The Walking Dead
“White trash wet dream,” I said to a friend after I started the first season of The Walking Dead. He didn’t get it. Most don’t. Themes in post-apocalyptic science fiction are deeper than you assume. Science fiction, though strictly made up, has true things to say about the world. The situation of The Walking Dead is fictional, but it has something to say about 2020 America.
A white trash wet dream is a post-apocalyptic world where self-reliance and a trunk full of firearms means survival. A white trash wet dream means no government forcing you to buy a hunting license or drive on the right side of the road. A white trash wet dream has no social order asking you to respect your neighbor’s viewpoint, pay for merchandise, or judge your crimes. In a white trash wet dream, might makes right, and right means not being dead.
White trash was a slur for poor white people. Now it is a term for people living on the fringes of social order. For those who are unpredictable, and lack respect for political, legal, and moral authority. Some self-identify as white trash to celebrate the stereotyping and social marginalization of lower-class whiteness.
Being white trash requires a level of self-reliance the privileged do not comprehend. Privileged, respected, socially affluent city dwellers have no clue how hard it is to produce the food they half consume then trash. Power and water and two-day deliveries means the dependent rich can marginalize those that make their social status possible.
In March 2020 America changed. The cook, the waitress, the hairdresser, the janitor, and even the bartender vanished overnight. The walkers, uncertain what to do, ran to the store and bought toilet paper and cleaning supplies. The living watched, bewildered. How do you not have toilet paper and cleaning supplies?
Speaking for myself, I have a closet full of Puffs Plus with Lotion, cheap paper towels, and Cottenelle or Quilted Northern toilet paper. The nose and the ass deserve the best. The same closet has enough Lysol concentrate to make seventy gallons of cleaner, jumbo containers of Clorox and Lysol wipes, several month’s supply of dish and hand soap, and a backup supply of Pinaud After Shave. Even in the apocalypse I am scent driven. (Suddenly worried about my toilet paper supply, I discovered I have enough toilet bowl cleaner for the next generation of Star Trek fans).
Two weeks after the lock-down, I ventured to the grocery store for some pork-hocks. I had cleaned my pantry and combined several partial bags of beans into a mixed batch that had soaked overnight. At the store, there were no pork-hocks. In fact, there was little meat in the store. The suddenly self-reliant were cooking and wiping their asses at home instead of eating and shitting in places where others dealt with the consequences.
Unexperienced in apocalyptic shopping, the walkers had overlooked some values. I bought a big uncooked ham, two bags of pre-frozen chicken thighs, and a box each of those Ribeye and New York Strip steaks most people avoid. The bare primary meat shelves troubled me, so I picked up another box of cheap steaks, another bag of chicken thighs, and a bag of shrimp; the seafood freezer was full. The walkers might be starving, but over the next of couple months I was going to eat well; and I have.
My naked-faced cashier didn’t understand apocalyptic morality; take from another before you eat each other.
At checkout, I realized that I had grabbed an abundance of other supplies as well. Empty paper, cleaning supply, and meat shelves had spooked me.
“Zombies would have been better,” I said through my home-made mask.
“I know, right?” My cashier replied. “My boyfriend and I were talking about that last night,” she said.
“At least you can shoot zombies in the head,” I said.
“We didn’t think of that,” she laughed. “We were wondering if we would eat each other when the meat runs out.”
My naked-faced cashier didn’t understand apocalyptic morality; take from another before you eat each other.
Zombies are not my thing. As a child, I avoided the undead in my Dungeons & Dragons world for power-hungry humans, elves, or orcs. Evil is not mindless and faceless. It does not rise from the dead, but forms in the living.
Because zombies do not interest me, I have not read The Walking Dead comics and will avoid comparisons to the original work, but I should take a Bowie Knife stab at the walkers.
Themes in The Walking Dead
In The Walking Dead the walkers are mindless and hungry. Noise, light, and the smell of fresh meat attracts them. You can avoid the walkers by remaining silent and keeping your fires small. They are slow so you can outrun them. But if you are caught in a herd, you can walk with them if you pretend to be a walker by dressing in their rotten flesh. If you don’t attract their attention, the dead will leave you alone, and if they notice you, the best way to survive is to act like them. Damn, that’s good. Read this paragraph a second time before you continue.
The Walking Dead follows the sheriff deputy Rick Grimes after he wakes from a coma into a world of zombies. In the first season, Rick attempts to impose his old-world morality on the new situation. He is the law. A white man with a badge and a gun. He expects the others to fall-in-line and be saved. When the people of this new world don’t blindly follow Rick, conflict and themes develop.
Still in the old-world, Rick believes the CDC will have a cure for the virus infecting the walkers. With a cure in hand, the others will recognize his authority and begin the process of restoring civilization. But the CDC does not have a cure. In fact, it might have been the center of the outbreak and the reason civilization collapsed. Ten years and twenty-five episodes of TwiV later, I know that civilization destroying viruses do not come from labs. Nature is more capable at destroying mankind than we are.
For Rick, the old world of science and reason and respected social order dies in a fireball.
The first attempt at restoring civilization was a failure. In season two, Rick adjusts to the new world, but does not give up his old belief system. The old ways of family life, daily chores, and caring for those in need seem to be alive and well at Hershel Greene’s farm. Hershel, like Rick before him, is holding out hope for a cure. He is keeping zombies in his barn, unable to kill them and unwilling to follow them in death.
New themes develop when Shane shoots Otis in the leg to escape a horde of walkers. Better him than me, or better them than us, is an ongoing theme in The Walking Dead. A theme that shades the white and black of good and evil.
