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The Walking Dead and a Refuge from the Modern State

Tags Big GovernmentMedia and CultureOther Schools of Thought

09/26/2013Paul A. Cantor

Note: This article contains spoilers.

AMC’s hit series The Walking Dead portrays a grim and bleak world, in which the rapid spread of a zombie plague has brought humanity to its knees. With flesh-eating ghouls roaming all over the landscape, the remaining people are not sure how to protect themselves or how to eke out a subsistence level of food and other necessities. The story is told largely from the perspective of a group of characters from small-town, semi-rural Georgia. At first they maintain their faith in government authorities; the principal character, Rick Grimes, is himself a sheriff’s deputy. In particular, the characters pin their hopes on the federal government. For example, one of their plans is to set out for Fort Benning, on the assumption that the U.S. Army will provide a safe haven from marauding zombies. The characters never make it to Fort Benning or any other military installation, but that may be fortunate for them. From what they hear on the road, Fort Benning has been overrun by zombies and in general the U.S. military is no longer functioning.

In the last two episodes of Season One of The Walking Dead, the central characters seek out none other than C.D.C. headquarters in Atlanta, believing that, if any place will have a cure for the zombie plague, it will be the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the C.D.C. building turns out to be a death trap. Only one of its scientists is left alive, and, in his desperate quest to find a cure for the zombie infection, he seems to be on the brink of insanity and has turned suicidal. Far from being presented as a benign force for good, government science comes across as a sinister power in The Walking Dead. We learn, for example, that the C.D.C. weaponized smallpox. In fact, the C.D.C. headquarters building contains so many dangerous germ specimens that it is programmed to self-destruct when its power runs down (lest the germs be released into the ambient air). Reminiscent of HAL in the Stanley Kubrick film 2001, the C.D.C. computer has taken control away from the one remaining scientist in the headquarters. Following its protocols and standard operating procedures, the computerized containment system destroys the most important zombie specimen the C.D.C. possesses, much to the dismay of the scientist who had been experimenting with it.

As portrayed in the series, the C.D.C. seems to represent government science at its most inhuman and frightening, an overwhelming force on automatic pilot, indifferent to ordinary people’s feelings or concerns. Humans have lost control of the scientific apparatus of the C.D.C. and it is now bent on a course of destruction. Our band of heroes and heroines barely escape with their lives, and indeed the remaining scientist and one of the regular characters are killed in a massive explosion. The C.D.C. normally serves as a prime symbol of the competence of government institutions in dealing with large-scale catastrophes. The way it fails the characters in The Walking Dead and almost destroys them reveals how the series rewrites the standard pro-government disaster narrative in pop culture.1  No wonder the real C.D.C. felt that it had to come up with its own zombie comic book to set the record straight.

The Walking Dead suggests that government and other modern institutions connected to it do not offer solutions to catastrophic problems but in fact only exacerbate them. It offers a number of horrifying scenes in hospitals, revealing the savage battles that took place between zombies and military forces (unlike the C.D.C.’s zombie comic book, The Walking Dead does not balk at showing the government using force against its citizens). Supposedly the sites where the zombie infection might be cured or at least contained, hospitals turned out to be a means of spreading the plague among concentrated populations. As articulated in the television series and even more clearly in the earlier comic book version, the main government strategy for dealing with the plague was to concentrate people in major cities such as Atlanta, where, it was hoped, they could be protected more easily by civilian and military authorities.2 Many of the characters were lured into Atlanta by the promise of safety in numbers, only to find to their dismay that it was the zombies whose numbers prevailed in urban conflict. Government central planning came up with the centralization of the population as the solution to the problem—concentrate people and fix them within a supposedly defensible perimeter. But in The Walking Dead this standard operating procedure of governments backfires and only makes it easier for the ever-increasing horde of zombies to prey upon the remaining humans.3

Instead of a fixed existence in population centers, The Walking Dead offers decentralization and a nomadic way of life as the better response to the zombie plague. In Season Two, the characters hit the road and keep on the move to escape falling prey to the prowling zombies. Their mobile existence centers on an RV, a camper that perfectly symbolizes the characters’ new life as nomads. The farther they get from government and modern institutions, the safer they appear to become. In their nomadic existence in Season Two they might even be said to travel back in time. They stumble upon a scene straight out of nineteenth-century America — an isolated farmhouse, presided over by a patriarchal figure named Hershel. At first they are safer with him and his traditional homestead than they were in Atlanta, with all the modern scientific resources of the C.D.C. Grimes’s son Carl is accidentally shot and only Hershel can save him. To be sure, Hershel turns out to be a veterinarian, not a medical doctor, let alone a board-certified surgeon. But what he lacks in medical expertise, he makes up for in bedside manner. Carl does not have the benefit of all the facilities of a big-city hospital but Hershel is willing to sit up with him all night to make sure that he survives. Although Hershel lacks the scientific background that a medical specialist might bring to bear, his personal knowledge of and concern for the boy make him in effect the better doctor. In The Walking Dead old-fashioned home health care appears to trump the complex government medicine programs represented by the C.D.C.

