The Walking Dead succeeds by making death a character

The Walking Dead succeeds by making death a character

Every week when I get my screener of The Walking Dead, it’s one of the very first things I watch, in spite of the fact that it can be often laughably bad and rarely rises above “pretty okay.” The characters are, at best, one-dimensional, the plotting is strained, and this season’s serialized story has amounted to a bunch of characters jockeying around for more than a dozen episodes, heading for a confrontation that’s always been obviously coming. The season’s eight-and-eight split structure—in which eight episodes aired last fall and another eight this winter—has led to some weird choices that underline the apparently frequent network complaints from AMC about the show’s lack of story (rumored to have felled two showrunners at this point). Judging from season three, it seems this show has only one story to tell: Zombies show up, and maybe some people die. Rinse and repeat dozens of times. 

Yet I love The Walking Dead in spite of myself. I hesitate to really recommend it to most people, because of the host of problems described above. What it does better than just about any show on TV, though, is create an endlessly oppressive mood of dread. It’s not exactly clear just how long a series can get by on mood, but Walking Dead seems dedicated to trying for the foreseeable future. And viewers are eating it up. The show’s easily the most-watched dramatic series on TV among the younger demographics that advertisers long to attract, the kind of breakout hit that TV’s not supposed to have anymore, and every time I talk to someone who’s a super-fan of the show, they mention that they’re drawn to one of two elements: the zombies or the post-apocalyptic vibe. 

This isn’t surprising. Most people watch TV series for their premises, after all. Yet comparing Walking Dead to another series that plays in more or less the same ballpark reveals what makes the show work as well as it does. Think, for instance, of NBC’s Revolution, another show that rarely rises above pretty okay and has attracted a fairly sizable audience (though never as sizable as Walking Dead’s). On Revolution, the apocalypse becomes almost cuddly. Even though the power went out and returned humanity to an agrarian society it was ill-equipped to rejoin just over a decade ago, people seem to be getting along well enough in the world of that show. Sure, there are marauding gangs bent on death and destruction, but for the most part, the show leaves them on the edges. The real story here is about a found family making its way through a series of quests straight out of a tabletop role-playing game, the better to figure out how to restore power to the world.

That’s fine, as these things go. TV would be nowhere without found-family stories that leave the darker emotions at the series’ edges, and Revolution has built up a nice head of steam as it’s gone along. But it’s also working within a very familiar narrative. The heroes are going to undertake an impossible quest, and they’ll presumably succeed at some point. There are no such assurances on The Walking Dead. To the degree that the series’ Walkers can be cleared out of one location, they’ll always pop up in greater numbers somewhere else. Never mind how this might work in real life; in The Walking Dead, all is death and grimness and horror. The characters who live in this world are confronted, often viscerally, with the fact that they, too, will die.

In the Middle Ages, Christian artists began working around the concept of the memento mori, a reminder in a work of art that its viewer would someday die. The hope was to play up the ultimate emptiness of vanity, of living one’s life to gain things rather than working toward the betterment of the everlasting soul. The memento mori could be completely obvious, as with skeletons carved into the lids of crypts and tombs, or it might be as simple as a human skull painted into the edges of an otherwise normal portrait. And it extended beyond the visual arts, into other realms, like dance (from which we get the term “danse macabre”). It stood, always, as a contemplation of the thing that unites every human being on this planet: death.

This is why The Walking Dead has become such compelling TV for a certain audience. The series doesn’t just throw the audience into what happens after the end; it all but rubs viewers’ noses in how little hope of survival they would have in the face of the world’s sudden end. Sure, it might be fun to joke about how you might survive a zombie apocalypse, but The Walking Dead is intent on letting everyone who watches know that it would all be essentially random, driven by bad luck as much as anything else. Now, as a mode for storytelling, bad luck is a pretty lousy way to drive the plot forward. As a way to drag viewers into an unrelenting memento mori, however, it’s not bad.

I’m particularly drawn to this season’s fourth episode, in which—spoilers ahead—two characters die: glorified extra T-Dog and Lori, the wife of the series’ main character and the closest thing the show had to a female lead. Because death on The Walking Dead is always followed by a shambling nothingness, the series has almost always treated those deaths with an odd, weary reverence. To die is to leave behind the pressures of the series’ world, to finally give in to what’s always been coming. It’s usually accompanied by a shot to the head, to prevent the corpse from rising again, and this gives the series a sense of eerie ritual. In place of the big funeral where everybody in the cast cries, here’s a son putting a bullet in his mother’s head. 

TV so often treats death as just another plot point. Think, for instance, of all those seasons when 24 might mow down half its supporting cast to keep providing shocks, or when L.A. Law dropped a character down an elevator shaft to provide a nasty laugh. Hell, consider how even a series as great as The Wire treated death as just another inevitability, another system coming to claim its characters. A weird, motley assortment of series have treated death with the kind of stunned horror we treat it with in real life, including a fair number of genre shows like Lost and Deadwood. Perhaps it’s the remove of the genre world that allows viewers to examine their own attitudes toward death in the forthright manner these shows demand. (In support of that, consider that one of the non-genre dramas to manage this feat was Six Feet Under, which was very consciously all about death.) 

The Walking Dead gets a lot of things wrong, but it almost always gets major deaths right. Even in the show’s halting first season, the death of minor character Amy was accompanied by some impressively moving moments where her sister tried to will her away from becoming a zombie. Just this season, we’ve also had the death of an unknown old man whom the scientifically inclined Milton was trying to use to prove zombies retain a memory of who they were. He attempts to use sensory memory to provoke a reaction in the writhing corpse. It doesn’t happen. Death wins again.

No death was as stark or moving as Lori’s, though, and she was a particularly poor character, seemingly existing solely to fret. The season’s early episodes seemed to set up a story in which she and her husband would attempt to patch up their broken marriage, attempting to set one thing right in the face of all the evil that had swept across the face of the planet. It didn’t happen—though I’d kill to read a draft of your “broken marriage is healed in the face of the zombie apocalypse” novel—but it also heightened Lori’s death, the moment when she realized that the only solution to going into labor while trapped in a small prison storage room was to have one of the people trapped with her cut her open and deliver the baby by Caesarean section. As always, a new life is the best ward against the permanence of death, even if the hopelessness of the world makes the helplessness of a baby seem even more daunting. The sequence plays out with an almost baroque solemnity, Bear McCreary’s score undulating away as blood pools on the floor and Lori’s son draws his gun. It could have felt pointlessly grim and dark, and actually did right up until the moment Lori died. But in that moment, it took on a kind of stark beauty.

Is this new in zombie fiction or even horror? Not particularly. (The idea of horror fiction functioning in this way has been advanced by no less than Stephen King.) Nor does The Walking Dead achieve the liftoff of TV’s best TV dramas. Yet in every episode, the series provides at least one moment like Lori’s death, one moment that reminds the audience both of the inevitability of death and the cost of facing that reality every day. For a certain audience, one steeped in post-apocalyptic stories and the grim comics the show’s based on, that’s like catnip. In the face of yet another showrunner change—following the removal of Glen Mazzara, who’s made this third season as fitfully successful as it’s been—it seems unlikely that the show can keep this up. After all, it has but the one story to tell, and it’s running out of variations on that story. Still, it works, and it works because it stands as a modern memento mori, an endless reminder that the cost of life, no matter one’s station, is always the same.