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.