In season 4 of AMC’s The Walking Dead, I recognized an allusion to John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Last night, during the first episode of season 7, however, my literary response was much more generalized and visceral—William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
The series adaptation of the comic book has wondered into George R.R. Martin territory in which the primary reason to watch is to determine which major character dies; and last night, viewers experienced the sort of gratuitous violence pornography that the show seems unable to resist. As Osvaldo Oyola harkened in 2012: “The ubiquitous horror and violence of the zombie genre just makes the violence present in our own lives hypervisible”; although Rick Grimes seems to have chosen the lower road anticipated by Oyola.
Dystopian science fiction, what zombie narratives are, tends to render a future world that has come full circle to the earliest consequences of being human—having both an oversized intellect and the ever-present and never-ending need to survive, even if that survival depended on taking the lives of others, possibly even innocent others.
Primitive humans and humans in dystopian futures grapple with the ethics of survival.
But to be frank, watching two popular and engaging characters have their heads battered into bloody pulps by a barbed-wire-wrapped baseball bat—to have the dark humor of that being called a “vampire bat”—this episode paled in comparison to the anxiety and disappointment I feel about the actual world in which we live here in the U.S.
America has a litany of fatal flaws, one of which is our belief in human choice that has been idealized into a fetish.
Politicians, the media, and the average citizen call for choice as the magic elixir to cure any and all ills.
Despite the numerous lessons of literature and art, despite the daily lessons of being a sentient human.
With our amazing oversized brains, we have created in the U.S. a world in which we mostly do not have to fear a wild animal stalking us or a rival clan set on raping and pillaging our village.
Or at least among the privileged.
The cynical version is that we have the capacity to make this true for everyone—but we choose not to.
But there is an even uglier choice that we make. The choice of violence.
To return to Oyola’s investigation of the comic book, Grimes has repeatedly created the situations in which characters die because of his choices—choices that force him to step into his own quagmire as the White Knight. It is a perverse cycle with which the AMC series seems to have become nearly solely obsessed.
With two heads battered into the dirt and Rick poised to chop off his own son’s arm, the viewer is wrestled once again into Rick’s manufactured hell within a zombie apocalypse hell.
As I tensed wondering how long the camera would be lingering on the hacked off arm, I realized that this episode paled in comparison to Trump’s rise and the unleashed venom of his supporters.
We are a people who still justify violence toward women and children, sexual and psychological violence as well as pure brute force.
We are a people who will shout about being pro life while pretending that our smart bombs don’t erase innocent children, women, and men over there at an alarming rate.
We are a people who are shocked—I mean shocked—that men conditioned to be violent are violent in their daily lives.
The human condition in 2016 is much more upsetting than the slow and nearly cartoonish death of Glenn beside his dear pregnant Maggie.
The cartoonish Trump and the uglier streak of humanity he attracts, emboldens, and represents—that is where there is real terror, real disappointment in who humans are and what humans are willing to endure.
The Waking Dead as a TV series seems, ironically, to be near the opposite of the zombie narrative; it is a thing that cannot long live.
And some other series with promise will fill its void, and soon flounder, sputter, slip through the fingers of popular demand.
But the actual real world—not the reality show version that kept Trump on life support before his turn as clown-politician—is no passing phase of pop culture.
Yes, hu(man)ns have choice, and we have made that choice violence.