Posts Tagged ‘ The Walking Dead ’

A Plausible Zombie Apocalypse?

It seems a shame that Comic Con is taking place and I haven’t written one geeky thing the whole time.

The end-of-the-world horror du jour seems to be all about the zombies. This pop culture zeitgeist has been building for a while, but definitely reached its apex with the rise of the Walking Dead TV series (and, one might say, jumped the shark with the Brad Pitt blockbuster World War Z).

These walking undead beasties have evolved tremendously in the popular imagination from their origins as voodoo slaves. In some of the classic zombie movies of the fifties and sixties, it was radiation or toxic sludge that led to the bodies of the dead to walk the earth again. It’s a pretty silly scenario, but then, most science fiction is pretty light on the science. Sometimes it’s magic, but the most common solution to the “How’d that happen?” question in audiences’ minds these days is to answer: “I don’t know.”

In both Walking Dead and World War Z, the cause and origin of the undead pandemic is left unexplained. The dead just walk–live with it!

So what’s my point?

Last week, my son tried out a new game called The Last of Us on Playstation 3.

I noticed two things about this game as I watched him play: Firstly, it’s really graphic in both language and violence. I’m constantly having to comment on the profanity and the gory ways in which both the living and the undead are dispatched (Which is totally working. After grabbing one human bad guy and holding him as a human shield, my son asked, “Isn’t there a way I can just make this guy surrender?” There wasn’t, and he had to shiv the dude. But just that he wanted to spare this poor schlep shows that my counter brainwashing seems to be working.)

Secondly, though, I noticed that the writers of this game had chosen a different approach to their zombies. In The Last of Us, the zombie infection is caused by a fungus. In fact, my son and his non-player character companions in the game had to don gas masks as they navigated a spore-filled room with dead human bodies with fungal projections rising from their bodies. Very cool!

Why so cool? Because not only is this different from other zombie narratives, but it’s also kind of plausible.

You see, nature has already done it. In the jungles of South America, the fungal genus Ophiocordyceps infects insects and uses them as zombies to spread itself. Best known for the particular species that infects ants–each species pairs with a specific insect–the fungus rewires the brain of the ant, directing it toward a nice, cool location where it makes the ant clamp its jaws in a death grip on a leaf, and grows a fruiting body through the ant’s head to spore and spread itself.

So hats off to the producers of the game for cooking up a scenario that makes sense. After all, if a fungus can evolve to mind control ants, then why not humans?

Of course, as he played on, they had to go and ruin it by having the fungus turn humans into monsters that use echolocation and look like an extra from Pirates of the Caribbean 3, but for a minute it was really cool!

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The Golden Age?

Game of Thrones

If you don’t know who she is, you’re missing out.

 

CNN ran a piece today about the new Golden Age of Television!

It’s ironic, I suppose, that we might be in such a golden age since others are predicting the end of television as we know it because of the rise of streaming video services like Netflix. Netflix’s initial efforts to take over all media have been successful enough to warrant a great, big parody at the president’s correspondence dinner this year–probably a good sign for the future of “television” series via the web. That series, House of Cards, is being favorably compared with other “golden” series currently airing like Mad Men. I’m probably not in a great position to weigh in on this whole shebang. My family and I watch The Big Bang Theory and Modern Family. My geeky kids and I watch Walking Dead and Doctor Who. And all by my lonesome, I watch Game of Thrones and Orphan Black.

Grand total of six shows. The average American supposedly watches more than thirty hours a week, so I’m way under…unless you count videos. That, um, could tip the scales…

Despite my apparently limited expertise, I frankly think the point Todd Leopold and Alan Sepinwall are trying to make about this so-called “Golden Age” might be burdened by a bit of overstatement. Yes, there’re more quality shows on TV now than at many points during the era of the big networks, but there’s also a mountain of crap. Hmm, in fact, I guess you’d have to add a few hours to my tally for the drivel I “watch” when my wife has the tube on.

Now, here’s what I find interesting about this little article: A lot of the shows in both the article and the little photo slideshow at the top are, well, geeky.

Buffy. Lost. GoT. X-files. (By the way, I’m tagging every show I mention in this in an attempt to win a “most tags ever” award.)

