genre is politically problematic, inherently. When the world is shown to be overrun by mindless, flesh-hungry undead, the majority depicted as a faceless, sub-human mob while small pockets of people struggle to survive against the zombie hoards, is that not a frightening metaphor for top-down class warfare? The zombie is the perfect visual metaphor for how the wealthy, and to a certain extent even the middle class, see the poor. What could be scarier to the privileged classes than a relentless mob of homeless coming to rob them of their comfortable way of life? That’s essentially what a zombie is, metaphorically speaking. To the wealthy elite, the poor are, at best, unproductive drains on society, and at worst, less than human and eligible for extermination. Zombies represent the latter.

So, when zombie films depict a small group of survivors battling an onslaught of encircling hoards, it’s a symbolic expression of fear of the masses by the privileged. Zombies are nothing more than pests who need to be suppressed in order to maintain the established class hierarchy. Entire books could be written analyzing zombie culture from this perspective, and there are very view entries in the genre that avoid this fundamentally problematic characterization of society and the masses (Shaun of the Dead is a rare positive example of subverting the zombie genre, mainly because it’s a satirical parody that shows how under the capitalist system we’re all basically zombies already).

The Walking Dead, like most zombie-themed media, suffers from this problem at its core, and it’s compounded by the fact that the central hero is a white, male police officer who’s established a patriarchal survivor group. Considering the role the police play in capitalist society, serving and protecting the elite, preserving their system of power and control over the masses, the fact that Rick is a cop is no accident. Rick’s job within the context of the zombie apocalypse is to preserve the staus quo to the best of his ability, just as his job pre-apocalypse was to preserve the established class hierarchy.

The show is rife with dangerous symbolic and metaphorical problems during these politically and socially charged times we live in. And, in addition to this fundamental genre-based flaw, as I argued in my previous article, it has been promoting an individualistic survivalist philosophy that teaches society that most people are to be feared, you can only rely on yourself, your family, and your previously known friends, and you must put aside morality and be willing to kill outsiders at the drop of a hat if you’re going to survive. “Trust no one” and “kill or be killed.” That’s what the message of The Walking Dead has been.

Given the show’s genre, all the inherent problematic elements (class warfare, the suppression of the masses, etc.) will almost certainly remain intact throughout the remainder of the show’s run. Those problems are built-in, fundamental aspects of what the show is. However, while those issues can’t be ignored, I am hopeful that the show’s philosophy of survival and its outlook on human relations will evolve, and over the last few episodes of the third season The Walking Dead has shown some signs of improvement in this area.

Previously, I had pointed out that there have been many examples of the show killing off characters who speak out against the ruthless, individualistic survival philosophy, as if trusting other people and trying to build a functioning community from the ground up is some sort of “weakness.” And “strength,” by contrast, has been classified as a cutthroat willingness to kill or abandon any outsider who poses even the smallest potential threat.

This season of The Walking Dead has been all about this question, the struggle between these two contrasting views. It came to a head when the Governor presents Rick with an ultimatum: hand over Michonne, a new and not yet fully trusted member of Rick’s group, or be faced with open war that could result in the entire group being wiped out. Essentially Rick had to decide if one person, one he didn’t even fully trust yet, was worth sacrificing in order to save everyone else. In other words, is it okay to do a little bit of evil in order to accomplish a greater good?

Rick wrestles with this question for an entire episode, and for a while it seemed he would in fact knowingly sacrifice Michonne to a slow death by torture in order to establish a truce with the Governor, saving his group. At the last minute, he changed his mind, and from that point on a shift in the show’s survival philosophy has gradually unfolded. Rick is starting to realize that the individualistic mindset he’s been championing has been misguided and morally wrong.

Most pointedly, the policies of survival Rick has been instilling in his group have been fully taken to heart by his son, Carl, and the end result is a cold-blooded killer. Carl murdered a surrendering teenager in the season finale, carrying out the philosophy of “kill or be killed” to its ultimate end. I don’t think it’s coincidence that Carl often wears a Blackwater t-shirt, and he justifies his actions by explaining that empathy and forgiveness is a weakness that comes back around to kill you later, and therefore it’s better to shoot first no matter what.

