The Philosophy of The Walking Dead
Welcome to this special Wisecrack Edition of The Philosophy of The Walking Dead, where we take a look at the philosophy of The Walking Dead.
Written by: Alec Opperman
Directed by: Richie Yau and Jared Bauer
Edited by: Ryan Hailey
Assistant Editor: Yesel Manrique
Motion Graphics by: Drew Levin
Additional Artwork by: Jacob Salamon
Narrated by: Jared Bauer
The Philosophy of The Walking Dead
Hey everyone, Jared here – one of the creators here at Wisecrack. Today we’ve got another special episode about a show that everyone is excited to see come back on the air – The Walking Dead
The Walking Dead is the tale of sheriff Rick Grimes and his small band of survivors as they are transformed from coddled, complainers into battle-tested zombie murdering badasses.
It’s also a show about British actor Andrew Lincoln’s struggle to pronounce the name Carl.
The zombie sub-genre has a rich history of social commentary, and the Walking Dead is no different. Whether they be the slow walking, brain craving type , or of the fast running, shrieking persuasion the figure of the zombie has been a metaphor for all sorts of things that keep us up at night. Zombies have represented everything from mindless consumers under capitalism in the Dawn of the Dead, to fears about public health crises in 28 Days Later, immigration in World War Z, or mega-corporations in Resident Evil. And then there’s the fact that zombies originated in Haiti, where many have argued it was a metaphor for slavery. Zombies are projections of our own societal fears.
But The Walking Dead isn’t quite any of these. Sure, it draws some parallels to its predecessors, such as when Andrea picks out a necklace for her sister while a horde of zombies clamor to eat her, similar to the Dawn of the Dead, where survivors take refuge in a shopping mall and epitomize mindless consumers while another kind of mindless consumer eagerly awaits the opportunity to indulge in some organic, mall-to-table meat.
Instead, The Walking Dead explores a multitude of issues, like politics, psychology, and our relationship to death. Also, the joys of cosplaying.
Part 1: What does it mean to Live?
Why are zombies so scary? It’s not just the fact that getting eaten alive probably sucks, but our revulsion at zombies provides deep insights into how we view our own lives. After all, plenty of things can rip out our intestines and, instead of inspiring terror, inspire the dulcet tones of Werner Herzog.
Zombies keep us up at night because they’re like us, but not quite us. They also mess with the fundamental reason that we use to tell ourselves we’re special.
The Walking Dead is, above all else, a show about philosophical boundaries, and 3 in particular: What constitutes life, what constitutes “living,” and what constitutes being human.
The show is constantly asking us to interrogate the difference between life and death. It is after all, called The Walking Dead, and they’re not just talking about zombies, they’re talking about the survivors. It raises the question- What makes us alive?
One of the best moments of the show that explores this happens early on, at the CDC.
When it’s revealed that everyone is infected by Dr. Jenner at the CDC, all of the sudden, the line between “walker” and human seems a bit blurred.
Not only will everyone reanimate, but they’re always so close to death that the distinction seems to melt away. When they open the door to the CDC, Rick’s group is blinded by a flood of light clearly invoking “the light at the end of the tunnel” to heaven, or whatever people believe in these days.
Inside the CDC, a brain scan shows the small section of our brain that still lights up, allowing walkers to move and groan and eat, but everything else is turned off. But you could argue that this means they’re biologically alive. Plenty of animals like worms and insects do just fine with not much more than what walkers are working with.
The show is constantly exploring the distinction between life and death, sometimes blurring it, sometimes questioning, sometimes affirming it.
Characters are constantly unable to let go of loved ones. Morgan can’t shoot his wife, and eventually loses his son for it. Hershel goes collecting zombies like they’re pokemon, convinced that there’s still something human about them. The Governor keeps his daughter trapped in the closet.
In the scene where Andrea’s sister dies, she seems to be lovingly looking into the eyes of her sister, before we learn the warm embrace is just the normal murdery-zombie kind of embrace.
