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Friday, September 27, 2013

The Walking Dead and a Refuge from the Modern State PART II - Paul A. Cantor

Thursday, September 26, 2013 by Paul A. Cantor
Note: This article contains spoilers.

AMC’s hit series The Walking Dead portrays a grim and bleak world, in which the rapid spread of a zombie plague has brought humanity to its knees. With flesh-eating ghouls roaming all over the landscape, the remaining people are not sure how to protect themselves or how to eke out a subsistence level of food and other necessities. 

The story is told largely from the perspective of a group of characters from small-town, semi-rural Georgia. At first they maintain their faith in government authorities; the principal character, Rick Grimes, is himself a sheriff’s deputy. In particular, the characters pin their hopes on the federal government. 

For example, one of their plans is to set out for Fort Benning, on the assumption that the U.S. Army will provide a safe haven from marauding zombies. The characters never make it to Fort Benning or any other military installation, but that may be fortunate for them. From what they hear on the road, Fort Benning has been overrun by zombies and in general the U.S. military is no longer functioning. 

In the last two episodes of Season One of The Walking Dead, the central characters seek out none other than C.D.C. headquarters in Atlanta, believing that, if any place will have a cure for the zombie plague, it will be the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the C.D.C. building turns out to be a death trap. Only one of its scientists is left alive, and, in his desperate quest to find a cure for the zombie infection, he seems to be on the brink of insanity and has turned suicidal. 

Far from being presented as a benign force for good, government science comes across as a sinister power in The Walking Dead. We learn, for example, that the C.D.C. weaponized smallpox. In fact, the C.D.C. headquarters building contains so many dangerous germ specimens that it is programmed to self-destruct when its power runs down (lest the germs be released into the ambient air). 

Reminiscent of HAL in the Stanley Kubrick film 2001, the C.D.C. computer has taken control away from the one remaining scientist in the headquarters. Following its protocols and standard operating procedures, the computerized containment system destroys the most important zombie specimen the C.D.C. possesses, much to the dismay of the scientist who had been experimenting with it.

As portrayed in the series, the C.D.C. seems to represent government science at its most inhuman and frightening, an overwhelming force on automatic pilot, indifferent to ordinary people’s feelings or concerns. Humans have lost control of the scientific apparatus of the C.D.C. and it is now bent on a course of destruction. Our band of heroes and heroines barely escape with their lives, and indeed the remaining scientist and one of the regular characters are killed in a massive explosion. The C.D.C. normally serves as a prime symbol of the competence of government institutions in dealing with large-scale catastrophes. The way it fails the characters in The Walking Dead and almost destroys them reveals how the series rewrites the standard pro-government disaster narrative in pop culture.[1] No wonder the real C.D.C. felt that it had to come up with its own zombie comic book to set the record straight.

The Walking Dead suggests that government and other modern institutions connected to it do not offer solutions to catastrophic problems but in fact only exacerbate them. It offers a number of horrifying scenes in hospitals, revealing the savage battles that took place between zombies and military forces (unlike the C.D.C.’s zombie comic book, The Walking Dead does not balk at showing the government using force against its citizens). Supposedly the sites where the zombie infection might be cured or at least contained, hospitals turned out to be a means of spreading the plague among concentrated populations. As articulated in the television series and even more clearly in the earlier comic book version, the main government strategy for dealing with the plague was to concentrate people in major cities such as Atlanta, where, it was hoped, they could be protected more easily by civilian and military authorities.[2] Many of the characters were lured into Atlanta by the promise of safety in numbers, only to find to their dismay that it was the zombies whose numbers prevailed in urban conflict. Government central planning came up with the centralization of the population as the solution to the problem—concentrate people and fix them within a supposedly defensible perimeter. But in The Walking Dead this standard operating procedure of governments backfires and only makes it easier for the ever-increasing horde of zombies to prey upon the remaining humans.[3]