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.


5 thoughts on “The Walking Dead’s Shifting Social Outlook

  1. The show never promoted that, and you are not very familiar with film or television if you thought that. Zombies have frequently been portrayed as the lower middle class, the suffering/the sick etc.

    • Yes, the lower classes. We agree. I’m saying that zombies represent the poor and weak, and therefore the people trying to survive represent the upper classes suppressing the poor. So, what is it I don’t understand about film and tv?

  2. The show always meant and promoted these ideas, and you are not very familiar with film or television if you thought that. Zombies have frequently been portrayed as the lower middle class, the suffering/the sick etc.

  3. …or what if this whole season has instead been a metaphor for the period of time America has endured since September 11, 2001 and the moral issues brought on by that day? By the way, socialism and Marxism suck just as much as capitalism…probably more so. And one more thing: Let’s face it, most people could disappear from the face of the earth tomorrow and their loss would largely be inconsequential. The world IS indeed filled with zombies. It has nothing to do with capitalism or socialism or communism or what have you. It has everything to do with the fact that human beings are very imperfect animals.

    • “most people could disappear from the face of the earth tomorrow and their loss would largely be inconsequential.”

      With that total disregard for human life, are you sure you’re not one of the zombies you’re talking about?

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