If they have trouble letting go of loved-ones who have turned, it’s because the definition of life was never clear to begin with.
We can break up the questions of life into the philosophical and biological sense. If it’s the ability to move around and make noises, the walkers already have that covered. But there’s also the philosophical question of life – what constitutes a life worth living?
Each character has their own reasons for going on with life. For Dale all life is sacred. Dale admits that he just can’t let go, no matter how bad things get, even when his own wife was dying from cancer. Carol values survival as its own end, too, but without the saccharine moralism. No matter how terrible things get in her life, she just goes on surviving. She’s utterly pragmatic, secretly teaching kids how to defend themselves, pretending to be a harmless housewife, dressing up like one of the Wolves, the list goes on.
And, of course, there’s this speech from Rick:
“When I was a kid I asked my grandpa once if he ever killed any Germans in the war. He wouldn’t answer. He said that was grown-up stuff, so I asked if the Germans ever tried to kill him. But he got real quiet. He said he was dead the minute he stepped into enemy territory. Every day he woke up and told himself, “Rest in peace. Now get up and go to war.” And then after a few years of pretending he was dead he made it out alive. That’s the trick of it, I think. We do what we need to do and then we get to live.”
The question at hand here, at the CDC, and throughout the show seems to be: what’s the point of living if we’re already dead? Is the small glimmer of electric “life” inside the brains of the dead much different than the tiny glimmer of hope that allows Rick and the group to beast through this hell on Earth?
For Rick, being biologically alive is simply a means to an end: for the chance that one day, you’ll get to live. According to our old friend Albert Camus, “there is but one truly philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” At the CDC,Jenner, Andrea and Jacqui decide there is no point to a life devoid of meaning and full of misery, and want to end their life. But for Camus, despite the meaningless of it all, suicide isn’t liberating, only life offers us freedom. The rest of Rick’s group cling to a notion of freedom, not exactly Camus’ notion of freedom, and keep going. And then they, you know, lock themselves up in a prison for the sake of surviving.
Another philosophical question at hand in The Walking Dead is what makes us human? Or, put the other way, what makes us not a zombie? We could say that, unlike zombies, humans have purpose and, for one, don’t hunger for flesh. Except, well, we’re literally confronted with a band of cannibals and the existential question of the show seems to be “If the survivors are just aimlessly wandering around without a purpose from one source of sustenance to the next, and eventually have to resort to cannibalism, then what REALLY differentiates them from the zombies?”.
This blurry distinctions between human and animal leads to a dilemma. A dilemma that is constantly driving the survivors to distance themselves from walkers, even if irrationally. Most survivors want to be killed so they can’t turn. If you die before you’ve turned, you get a proper burial,and huge parts of the second season center around Herschel’s refusal to lose empathy for his turned loved-ones.
It seems that everything that comes to define us as humans is stripped away, leaving only our biological selves. Rick is no longer a cop but a man searching out his offspring and mating partner. Social distinctions are, allegedly, gone. Glenn used to be a delivery guy, now he’s just really good at sneaking around. Still, the survivors desperately cling to symbols that used to define their humanity. Symbols that, in the grand scheme of things, seem kind of stupid. Rick is constantly losing, and recovering, his sheriff’s hat before bestowing it on Carl – a reminder of Rick’s past life and the law. Carol misses her Maytag, Andrea takes a Mermaid necklace – itself an amalgam of man and beast – for her sister, and the show’s creators really really want to show us how awesome hot showers are. So, in other words, a big part of what separates human from animal seems to be our social status, our stuff, and hot showers.
What makes humans, well, human, is one of philosophy’s oldest questions. Aristotle, for instance, argued that that our ability to speak and reason separated us from animals, who merely had the ability to grunt base needs. In the world of zombies, the very idea that a human has lost their ability to reason and speak warrants the claim that they are no longer human. Then again, we could also think of the small part of the brain animating the walkers as the animal part of our brain.
