When it premiered on Halloween Day two and a half years ago, few expected the now-cultural sensation that is The Walking Dead. Three seasons in, it has become the most-watched basic cable drama in TV history and currently draws more 18-49 year-olds than anything else on TV — beating out network hits like The Big Bang Theory, American Idol, and Modern Family.
The zombie genre is not new or foreign to us. Ever since the original zombie flick Night of the Living Dead came out in 1968, zombie films have been churned out a dime a dozen, finding a loyal niche audience but never registering as more than a blip on our broader cultural consciousness.
So what’s different this time?
If we are to make any sense of The Walking Dead the first thing to understand is that it is not about zombies. Sure, the show makes a point to appeal to its zombie-loving base audience by including at least one token, grotesque zombie kill in each episode, but it departs from the glut of zombie lore at one vital point. In The Walking Dead zombies are an integral part of the setting — the defining mark of the universe in which the story takes place — but they are not its object.
No, The Walking Dead is about people, and like any good story, that’s why we love it. The show’s genius lies in how it uses a zombie-infested, world-gone-to-hell to strip away the superficial masks of suburban America and instead shows us a raw glimpse of human nature. Life in a world full of zombies puts pressure on its inhabitants, turning small conflicts into powder-kegs, tearing apart lifelong relationships. As the show takes its characters down a crooked, brutal path, it plumbs the depths of the human heart, exposing its characters for who they really are.
Consider what one of the great philosophers of our time said of human nature: "They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. I’ll show you, when the chips are down, these civilized people … they’ll eat each other."
In the world of The Walking Dead the Joker’s prediction turns out to be correct … mostly. We see that our civilized values are indeed only worth as much as the extent to which we hold to them when the going gets rough. If compromising our morals tempts us now, how much more in the world of the zombie apocalypse, where mistakenly assuming someone’s innocence can easily mean death? When Rick and company capture a young man in season two, they must choose whether to kill him or let him join them. Killing him would compromise the foundational values of our western democracy, where those on trial are innocent until proven guilty. But the pragmatic alternative pulls hard in the other direction. If they release him, he could easily betray them, return to his people, and cause of death of them all.
This tension becomes even more pronounced in the third season, as Rick appoints himself dictator and vows to keep his people safe at all costs. It's a seemingly noble proposition, but one that nearly leads to his undoing. By making the survival of his friends and family his ultimate goal — and bending his own moral compass to revolve around that goal — Rick falls into a sort of idolatry, growing hostile toward anyone he perceives as even a potential threat to those he loves most. As a result, he starts to lose his humanity, resisting counsel from Hershel, turning away a group of unarmed stragglers who find their way into the prison, and nearly leading everyone to their doom.
The Governor is an even more ironic case. He leads Woodbury with a fierce optimism and idealism, giving his people hope and the will to press on. Yet the whole system sits on the primitive rule of guns and muscle. In the name of preserving civilization, the Governor becomes the least civilized of them all, keeping his zombified daughter chained in his room and using walkers as instruments of execution (in the case of Glen), combat (in his first foray against the prison), and entertainment (in faux gladiator games attended by the whole town).
Clearly, the world of zombies demands a new mode of living and more cautious social norms, but a new moral code? The heartless pragmatism of Shane, Merle, and the Governor, though effective, still grates against our consciences. If there is an ultimate right and wrong, the show seems to suggest that we’re better off sticking to it. Things are simply better when one doesn’t betray Michonne even though it might save many more lives. And the golden rule of "do unto others" still carries some weight, even though those you welcome into your group may be even more dangerous than the zombies you seek refuge from.
The Walking Dead further explores what it means to be human by confronting the deeper existential questions inevitably raised by a zombie apocalypse, asking in clear terms, who am I, and what’s the point of living?
But it does more than ask. It explores the broad range of responses to such questions through different characters with remarkable plausibility. Some, like the scientist at the end of season one, give into despair, take the easy route out, and kill themselves. For others, trial by fire burns away the dross of past sins and abusive pasts, renewing their purpose and love for others. Daryl, for example, was backwoods white trash until he found a desperate widow and her daughter to stand up for, and over the course of three seasons he becomes arguably the most honorable character in the show. Still others embrace a paranoid, animalistic code that proves brutally effective in a universe reduced to the law of the jungle. Merle shamelessly owns up to it, declaring himself the one everyone goes to for their dirty work and killing without question. Shane, in his zeal to protect Laurie and Carl, tries to convince Rick that their world demands a new law: kill-or-be-killed, and he nearly goes insane.
Religion, of course, comes in to the mix too, mostly through Hershel, and the show portrays it with excellent nuance. Hershel is a man of God through and through, and even though his experiences cause him to renounce the hope that some shred of humanity remains in the walkers, and even though he backslides into his old vice of drunkenness and despair, he never gives up the faith, reading Psalm 91 on the eve of the last battle. For believers, is this not a picture of the struggle for faith? Experiences and circumstances make cause us to rethink some of our assumptions, but we continue to press on in the hope that God is still for us, alive, and at work somehow despite much evidence to the contrary.
Underneath it all, the characters of The Walking Dead are all driven by an innate, unflappable will to live. Recall perhaps the most hopeless moment in the very first episode. Underneath the tank, surrounded by zombies with no possible escape, Rick raises his gun to his head just for a moment before climbing into the tank in a last ditch attempt to live.
In the end, we love The Walking Dead because we find people at the center. No Milla Jovovichs a la Resident Evil, just a broken, struggling, unlikely band of brothers and sisters trying to do what’s best by them in a world gone to hell — people clinging to hope against hope in the face of an absurd existence.
People not unlike us.