Rick listens to his son’s explanation, and in that moment he sees how morally bankrupt he himself has become, and he realizes he needs to change course, adopt a new philosophy, and provide a positive, empathetic example. His first act following this realization was to adopt the remaining people of Woodbury into their group at the prison, for the first time openly embracing a large group of outsiders without question or fear.

There are other positive signs as well. For example, in the previous episode Rick reversed his policy of dictatorship (established in the final episode of season 2), and asked the group to vote on whether to hold their ground or cut their losses and flee. And in that moment the conflict between the prison and Woodbury took on a new dimension. No longer is it a rivalry between two imperialist powers struggling for territory, because when the members of the prison group willingly volunteer to hold off an invading force their cause becomes much more just.

While The Walking Dead will continue to suffer from the inherent political, social, moral, metaphorical, and philosophical issues built into the zombie genre, hopefully, at the very least, it will proceed as a show that promotes human interdependence, empathy, forgiveness, and gender equality. Doing so would be a major reversal of what the show has been about until very recently.

Rugged individualist survivalism is narrow and dangerous because there are no moral limits that can’t be crossed in order to protect yourself at the expense of others. Embracing that cold “survive at all costs” mentality robs us of the empathy that makes us human. I’m hopeful that The Walking Dead has recognized this and will begin to promote the idea that the best way for humanity to not only survive, but thrive, is for people to join together under a system of mutual benefit based on equality. Unfortunately, we have to wait until season 4 to find out.


Leaving the Hitch-hiker to Die: The Walking Dead and Survivalist Philosophy

In the latest episode of AMC’s The Walking Dead, the central protagonist passes by a hitch-hiker on the road while on a supply run, refuses to offer help of any kind, and ultimately abandons the stranger to his death. What’s going on here? What type of philosophy is this show putting forward?

The Walking Dead has carved out one of the strongest cult followings on television today. AMC even launched a supplemental series last year, Talking Dead, as a platform to discuss the events of the show, and there’s no doubt that The Walking Dead, now reaching the end of its third season, has struck a chord with audiences. Every episode is a social media event and the show has thrust the zombie genre into the mainstream.

The Walking Dead takes place during a zombie apocalypse and centers around a small, tight-knit group of survivors. Initially, the group was a collective of several families working together to survive. Though it is never explicitly shown, the group appeared to be relatively self-sufficient, and they proceeded through the dangerous, zombie infested world by making decisions together. But once Rick, the show’s central character, was reunited with his wife and child (who were already part of the group) and adopted as the group’s leader, the collective decision making process was gradually phased out. By the end of season 2, Rick openly declared that “this isn’t a democracy anymore,” and he assumed full control over the group’s strategy.

Over time, the group’s numbers dwindled after several zombie encounters, and as each family suffered losses the remaining members became a quasi family in their own right. As such, they began to trust themselves exclusively and became increasingly skeptical, if not outright paranoid, of other people and the outside world. At this point in the show, a definite philosophical pattern has emerged, and it’s become clear that The Walking Dead is putting forward a specific position in regard to human nature and survival.

From the very beginning, the show has vocally embraced the idea that in a post-apocalyptic society the old rules of civilization are ancient history, and in a world where the majority have been zombified you’ve got to abandon your old set of morals and adopt a new, hardened, strong-willed, cut-throat approach in order to survive. And by “strong” they seem to mean eliminating the capacity to empathize with other human beings and to look out only for yourself and your own family/group, even at the expense of everyone else, if necessary.

There have been several examples throughout the series where characters who have argued in favor of compassion and inclusiveness, or spoken out against the prevailing vicious cut-throat, individualistic attitude, have been almost immediately killed off. Remember when T-Dog is killed off shortly after arguing that they give the prisoners a chance to earn their keep in the group? How about when Dale is killed in the same episode where he was the only character to argue against Rick executing a teenager who was formerly part of a group they had a run-in with? Similarly, Andrea is separated from the group and stranded in the woods after she refused to accept a traditional female role under a patriarchal system.

Yes, a world overrun by zombies would be harsh, and it is true that death potentially lurks around every corner, but the show seems to be choosing which characters survive and which are killed based in large part on their alleged “strength” or “weakness” in this new lawless society. Those who are willing to throw other people under the bus survive. Those who argue for compassion, inclusion, and trust are killed, abandoned, or overruled because they are “weak.”

