The end is the beginning: 17 characters who found a fresh start in the apocalypse

The end is the beginning: 17 characters who found a fresh start in the apocalypse

Danny McBride in This Is The End
Danny McBride in This Is The End

1. Harold Lauder, The Stand

A pompous, awkward, acne-spotted 16-year-old, Harold Lauder is one of the few immune to the superflu that wipes out 98 percent of humanity in Stephen King’s post-apocalyptic masterwork. But while others mourn the dead, Harold revels in the demise of his bullies and naysayers. The end of the world means the end of his torment, and he soon refashions himself into a fit, resourceful member of post-apocalyptic society. But if post-apocalyptic art has taught us anything, it’s that chaos ultimately serves to unmask humanity’s true nature. And Harold, bright as he may be, is no match for the anger and resentment that’s forever simmered in his gut. Soon, he throws in with the dark side, copulates with the Dark Man’s bride-to-be, and cripples the community he helped build. Before Harold can fully relish his transformation from dork to conqueror, however, he’s betrayed and left for dead. “I was misled,” he writes in his suicide note. But was he? If you survive the apocalypse, you can be anything you want. This is what he chose. [Randall Colburn]

2. The Vault-Tec Representative, Fallout 4

In Fallout 4’s prologue, this beaming corporate drone shuffles you off to a high-tech fallout shelter just as the bombs begin to fall. But security stops him at the gate and informs him that he won’t be among the chosen few finding safety in the Vault, and he’s left to fend for himself. In a shocking moment later in the game, you encounter him more than 200 years after the world went to shit. (You’ve been kept in cryosleep and he’s been mutated into a deformed, immortal being known as a “ghoul.”) Without a stable home or any sort of support system, he’s spent those two centuries in deep depression and anger over Vault-Tec’s “betrayal,” but a kind-hearted player can bring some purpose and a glimmer of hope into his life by offering him a home and job in their new settlement. [Matt Gerardi]

3. Danny McBride, This Is The End

James Franco, Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, Craig Robinson, Jonah Hill, and Danny McBride all play themselves in the apocalypse meta-comedy This Is The End, though they’re not playing themselves so much as a variation on their stock character types. Take McBride, who essentially casts himself as a real-life version of Kenny Powers, the narcissistic, foul-mouthed monster he plays on Eastbound & Down. Unbound by the redemptive arcs intrinsic to serialized storytelling, however, McBride is, in this post-apocalyptic landscape, allowed to do what Kenny never could: Go full villain. So McBride sabotages his friends and sets off on his own, only to reemerge later as the filthy, skull-crowned leader of a group of cannibals, with Channing Tatum (“Tate-YUM!”) as his sex slave, no less. “I do whatever the fuck I want, when I want!” he tells his former co-stars, none of whom realized faster than McBride that, in the end times, fame won’t save you. [Randall Colburn]

4. Laura Roslin, Battlestar Galactica

All things being equal, the people of Battlestar Galactica’s 12 Colonies got pretty lucky, leadership-wise, when the Cylons showed up in the opening hours of Syfy’s frustrating, brilliant mid-2000s space drama, and wiped out more than 99 percent of the human population. On the day before the attack, Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell, inexplicably Emmy-less) was a political non-entity, a secretary of education unwanted by her own administration, and 43rd in the line for succession. The day after, she was the president, humanity’s hard-willed, sometimes messianic shepherd, the keeper of the big white board where she counted down every time someone died and brought the last human remnants closer to extinction. The stern mother figure to her military counterpart (and eventual lover) Bill Adama’s big-hearted father, Roslin rarely afforded herself the luxuries of kindness or mercy, earning the fan nickname “Madame Airlock” for her zero-tolerance policy toward Cylon infiltrators. But she was also the robot-hunted fleet’s fiercest protector, bringing a passion that had been long-squandered on minor political issues and dull pageantry fully to bear on the problems—like, what does a liberal-minded political figure do when a young woman wants to abort one of the only pregnancies left in existence?—of keeping her citizens alive in the impossible death-chase they found themselves trapped in. [William Hughes]

