Why 'The Walking Dead' Is a Good Metaphor for Modern Life

Wow, it is a relief to have The Walking Dead back! In the midst of an election cycle that seems to suggest that Donald Trump may very well soon be the leader of the free world, it is good to be reminded that actually, things could be worse. Like if an incurable virus swept the planet turning it into a barren, doomed, zombie-infested wasteland. That would be worse, right? Right???

Oh, how I love The Walking Dead. Loooove it!!! I do realize this genre is not exactly everybody's cup of tea, but it has profound (albeit blood-soaked) wisdom to share about our modern world, so bear with me, nonbelievers. This show employs a lot of good old-fashioned storytelling that appeals to a broad audience... man vs. nature, man vs. invader, man vs. man, man vs. self. Some of what I've learned in six seasons is that a zombie apocalypse is no time for arrogance, laziness, distracted living or abstinence (way to go, Rick and Michonne!!!)... Seriously, if you can get some, hit that RIGHT NOW. It may be your final and only chance. That last lesson may not be such good advice in modern society, but maybe it is? What do I know, I'm married. But the rest of it is pretty poignant stuff in light of our contemporary environment. We all need to get a little humility, step up to the bar and pull our heads out of our smartphones. It's time, people.

The Walking Dead is a dramatic gift that keeps on giving... and taking. Because obviously, a lot of people die on that show. And like in real life, death can feel indiscriminate. It doesn't care how old you are, how intelligent you are, how well-intentioned you are; death comes for "good guys" and "bad guys" in equal measure. Often I mourn the death (I'm still not over losing Dale) but just as frequently I cheer (wasn't all that nice knowing you, Shane, Merle et al). We are constantly asked to grapple with the notion that one man's hero is another man's villain: this speaks directly to our current political environment. On The Walking Dead, tribes of survivors become a stand-in for modern day political movements. Some tribes want to make the world a viable place for all; others only have concern for their own. One of the most interesting things addressed on the show is that in spite of the stalwart nature of character in general, there is, by necessity, a more fluid nature to behavior. In other words, "good" people do "bad" things and vice versa. And again, as in life, there are enemies both within the walls and without.

I am not going to steal anybody's material here, but if you have not seen Louis CK explain why releasing lions into the streets would be a good antidote to the problems we are facing, go to YouTube right now and look that up. The man is a genius, seriously. And substitute the word "zombie" for "lion" and it all works just as well. You can keep that one, Louis! You the man! In early seasons, the zombie-plague did seem to represent a divine "culling of the herd"; only the strong (and those the strong chose to protect) survived. But now survival has morphed into a more allegorical and metaphysical challenge. The first half of this season we were treated to an absolutely brilliant treatise on the nature of humanity in "He's Not Here," where we learned about Morgan's journey from protective dad and heartbroken husband to fractured loner to Zen warrior. We all start life from the perspective of wanting comfort and family and if those dreams aren't realized (or get taken away by circumstance) the instinct is to go rogue; dismiss the importance of connection and focus on the undoing of our "enemies." Based on the amount of violence we have been seeing in the real world, I would say there are a lot of people in this space. But Morgan's life lesson came in the form of a teacher who had lost even bigger than he did, enacted revenge more horribly and learned the hard way that cruelty against others is no succor for the soul. Quite the opposite, in fact.

One of the most fascinating things the show reminds us of is that those decisions between self-interest and global interests are frequently made minute-to-minute. We see the better instincts of our "tribe" constantly being challenged by both the environment and the divisive behaviors of others. Our expectations are continually tested; we root for the survival of the people we identify with at any cost. At the same time we are confronted with the reality that even the most bleak and desperate situation retains an element of hope. Morgan's moral mandate to respect life was recently questioned not only by a seemingly amoral prisoner, but also his own comrade-in-arms, Carol. Again, the enemies are both within the walls and without -- which is an excellent lesson for people who think walls solve problems, by the way. Morgan wanted to break the grip that moral apathy had taken on the prisoner's mind; Carol saw Morgan's behavior as dangerous to their tribe. So who was right? At first it appeared that Carol had called it, when the captive escaped, taking a hostage of his own... who he subsequently died trying to save. His motives were deliberately left cloudy, but the message was delivered: sometimes "why" is not the important question. Our ability to overcome our indifference to the plight of others and take action on their behalf should never be impugned. Because indifference to the plight of others is the epidemic of our time.

The point that The Walking Dead (and I) are making is this... we need to wake up and start identifying with the other "survivors" to work together for the greater good. We are living in a time of scary climate change and escalating natural disasters, partisan division and vitriol unparalleled in our history except during the civil war and chaotic, distracted, abstract, "viral" contact with even our nearest and dearest. Yes, there is an epidemic in our country, and while it may not cause us to eat each other's brains just yet, we are inching dangerously closer every day. The callous disregard displayed in the refugee crisis, the targeting of Muslims and yes, the talk of building "walls" all speaks to an unsettling detachment from the well-being of the brotherhood of man. We need to look each other in the eye and hear each other's voices so as to not be "infected" by moral apathy. Our technology apocalypse has removed from us our inner compass as we abdicate more and more of our human experience to perfected sound bites. Technology allows us to voyeuristically observe both the victimization and "zombification" of our fellow man with more and more detachment. Do we leave our brothers behind and save ourselves? Or do we band together to try to create a more beautiful sense of communion against insurmountable odds? Tune in to AMC, Sundays at 9 to find the answer.

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