Part 2: Moral Lines
In the world of The Walking Dead, zombies aren’t always the scariest thing out there. The show is constantly exhibiting humanity’s worst: abusive partners, rapists, bandits, whatever the hell the Wolves are doing, and of course, Terminus.
The fact that the home of the cannibals is named after a Roman god isn’t a coincidence. Terminus is the Roman god of boundaries and throughout the show we are confronted with oh-so-many boundaries being crossed. Not only do its denizens survive by eating human flesh, but its captives are kept in train cars that evoke Nazi death camps. Carol even stumbles upon a room of possessions stolen from their victims. Rick’s group is brought to the floor of an industrial slaughterhouse where Gareth’s henchman first knock out their victims and then slice their throat as if they were cattle. Garreth calmly walks in with a notebook, asking his henchmen what their shot counts were for accounting purposes.
We could probably make a whole episode about this scene alone. But what we’ve got is a series of binaries, human/zombie, human/animal, good/evil, civilization/barbarism all being blurred. The residents of Terminus have simultaneously lost their humanity and yet ironically have exhibited humanity’s crowning achievement: bureaucracy.
These boundaries function as more than just empty rhetoric: they’re deeply productive, for better or worse. The line between human/animal serves as a framework for how people should live their lives, before and after the zombie apocalypse. But it also demarcates what gets screwed over in the distinction. Spoiler: it sucks to be the cattle.
It’s why the show focuses so much on the group’s struggle to retain their humanity.
The residents of Terminus were not always like this, and function as a sort of cautionary tale for surviving in the zombie apocalypse. Originally an actual sanctuary for survivors, a group of bandits rolled in and proceeded to lock its inhabitants in train cars before sexually assaulting and eventually murdering them.
When the original residents of Terminus successfully rebel, they lock their original tormentor in a train car to rot where he spends his time yelling “We’re the same”.
It becomes clear that morality, along with a Maytag and a shower, is also what separates us from animals. When escaping from Terminus, Rick wants to abandon the others trapped in the train cars until Glenn convinces him that helping other is integral to their identity.
In the episode “Judge, Jury and Execution,” Rick’s group is faced with a decision of what to do with a captured survivor who may or may not imperil the group if let go. Dale is convinced that the loss of justice equates to the loss of humanity.
Even Garreth likens the signs that would lead to his torture with his humanity.
Other citizens of Terminus equate morals with the inability to survive.
Clearly, being human is more than just a set of biological questions. What The Walking Dead really explores is that there are many, many facets that make us human.
Part 3: Dictatorship
A recurring theme in the show is the struggle between dictatorship and democracy. As it turns out, trying to juggle finding food, maintaining a shelter, and not getting murdered is pretty complicated, especially when multiple people are involved.
We see early on the complications that arise from this: arguments about where to go, how to get there, who needs to do what work and what to do when people break the rules.
Not to mention: who’s in charge? While Rick’s group of survivors talk it out, the always-imminent backup plan is sheer violence. Not to mention that, when walkers are a-comin, talking it out isn’t always the most expedient solution. When Shane and Rick can’t see eye-to-eye on anything anymore, both of them conclude it’s murdering time, with Rick eventually winning.
As the show progresses, Rick is more or less in charge. But the most interesting thing happens at the end of Season 2, when Rick openly declares a dictatorship.
It’s important to note the origin of dictatorships. The term comes from the Ancient Roman legal convention wherein absolute power was bestowed upon an individual in cases of extreme emergency. While now the term is thrown around to indicate shitty rulers and the people we think resemble those shitty rulers, the Roman Dictatorship was a necessity to protect against utter annihilation from invading armies. The famous good-guy-dictator was Cincinnatus. Cincinnatus was a Roman statesman who, after his son ran into some legal trouble, sold most of his land and retired to a small farm. When Rome was in imminent danger from a neighboring Italian tribe, the Roman consul elected Cincinnatus to the position of dictator. As legend goes, a group of senators were dispatched to tell Cincinnatus the news and found him plowing his farm. Cincinnatus put on his toga, headed for Rome, defeated the bad guys, and immediately resigned from his position as dictator. Later, Cincinnatus was elected dictator again, this time to save Rome from a coup. And again, once the coup was stopped, Cincinnatus resigned and went back to farming.