This is a dangerous message The Walking Dead is putting forward. The show is highly entertaining and very well made, but its primary moral position seems to be that most people are inherently untrustworthy and that a selfish, individualistic mindset is what will allow you to survive.

In episode 31, “Clear”, Rick, Carl, and Michonne encounter a lone hitch-hiker while driving into town on a supply run. The man yells out and begs them to wait for him, but they leave him behind without even acknowledging him. He’s an outsider, and therefore a potential threat. The car later gets stuck in the mud and as they work to free the vehicle the hitch-hiker catches up, and they once again speed off right before he can reach them. In the final shot of the episode, on the way back to town, the car passes by the hitch-hiker’s backpack and a fresh bloody spot on the road where he has been killed. He may have been eaten by zombies, but make no mistake, he was killed by Rick and his group’s paranoid, individualistic survivalist philosophy. Rick’s group survives at the cost of allowing others to die instead, without empathy or compassion.

Then there’s The Governor, the founder of a nearby post-apocalyptic town who has attempted to rebuild society as it was, with families, children playing, cookouts, and casual strolls down the sidewalk in a town walled off from the zombie hoards outside. This town, Woodbury, is in many ways much closer to the right idea, morally speaking, or so it seems at first. Unlike Rick’s group they often bring in outsiders and integrate them into the safety of their community. However, the Governor is revealed to be a sadistic murderer on a power trip. And thus, the show essentially vilifies what should be the proper way to rebuild society from the ground up. Everything about Woodbury is tainted by the Governor’s sadism and the society he’s built is ultimately shown to be a fraud.

It’s so disappointing that The Walking Dead can’t demonstrate a positive example of this communal idea. Instead it’s shown to be facade for a sick madman’s power play, and meanwhile, Rick’s isolated, unsympathetic, paranoid camp is upheld as the “good” alternative compared to the Governor’s bloodthirsty regime. But the only real difference between Rick and the Governor is that Rick may feel a little bit of remorse over doing evil things, while the Governor is unflinching and self-assured in his evil. Both lead their respective groups in negative, morally problematic, and ultimately self-destructive ways.

If Rick’s group truly had a healthy, morally sound survival philosophy, not only would they not leave helpless hitch-hikers to die alone on the road, they would actually look for outside survivors to rescue and add them to their group. They would embrace other people, demonstrate a trust in humanity, and build a permanent, self-sustaining society where everyone has a role to play and works hard for the benefit of the group as a whole, facing the common zombie threat as a stronger community, rather than as isolated, paranoid, trigger-happy individuals. The worst aspect of The Walking Dead is that if a character on the show were to suggest that such a society be built, they’d probably be killed off by the end of the episode because they are too “weak” to survive.

The show upholds a type of individualistic, survivalist “strength” based on a cold-blooded lack of empathy for anyone outside your trusted circle, which would, in a real world post-apocalyptic situation, drastically decrease your chances of survival in the long run. In reality, there is strength in numbers, and the best thing to do would be to embrace a wide spectrum of people and organize labor to help rebuild from the ground up.

Considering how popular and culturally important The Walking Dead is, it’s a shame that it doesn’t advocate or demonstrate a healthier philosophical and moral outlook. Imagine a version of the show where the surviving characters and their leaders aren’t just various shades of evil, but they actually put forward a truly good moral philosophy where individuals are taught to trust each other as fellow human beings and work together for mutual benefit, rather than embracing and upholding a self-serving, individualistic outlook as “strength.”

The Walking Dead seems to be promoting the idea that the only person you can really trust is yourself, but society can never reach its full potential with that type of narrow worldview. That’s the difference between Individualism and Individuality. Individualism creates a competitive environment where everyone is out for themselves, and society itself is much more exploitative and harsh because your success is based on the failure of others. A truly healthy society, on the other hand, would incorporate individuality in a way that allows people to bring their unique skills to the table to be organized in an effort to ultimately serve the common good.

The Walking Dead has chosen where it falls in this debate, and unfortunately it’s picked a dangerous, unhealthy, individualistic, and morally reprehensible philosophy to advocate to the masses. Ask yourself, why should you care about the fate of a group who is willing to leave a stranded person alone on the road to die? There’s a better way post-apocalyptic survival could be depicted, and it’s a shame that a show as high-caliber and popular as The Walking Dead always victimizes the characters who question the status quo and it reinforces the idea that we’re all alone out there.