In the article, Leopold quotes Syracuse University’s Robert Thompson as saying that the wider array of channels means that, “All of a sudden there’s this idea you can program for demographics instead of mass numbers.” So I think it’s noteworthy that so many of the shows for narrower “demographics” in question are the sort of imaginative, otherworldly fare that draws in the geek segment.

It makes sense. What is a geek, after all? Someone with almost obsessive commitment to a particular interest.

Ergo, when you want your little cable show to thrive: give it some zombies, or maybe a box that travels through time, or a big war between various kingdoms and a pretty girl with some dragons.

That’s how you do it, alright.

Why The Walking Dead is Not Over

As with yesterday’s post, this will be spoilerific for those who have not seen the season finale of The Walking Dead and mildly spoilerish for those who haven’t read the comics.

Yesterday I wrote that AMC’s zombie-apocalypse hit, The Walking Dead, had essentially completed its main narrative arc through central protagonist Rick’s search to reclaim his humanity in the very inhumane world of walking, undead flesh-eaters. With Rick’s search for himself complete, I argued, continuing the show would be like trying to keep the X-files going without Agent Mulder (which, for those of you too young to know, was a really stupid idea that Hollywood nevertheless tried out).

Tonight, however, I would like to look at the show and its themes and characters from a different point of view. (Why the change of heart, you ask? Did I think about it after posting last night and change my mind? Um…yes, that must be it. I certainly wouldn’t have posted yesterday knowing full well I intended to contradict myself today, now would I? That would be absurd…yes…absurd.)

Rick is, after all, more than just the central character in a show. He’s the hero of the show. As such, we could use Joseph Campbell’s mono-mythic lens to interpret his character’s destiny. In The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Campbell argues that the archetypal hero’s journey must take the hero out of his own world and through another. Certainly, The Walking Dead has done that. The bleak, dog-eat-dog landscape of the show is a far cry from the life Rick knew before the dead started roaming the earth.

But there are many other elements to the hero’s journey. The archetypal hero must pass through many challenges, including tests that come after he has discovered his true nature. It is not enough for a hero to simply survive, not enough to choose his path–he must also bring back the boons he has gained from his trials to his old world.

At first glance, it would appear that Rick’s world is irrevocably lost. Ah, not so fast. Rick’s quest is really to reforge his family. Though much has been lost on that front, the most important casualty is his son Carl’s esteem. Recently, Carl’s heart has hardened–not just against other survivors vying for what little is left in the zombie-populated wasteland, but also against his own father’s choices as leader of their group.

“Reconciliation with the Father” is one of the stages of the hero’s journey described by Campbell. Rick has found his footing, rediscovered his moral purpose, but like Odysseus returning from the sea, he has found he does not know his own son. In the season finale, Rick’s group of survivors (for once) suffered no major casualties. Yet, Carl shared a harsh assessment of Rick’s leadership with his father, alleging that his own tolerance had resulted in losses for the group, including Lori, Carl’s mother. When Rick returns to base with the helpless survivors of their enemy under his wing, Carl shakes his head in disappointment.

Rick knows what he must do to stay human, but Carl is pushing his own empathy and decency further and further away. So far TV-Carl is faring much better than his comics counterpart, but he is still actively nourishing an overt hostility to the world. In the most recent runs of the source material, Carl–half-blind and almost savage–is being eyed by the current antagonist Negan as a sort of protege. It isn’t hard to imagine that at some point on the show, the Governor might return and find a means to bring Carl under his sway in a similar fashion.

That, then, is Rick’s remaining journey. He has saved his own soul, but he must find a way to forge a truce with his son’s resentment and through community, show Carl a path toward a truly human existence. In Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, another father/son pair navigate a different sort of post-apocalypse. There, too, it is the son whose fate matters. When his angry father warns his son not to take risks by giving other survivors the benefit of the doubt, he admonishes the boy, “You’re not the one who has to worry about everything.”

“I am,” the boy replies. “I am the one.”

Rick and Carl are on opposite sides of that line, and Rick’s journey cannot be complete until he has shown his son how to be more than just a survivor. He must learn to be human.

Why The Walking Dead is Over

The Walking Dead airs on AMC

This post will be extra spoilery for both the finale of season 3 of The Walking Dead and the comics (sorry, “graphic novels”) upon which it is based.