Unfortunately the bucolic idyll on Hershel’s farm cannot last forever, and eventually in Season Two the property is overrun by zombies. Diminished in numbers, the main characters again take to the road in order to survive. Constantly forced to fall back on their own resources, they demonstrate a remarkable degree of resilience and learn to cope with their problems on their own, without any aid from government. They figure out how to protect themselves and to forage for what they need. Their local knowledge stands them in good stead — a young pizza delivery boy named Glenn, who lacked status in the pre-apocalypse world, now becomes a heroic figure, with his ability to navigate urban environments during re-supply missions.4 The individual survival skills of the characters — especially the ability to use a crossbow, a samurai sword, or all kinds of guns — turn out to be the key to the band’s safety.

Season Three presents two models of order — a prison and a sort of gated community called Woodbury. In the paradoxical terms of The Walking Dead, the prison turns out to be preferable to the model town of Woodbury. A prison is normally thought of as the ultimate image of government control, a site in which convicts are contained and subject to thorough regulation by their guardians. But what the characters in The Walking Dead discover is a prison that has been ravaged by the zombie plague. The warden, staff, and guards have either fled or been zombified themselves. Under Grimes’s leadership, the characters manage to deal with the surviving prisoners and the remaining zombies in the prison, and to secure a safe perimeter for themselves. A building originally designed to keep the inmates in becomes a means of keeping out the hostile world surrounding our heroes and heroines. The prison becomes their new refuge.

The main threat confronting the characters emanates from Woodbury. A typical American small town, Woodbury has walled itself off from the surrounding world and its zombies, turning into the ultimate gated community. The situation in the town reveals how ominous the revival of government in the post-apocalypse world can be. Woodbury is presided over by a figure known simply as the Governor. Partly a glad-handing southern politician and partly a paranoid dictator, the Governor runs Woodbury with an iron fist. He claims to be a benevolent despot, but we see little of his benevolence. In another example of the downside of central planning, nothing happens in Woodbury that escapes the Governor’s command. His obsession with control eventually leads him to wipe out virtually the entire population of the town because they will not carry out his orders in attacking Grimes and his associates in the prison. It is the planned community of Woodbury that turns out to be the real prison in the third season of The Walking Dead — and another death trap. The character of the Governor seems to reflect the skepticism in The Walking Dead about governments — in the name of protecting and controlling their citizens, they mainly seem to be engaged in annihilating them.

Next Time: The Economics of Apocalypse: A Tale of Two C.D.C.’s.

  • 1. Alex Hadju, production designer of the TV series, said about the C.D.C. scenes: “When I read the script, it felt very Cold War to me, in a Kubrick kind of way. Of course the image of the war room in Dr. Strangelove came to mind. I felt nothing better illustrated the futility of a powerful government institution faced with an unsolvable dilemma than that symbolic film reference.” As quoted in Paul Ruditis, The Walking Dead Chronicles: The Official Companion Book (New York: Abrams, 2011), p. 174.
  • 2. See Ruditis, Walking Dead Chronicles, on Issue 2 of the comic book: “Glenn tells Rick that the government’s plan to herd everyone into the cities was a failure. All it did was provide food for the undead, turning everyone within the city limits into these creatures.” (p. 25).
  • 3. The C.D.C. comic acknowledges this possibility but in effect dismisses it as merely a nightmare.
  • 4. Readers familiar with Austrian economics will recognize this as a Hayekian argument about the importance of local and dispersed knowledge (which is inevitably denied to central planners). See Friedrich Hayek, “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” Individualism and Economic Order (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948), pp. 77-91. For another theoretical framework to aid in understanding The Walking Dead, see James C. Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009). In analyzing strategies for evading state control, Scott provides insight into The Walking Dead, which in effect takes place in what Scott calls “shatter zones,” interstices between state spaces.

Paul A. Cantor

Paul A. Cantor (1945–2022) was Clifton Waller Barrett Professor of English at the University of Virginia and the author of Pop Culture and the Dark Side of the American Dream: Con Men, Gangsters, Drug Lords, and Zombies.