5. Sister Creep, Swan Song

Robert R. McCammon’s novel Swan Song is to The Stand what Terry Brooks’ The Sword Of Shannara is to Lord Of The Rings: a sprawling work that, while somewhat of a ripoff job, is still well-written and figures out its own identity in the last third of the pages. If the reader can get past the all-too-familiar plot of an apocalypse leading to two supernaturally driven factions of humankind, there’s also an ensemble cast worthy of any Paul Thomas Anderson film. Most memorable is Sister Creep, a crazed bag lady who, thanks to dwelling in the bowels of New York City’s subway system, manages to survive the initial nuclear attack. Having lost her mind some time ago after killing her daughter in a drunk-driving accident, she finds a considerable amount of redemption in her post-apocalyptic life, working toward a plane of greater mental stability as she joins forces against the book’s main antagonist, The Dark Man… er, The Man With The Scarlet Eye. Better yet, her journey toward salvation is a realistic one—not so much an instant conversion as a slow evolution. With every collapsing building she escapes, with every encounter with a villain she survives, it’s as if McCammon’s telling us that he has much bigger plans for her, and by the end, he certainly does. [Dan Caffrey]

6. Columbus, Zombieland

Zombieland kicks off post-apocalypse, but a flashback reveals that even before “mad zombie disease” ravaged the world, leaving few uninfected human beings, Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) was practically an orphan. The geeky college student used to hole up in his apartment, playing video games and chugging various Mountain Dew flavors, his only real connection to the world being his parents in Ohio. The isolation works in his favor at first, because it means he has no one to stick his neck out for and no one to slow him down—and in this new, mostly undead world, sympathy can get you killed. Columbus leans on a self-imposed code that includes the “double tap” rule and, more importantly, bans heroics. But while on the journey that earns him his moniker, Columbus meets the zombie-killing virtuoso Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) and a pair of scheming sisters, including the beautiful Wichita (Emma Stone). And thanks to his adopted family, Columbus finds his gumption—and hope. [Danette Chavez]

7. Aunty Entity, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome

In Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, series protagonist Max (Mel Gibson) crosses paths with Aunty Entity (Tina Turner), the ruler of a bustling outpost. She offers Max a curt summary of her history: “Do you know who I was? Nobody. Except on the day after, I was still alive. This nobody had a chance to be somebody.” Not just anybody can look on the desolate wreckage of civilization leveled and laid flat by the apocalypse as a fresh canvas, but Aunty does. While Max remains in constant motion to keep his haunted past from finding him, Aunty has chosen to bury hers and build something better on its grave. What she built was Bartertown, a methane-powered city boasting electricity, only slightly irradiated water, and the titular Thunderdome; a massive dueling cage that serves as both Bartertown’s court of law and primary entertainment venue. Her justice is cruel and her deals are slippery, but she justifies every decision as being for the benefit of the delicate civilization she’s nurturing. When Max and a tribe of feral children make their escape from Bartertown, they inadvertently destroy it in the process. Aunty rides out after them in pursuit, but not before promising the gathered survivors that on her return, she will rebuild again. [Nick Wanserski]

8. Jake Green, Jericho

It’s never easy being seen as the black sheep of a family, and it’s even worse for Jake Green—the black sheep in question—who’s shepherded into participating in an armed robbery that goes horribly wrong. Shaken, Jake (Skeet Ulrich) slips out his hometown of Jericho, Kansas, and disappears for half a decade, returning only in the wake of his grandfather’s death to pay his respects and claim his inheritance. Just as he’s in the process of skipping town again, there’s a nuclear attack, leading Jake to return home. Despite his sullied reputation, Jake steps up to bat in the wake of the attack and becomes a town leader, forming a new law enforcement unit (the Jericho Rangers) and helping seek out fuel, supplies, and information in order to rebuild the town. In turn, the man who was once a pariah becomes something not unlike a savior to the people of Jericho. Not bad for a black sheep. [Will Harris]

9. Tom Mason, Falling Skies

The old saying is that those who don’t understand history are doomed to repeat it, so when society is forced to start over, having a historian on hand sounds like a smart idea. After an alien invasion decimates the world and reduces humanity to refugee status, the rebels of the 2nd Massachusetts find that resource in Tom Mason (Noah Wyle), who prior to the invasion was a Boston University professor of American history. Tom’s at first largely concerned with keeping his family alive, but his knowledge of past military tactics and inspirational stories of America’s revolutionary success lead him to climb the leadership ranks, able to earn the respect of more hardened individuals like military veteran Weaver (Will Patton) and ruthless killer Pope (Colin Cunningham). As the survivors begin to coalesce into a new government, his intelligence and his fundamental decency even lead to him to the unlikely position of president of the United States. Though in seeking to emulate his historical heroes, he’d abdicate the position in favor of what he saw as a more important role, educating and guiding others—in between shooting aliens in the head. [Les Chappell]