In case you’ve been living under a rock (which might be a good place to ride out a zombie apocalypse) you know that AMC’s The Walking Dead is big. Like thirteen million people a week, big. Non-fans are probably mystified by this phenomenon. A whole show about a zombie apocalypse? Zombies, really? What’s important, though, is understanding that the show is not about zombies. The show is about humanity being tested by an inhumane world.

Last night was the big finale of season three, capping off a conflict that’s been building all year long: Rick vs. the Governor. Fans of the comics have been particularly stoked for that pay-off because the Governor was easily the most compelling antagonist in the graphic novels (or so I’m told).

In the television version, the Governor is the leader of the seemingly idyllic Woodsbury, a town that has built up walls against the apocalypse and managed to keep life relatively normal, despite the hordes of zombies walking around outside. The Governor, as played by David Morrissey, is all Southern charm. To his people, he is a bold leader who has forged a community under the bleakest of circumstances. A hero.

It turns out, though, that Woodbury has only been able to maintain its comfort, quite unknown to most of its own denizens, because of the ruthlessness displayed by the Governor in his quest to gather resources and squelch any potential threats outside the walls. In addition to his many civic-minded initiatives, he also likes to ambush outsides, take all their stuff, and then keep their zombified heads in jars.

Enter the show’s protagonists, led by former sheriff Rick Grimes. When these beleaguered survivors spot an abandoned prison not far from Woodbury, its high walls and fences seem the perfect refuge from a world overrun with zombies. Through trial and heartbreak, Rick and his band–including his own son Carl– dig in behind the prison walls.

The Governor, of course, doesn’t want another stronghold in his neighborhood.

Thematically, all of this is important. The show depicts a world that has become savage and inhospitable to civilized values. Again and again, the protagonists are tested: What will it take to survive in this hellscape? And will you be able to do it?

The Governor’s answer has apparently always been a resounding, “Hell, yes.” He not only does whatever it takes in this “you kill or you die” world, but he does it with gusto.

Rick, not so much.

In the previous season, Rick had been forced to eliminate his own duplicitous and covetous ex-best-friend, Shane, to maintain the safety of his group. After that horrible night–which also saw a murderous “herd” of zombies decimate their ranks–he declared a new leadership paradigm which fans dubbed “The Ricktatorship.” He told the group, “This isn’t a democracy anymore,” and that mantra kept them alive for eight months on the run from the undead (most of which happened off-screen during the season hiatus).

Oh, and did we mention he kind of started to lose his mind this season from the stress? He seemed a bit overwhelmed, what with the hallucinations of his dead wife and all.

But in meeting his foil, Rick rediscovered his humanity. Before the climactic battle in last night’s episode, Rick nullified his absolute role as leader, striking a tone of community and fellowship, telling his cadre, “I’m not your governor.”

This moment was pivotal. It represents the closure of a character arc for Rick, and frankly, kind of the end of the show.

Throughout its run, The Walking Dead has been about Rick coming to terms with this new world. At first, he tried to be decent, to do what would have been right before everything went to H-E-double-hockey-sticks. As time passed, though, he was forced into more and more brutal choices, forced to do things to survive and to protect his family that he would have found shocking before the apocalypse. Eventually, he did become a “Governor Lite” (same great taste, but 87% less psycho).

But as he came face to face with the Governor and as he contemplated the choices at hand–and especially as he saw the hardening of his own son’s heart in this horrible world–he made a choice to turn away from that fate.

The big clash at the prison broke from the storyline of the comics by allowing the Governor himself to escape alive–with only a few loyal henchmen in tow–to menace the prison once again next season. But does it matter? Rick’s spiritual journey is the central arc of the show. Rick’s journey is over. He knows who he is in this world now. He has reached his limits, crossed them, and then come back. He’s done.

Robert Kirkman, creator of the graphic novel series, said that The Walking Dead was meant to be a “zombie movie that never ends,” but ironically, long before it burnt up the story lines from the books, the television series has reached its logical conclusion. It doesn’t matter what kind of boogyman the Governor becomes next season, Rick has defined the boundaries under which he will be faced.

Stories can’t go on forever. If they did, they’d just be like real life (except, I guess, with zombies). We need stories to fold up their tents, to draw a line and call it “The End,” so that we can slap meanings on the things that happened. The Walking Dead asked a big moral question, but now that it’s answered it and settled in behind the big, prison-gray walls (for whatever they’re worth), there’s not likely to be much left but anticlimax.