Before diving into the juicy, bloody guts of AMC’s television series The Walking Dead, let us first take at least a cursory review of civilization, and what it means to exist in our modern, Western society. In its essence, civilization is simply an organized grouping of individuals who work together towards some common purpose. Typically that purpose includes such objectives as the keeping of historical records, the creation and advancement of art and literature, and the development of laws, customs and sciences with which to govern, manage and sustain the people within the civilization. For modern Westerners, free enterprise and, moreover, freedom itself, are the hallmarks of a society designed to allow each individual the right to pursue his or her own dreams and desires, and to give voice to the laws and customs that come into being within their society. It’s this process of bootstrapping that gives Western civilization its taste and characteristic quality. Progress can be defined in the West as the enhancement of personal freedoms and choices, with increased economic, cultural and scientific developments providing both opportunities for the former along with pride-among-the-pack sophistications when compared with other societies throughout the world.
Western civilization in The Walking Dead is, well, dead
It’s no mystery that in The Walking Dead, society as modern Westerners have come to know it has broken down completely. There are no more trips to the store, meals and drinks at the gastro-pub, nor evenings on the porch or indoors watching old George A. Romero “…Of The Dead” films. The environment is post-apocalyptic in its most recognizably dreadful. But it’s not just dreck and detritus that rule the day. There is a hostile element to life in this “New West” that is overtly threatening.
The show’s producers and writers have consistently created more and more momentum into the motif exposing the non-undead – the living humans akin to you and I – as posing more of a threat to the survival of humans than the zombies themselves. The diseased certainly pose a constant threat to everyone’s survival, but it’s almost been relegated to a type of nuisance, at least for any cast member worth his or her weight in gross physical combat. The danger lying around every corner is of course acute and intensely pertinent. While a single undead walker is literally nothing more than a nuisance, a small herd is enough to drive even our courageous characters into a bit of a panic. And, lest I remit my former statement, a single well-placed zombie of substantial size might even take down the largest heroes. After all, the last episode of Season 5 shows main character Rick Grimes on his back, with a beastly walker atop him straining viciously for his throat as Rick exerts all of his strength to keep enough distance between them so as to save his own skin, as it were.
Yet time after time (go ahead, sing a few bars), the show develops a more sinister theme than mere heart-pounding walker whacking. The real fear that began even as early as Season 1 has grown into an unseen, unknown monster of staggering strength and evil. This is the fear of one’s fellow surviving humans. The zombies have created a monumental fear-state in everyone’s consciousness. The people themselves in turn respond. While some band together (such as the main characters in the show, albeit with a rocky history themselves), what becomes of many of these humans is a regression into a primal and animalistic state of pure, raw survival instincts. With limited resources such as food and water, and no real way to create a sustainable agriculture due to the influx of zombie herds that can ransack a farm and destroy a small village in a matter of minutes, surviving humans are left to scavenge, scheme and fight their way to the next day of their lives. In The Walking Dead, what you have is taken from you at every turn, not by the undead, but by the living. Some kill recklessly for it. Others use deception to lure naive survivors into traps, and then steal not only their weapons and food/water supplies, but even their lives because, according to comedian Eddie Izzard, “Humans taste of chicken.” Seriously though, there have been cannibals on the show.
What’s in a civilization that’s uncivilized?
Now at the end of Season 5 in Alexandria and ready to take charge, Rick Grimes and company are tasked with creating an effective defensive structure and offensive strategy that might have a chance at ensuring their and the initial Alexandria residents’ survival. While (pre-apocalyptic) Congresswoman Deanna Monroe has been innocently leading her flock towards a passive existence behind their corrugated walls, living enemies without these flimsy gates are encroaching and, almost without a doubt, will eventually find their way into the neighborhood and either take it, or destroy it while trying to do so. Such is the nature of this new society. While not necessarily kill or be killed (although the show is close to that condition), the state is perhaps take or be taken.
Violence, aggression, distrust and doubt have become the hallmarks of this “New West”. These have replaced art, literature, custom and culture and remain the paramount principles with which each member of this razed civilization must learn if they are to survive. Theirs is a civilization of compulsion over progression. They have been thrown into a reality that requires them to be harsh and cruel, to distrust anyone they haven’t personally vetted (and even then, to perhaps never trust fully), and to struggle, strategize and strengthen themselves into quasi-war-machines so they might live to see another day.
Yet it seems that there is still a kernel of desire buried within each of the protagonists in the story to re-evolve back into the civilized state. Their reversion into the primal-civilized state of small tribes holding violent temperaments doesn’t appear to sit well with anyone on the show. If it did, they wouldn’t still be human, but wolves – singularly animals. There would be a lost connection between their characters and us civilized humans watching the program. For we all seem to resonate with the desire to see an even greater civilization than what we currently behold and experience. It may be this reaching for an elusive, perhaps seemingly impossible, ideal that reflects each one of our own interior civilizations, yearning to manifest outwardly.