The conflict over Randall further develops the evil they. Rick, Glenn, and Hershel rescue the injured Randall from a horde of walkers they attracted while foraging supplies. After Randall heals, the group must judge if Randall is with them or us, and if we can trust them. Shane passes judgment for the group, choosing himself over any they that might remain. Attracted by the ensuing conflict between old world ideals and a new world necessity, the walkers overrun the farm.
Season three starts with both a promise and a threat from Rick’s past; a prison and a community. Experienced killers, the group can clear the prison of zombies and create a defendable home where they hope to start a new civilization. But Woodbury and signs of the old world are nearby. The people of Woodbury have water, power, food, and social order. An order enforced by The Governor who is still clinging to that hope of a cure and a return to his old life. The people of Woodbury are not a threat to Rick and his group. The threat is that Woodbury’s citizens are willing to sacrifice freedom for security.
The choices for the living are the same when they are avoiding walkers as when trying to save civilization. Do you attract attention, or hide? Do you blend in or become prey?
Season three is when I started calling Rick and his crew the walking dead. In The Walking Dead, the dead are not the walkers, they are the living. There are forums full of arguments over this point. The creator of the show disputes it. But anyone who writes and looks for theme in their writing can see it. The choices for the living are the same when they are avoiding walkers as when trying to save civilization. Do you attract attention, or hide? Do you blend in or become prey? In the old world these choices came naturally. You do it every day. The new world has no social order. “We don’t need no stinking badges.”
The problem with Woodbury is that it is not a prison, it is a community people have chosen. Woodbury is a lot nicer than a prison. Except for that one thing; the people of Woodbury are not free. They traded the fight for survival for safety. Woodbury represents the privileged old world where the many provided for the few. This new world, white trash wet dream, is where survival of the fittest means survival of the fittest. Those that cannot provide for themselves become walkers.
The season ends with a “there can be only one” showdown that destroys Woodbury and enshrines Rick as the leader in the new world he now accepts.
Except at the start of season four, Rick has abandoned his leadership role in favor of finding his humanity. The prison is a paradise, almost a Woodbury. Rick invites disaster though when he tries to raise pigs inside the prison’s fences. Food production brings swine flu with it. Individuals start dying from this new virus, becoming walkers, threatening the group while they sleep.
Carol accepts this new world’s sins when she confesses to killing members of the group–and I think she frees the pigs–for the good of the group. Rick exiles her from the prison for her crimes, but it’s too late. The new world asserts itself in the form of The Governor who kills Hershel and destroys the prison’s Shangri-La moment, overrunning it with walkers. The dead overrun everything in the end.
Divided and lost, the group finds hope in signs of sanctuary and a group claiming to have a cure for the virus. At the end of the season, Sanctuary becomes a prison and a terminus.
Season five reveals that Sanctuary is Terminus and at Terminus they have chosen cannibalism over roadkill for protein. The exiled Carol saves the group from a tasty end. That old hope for a cure presents itself in Abraham and Eugene’s trek to Washington, D.C. All roads to lead to Alexandria, and that is enough of the seasonal synopsis. You see the pattern.
The old world was safety and security, the new world is freedom or death. Whenever the old world threatens to return, the walkers overrun it, destroying hopes and dreams. By season six, Rick and his group have lost all decency. They kill a portion of another group, the Saviors, before they threaten Alexandria. Rick and his crew even brag about eliminating the threat. Karma’s a bitch, however, and Negan’s cruelty in retribution is proof.
There are a hundred other themes in The Walking Dead. Someone has a class on all of them. I think all themes roll up into a big one I call Happiness and Truth.
Happiness and Truth
The truth of coronavirus threatens all our happiness. It has laid bare the injustice that makes social status possible. The rich cannot be rich without the labor of the poor. Civilization cannot function without food, power, and clean water. For decades, the absolute advantage of cheaper overseas labor has hollowed out America. Stripped of manufacturing jobs, we were told that tax breaks and public-private partnerships for large real-estate developments that will bring tourism, hospitality, and service jobs was the only hope for economic growth. Wages for those jobs have not changed in forty years while ever growing corporations shelter trillions of dollars, and the politically connected grow fat.
Last year those gathered in desperation at the grocery store were elsewhere. A natural disaster threatened a small community. In 2020 the disaster is global, invisible, and has no storm track to follow. No end in sight. When the paper and meat ran out at my store, this became real for me.
When I go to the store I can spot the walkers because they are not wearing a mask. They are not dead, and odds are they will not die from a COVID-19 infection, but they threaten to overrun my safety and security. At best, Ebola kills twenty-five percent of those infected. MERS, another respiratory virus, kills thirty-five percent. American involvement and leadership in the world order contained those epidemics before they become pandemics.
In 2016, a minority of America managed to elect a sociopath President. This pandemic is as much their fault as his. About ten percent of those infected with SARS-Covi-2 will require hospitalization. About one-and-half percent of those infected will die. Those are bigger numbers than any pandemic we have faced. Imagine if Ebola or MERS had become pandemics. Would civilization survive?
Will our civilization survive this pandemic? A one percent death rate will overwhelm hospitals and morgues as the virus spreads. And it is spreading. Romeo and I pass a morgue on his daily walks. I grow sick with the knowledge that before the end of this year the dead could overrun it. I am grateful they have not, and I pray they will not. But when I go to the grocery store, and I see the walkers, I fear that they will.
You face a choice between Happiness and Truth. Happiness might be defending your freedom with a naked face. Happiness might mean opening your business to save your life’s dream. Happiness might mean going to dinner, taking a cruise, or flying to Hawaii. The truth is that doing any of that without regard for others means pushing our civilization to the brink. Safety or freedom. A future with power, water, and food, or a future where living means winning. Survival of the fittest, or survival of society. Don’t be a walker.