Did we mention Rick Grimes is totally Cincinnatus? Not like, oh, Rick Grimes kind of reminds us of this other guy who had absolute power in the face of scary invaders. But like, oh, this guy leaves his life as a farmer to protect against hordes of enemies only to go back to farming when the threat is gone.
This Roman connection is suspiciously everywhere in the show: The Governor’s Fight Club is reminiscent of gladiator battles, and as previously mentioned- Terminus is the Roman god of boundaries.
The Bible verse where Jesus rises from the dead? Romans 6:4, which is scrawled on Gabriel’s wall.
It’s not exactly clear what the show’s creators are doing here. It could just be that Roman history is a treasure trove of material when you’re trying to think of creative ways drama could play out in a hyper-violent society always on the lookout for hordes of invaders.
But in doing so, The Walking Dead ends up making some really smart commentary on politics, and specifically, sovereignty. Rome, after all, the was site of both history’s most extreme tyrants and foundational representative government.
Part 5: State of Exception
What makes a ruler? According to controversial German political theorist Carl Schmitt, the sovereign is whoever makes the exception. Whether you’re living in the United States or ancient Rome, the sovereign is always the person who can discard the law, to carve out exceptions to the rule. It’s kind of like your shitty hometown mayor who has the police look the other way when his relatives drink and drive, or smoke crack.
The most obvious example of this is Rick “Cincinnatus” Grimes, who simply declares that democracy-time is over. But we also see that when Alexandria is in imminent danger, it’s Rick, not Deanna, who is in charge.
The law is constantly being suspended, and not only by Rick. Shane bypasses the will of the group and kills Randall in the woods. Carol kills and burns flu victims in the prison to stop it from threatening the group. In fact, Shane’s criticism of Rick seems to be heavily rooted in Rick’s ability to make the exception when he won’t execute Randall.
Italian philosopher Giorgo Agamben argues that the state of exception has become the law of our time. No longer an infrequent occurrence, the suspension of the law permeates our society: we see it in the war on terror and refugee camps around the world. Agamben wanted to figure out just how the Nazi concentration camps could happen, and it was in the state of exception that he found his answer.
But because we’re talking about The Walking Dead, let’s put it this way. Rick is your typical modern sovereign. He suspends the law to get shit done and to save people. Sometimes, that means Rick does really messed up things. The difference between Rick and Gareth is only that the suspension of law has become permanent in Terminus. Sure, there is order, but the denizens of Terminus have thrown aside the most basic laws of human morality, like don’t eat people. And for Agamben, the idea that all of the Rick’s of the world are only a few setbacks away from becoming Gareth is terrifying.
The show makes it really clear why, as we discussed earlier, all of these atrocities are in the name of survival. The whole “you’re either the butcher or the cattle” might as well be the familiar tale of the “bird of prey” and the “lamb” espoused by Nietzsche, who of course the Nazis loved to take out of context in their own propaganda.
Rick is constantly invoking this “us or them” logic, suggesting that what separates Rick from Garreth may not be all that much. As Agamben says:
The problem with all of this, Agamben argues, is that whether or not atrocities are committed, whether or not Bob is for breakfast, is dependent on the law enforcer as sovereign, rather than the rule of law. And while we’re not living in a zombie apocalypse, that logic still rules the day. Whether it’s swine flu, natural disasters, or ISIS, the ability of the government to suspend the law is always imminent.
The Walking Dead continues to be one of the smartest shows on TV, and despite being set in a fictional zombie apocalypse, its questions still hit pretty close to home. Questions like, what makes life worth living, what makes us human and exactly what circumstances am I allowed to resort to cannibalism, again? It’s unclear where the show will go: will Rick and his group save the world and build anew, or will Rick continue to ruin every place he comes across? Or, in the end, will the world need to be saved from Rick?