10. Carol Peletier, The Walking Dead

One of the main themes of The Walking Dead, both in the comic and on the TV show, is the myriad ways humanity’s had to harden itself in the post-apocalyptic zombie-scape. As such, countless characters had to redefine their identities in order to survive. Daryl (Norman Reedus), for example, emerged as a resourceful leader after spending his pre-apocalypse life in the shadow of big brother Merle. And then there’s the sociopathic Governor (David Morrissey), who transformed from milquetoast to bloodthirsty after losing those he loved. In the comic, he even goes so far as to take on the name of his deceased older brother, who, in life, commanded the respect the Governor so badly desired. But no one evolved quite like Carol (Melissa McBride), the calculating crack-shot badass who, lest we forget, entered the apocalypse a soft-spoken and abused wife and mother. And though we cheer that transformation, it was born from tragedy, cold pragmatism, and a rising ambivalence. Her evolution is far from over, and wherever it ends up won’t be pretty. [Randall Colburn]

11. Joel, The Last Of Us

Nothing kicks off a fresh start quite like the mushroom-person apocalypse. The Last Of Us game ends the world slowly, picking up 20 years after a wild fungus has turned most of humanity into clicking, yellow people eaters. There is still a semblance of society, if not civilization, with military forces and scattered tribes holding territory like in Boston where our hero Joel has set up shop. Back before the great shrooming, Joel was a single dad raising his daughter in the Deep South and seemingly doing a great job of it. After an apocalyptic generation has passed, though, he’s become a hard drinking arms dealer adept at smuggling all kinds of contraband through dangerous territory controlled by the military, crime lords, and extra bitey fungus zombies. He’s clearly never gotten over the murder of his daughter, but he’s also become an incredibly competent survivor, developing the mercenary skill set that lets him find a new family in his ward/cargo Ellie. [Anthony John Agnello]

12. Terra Branford, Final Fantasy VI

One of the few eschatological works to spend roughly equal time on both sides of the pre- and post-apocalyptic divide, Final Fantasy VI sees all of its characters changed, to greater and lesser degrees, by the magical explosion that blows the world to hell at its dramatic halfway point. None more so, though, than initial protagonist Terra, who spends the first half of the game as an amnesiac pawn, subject to manipulation from both the sinister Empire and well-meaning Returners, who each want to take advantage of her half-human nature and transform her into a living weapon. But then the world blows up, shattering all those best-laid plans, and scattering the player’s party to the wind. By the time Terra is found again, she’s a transformed woman (literally): Fierce in battle, confident, and bearing complete mastery of her half-Esper form, she’s found a purpose in life, protecting a village of children orphaned by the ongoing disaster. Normally, a female character finding meaning in (surrogate) motherhood would be a little eye-rolling, but “Mama” latches onto the kids of Mobliz as a symbol of hope in a broken world, one that makes this one-time sufferer of existential angst a stirring mouthpiece for the game’s ultimately optimistic tone. [William Hughes]

13. Elliot, Mercury Fur

Elliot, the protagonist of Philip Ridley’s cripplingly bleak stage play, Mercury Fur, goes through two huge changes after a vaguely defined apocalypse in London’s East End. First, the once-directionless youth shows some ambition by starting a business with his fellow gang members, a stomach-churning enterprise where they stage wealthy clients’ darkest, most hedonistic fantasies. Without spoiling too much (it’s better if you don’t know what you’re getting into when reading or seeing the play), one of them involves a young boy, a meathook, and an Elvis costume. The second change is more comforting and relatable. As the play progresses, the audience discovers why Elliot is continuing to foster such soul-crushing acts among the elite, and it largely has to do with saving his almost nonexistent group of loved ones, namely his younger brother. Like so many great pieces of post-apocalyptic fiction, Mercury Fur doesn’t judge its main character—although it very well should—as much as it explores the depressing lengths he’ll go to save those he cares about. As his depravity grows, so does his instinct of protection. [Dan Caffrey]

14. Blaine, iZombie

Technically the apocalypse hasn’t happened in iZombie. But it could break out at any moment, thanks largely to David Anders’ charmingly nasty Blaine. After all, Blaine was the drug dealer who sold the tainted stuff that caused the initial zombie outbreak. And then he decided to use his zombieism to make half of the rich people in Seattle undead, all so he could sell them brains at exorbitant rates (in iZombie, time spent without brains triggers feral shambler zombies—otherwise they can function in society reasonably well, cerebellum cravings aside). Who cares if it’s the end of the world as long as Blaine gets paid, right? But he wasn’t always this way. Early in the show’s second season, as the delightful villain begins his expected transition into antiheroism, Blaine confesses to the show’s hero, Liv: “Before I became a zombie, I was wasting my life. Human Blaine was a nobody, he was an underachiever, he was a joke. Zombie Blaine, though. Zombie Blaine was the man.” Given the excitement Anders’ performance adds the show, viewers certainly would agree. [Rowan Kaiser]

15. Theo, Children Of Men

The world of Children Of Men presents a subtle apocalypse. No great wars or cataclysmic natural disasters cleaved the world into a before and after. Instead, some unknown affliction has caused humanity to stop reproducing. In the absence of a future for the species, the people who remain have become despondent. Britain stands as one of the few intact governments, but has become violently authoritarian; detaining and torturing waves of immigrants fleeing their own collapsing nations. Theo (Clive Owen) is a former journalist who has given in to despair following the death of his child. Seeing no hope for the future, he chooses to detach from his life and watch the slow winding down of the clock through a dull fog of alcohol. He’s startled from his torpor when his estranged wife entrusts him with protecting the first pregnant woman the world has seen in over 20 years. His investment begins as a simple survival instinct. The woman, Kee, is wanted by multiple groups, and evading them offers no alternative but to act. But it isn’t long before traveling with Kee rekindles Theo’s sense of responsibility to something greater than himself. In the movie’s startling climax, an entire warring city holds still as Theo, Kee, and the newborn baby pass through to safety. Theo hovers protectively over Kee, but there is no need. He sees the same purpose that has infused him radiate outward as everyone looks on silently, made reverent by hope. [Nick Wanserski]

16. Gary King, The World’s End

The apocalypse depicted in Edgar Wright’s science-fiction comedy The World’s End doesn’t upset Gary King (Simon Pegg)’s ongoing quest to have a good time with his friends, but it does prove an impetus for subtle changes in his character. For most of the film, King is a poster boy for stunted manhood, a selfish alcoholic who tricks his mates into reliving an epic pub-crawl by fibbing that his mother has died. In the final scene of the film—after aliens have zapped our technology and sent Earth back to the Stone Age—we see that King is doing another pub-crawl, this time drinking water, and that his friend group consists entirely of “Blanks,” alien androids left behind after an aborted takeover. At first, it seems that Gary has finally found friends who will be forever young and follow his lead without question. However, we then witness him fight for the Blanks’ inclusion in this new society, suggesting a dilution of his selfishness and a remarkably progressive social stance. It took the end of the world for King to see his mates not just as catalysts for hell-raising, but as people—even though this time they’re technically not. [Matt Wayt]

17. Frank West, Dead Rising

He may not be the most virtuous of photojournalists, but Frank West knows an opportunity when he sees one. After getting a hot tip from an anonymous source, he helicopters in to the quiet town of Willamette, Colorado and finds himself at the center of the undead outbreak in Dead Rising, Capcom’s goofy zombie-apocalypse video game. After surviving three days in a shopping mall overrun by zombies and government agents looking to cover up the event at any cost, Frank seizes his chance to become a national celebrity, leveraging his newfound fame into a string of endorsement deals and a TV show. Though the conspirators behind the Willamette incident are able to cast doubt on Frank’s reports and bring an end to his time in the sun, he sticks to his convictions and heads back into the field to back up and promote his “conspiracy theories.” Frank’s celebrity doesn’t last, but it turns out it was just the fortuitous mid-point in his transformation from money-grubbing photographer to zombie-apocalypse folk hero. [Matt Gerardi]