When Robert Kirkman first published Issue No. 1 of his comic The Walking Dead, George W Bush was President of the US (in his first term!), Apple had just launched iTunes, Hilary Duff (as Lizzie McGuire) was handing out little nuggets of adolescent wisdom to us, and we still had no idea about Harry Potter’s fate (since JK Rowling had only just released Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the fifth installment in the iconic series).
That was back in 2003.
In 2010, when Rick Grimes and team first appeared on television screens, few (including Kirkman and AMC executives) could’ve predicted that in a couple of years, The Walking Dead would attract the highest number of 18-49-year-old viewers of any cable or broadcast television series ever. That it would continue to reign supreme and grab us in by our guts each week for over six long years. That a band of survivors from Georgia and nearby areas and their quest for survival in a post-zombie apocalypse would hold us enthralled for over half a decade. That we’d be so invested in the characters on the show, their fates and futures, that fans would write obituaries for a fan favourite after he was brutally killed off in a recent episode. [Some spoilers ahead.]
Despite the backlash, The Walking Dead is long past being the top drama on television, or even the pre-eminent survival show: in its seventh season, it is now a sociocultural phenomenon. One that media and culture students will probably study 20, 30 years from now. It’s not perfect, but we continue to watch and dissect it anyway!
Every season of The Walking Dead has explored new villains and themes; the zombies have ceased to be the true threat since season 3 at the least. There was the narcissistic Governor, the cannibals at Terminus, the painfully incompetent at Alexandria, the Wolves, and now the Saviors led by the raging sociopath Negan: The Walking Dead has constantly pitched our gang of “good”, likeable protagonists against the “bad”, often-deranged antagonists.
Humanity is a recurring theme throughout the series; our good heroes trying their best to grasp onto the vestigial threads of humanity in a hopelessly ruthless world. We’ve seen almost all the lead characters struggle with their humanity in an attempt to keep the bad from taking over. This struggle came to its head in season 6 when Grimes and Co. decided to wipe out a team of extortionist Saviours by killing them while they were asleep (!) (the fact that the Saviours take Polaroids of their kills, notwithstanding), something that invoked the wrath of Negan and led to our heroes finding themselves in the shittiest place they have been in for a while.
In the words of a fan who posted on the Walking Dead forum after the episode aired back in April: killing the Saviours (while they were asleep) “has now cost everyone their freedom, it has cost them their firearms, it has cost them their medic Denise, it has cost them Carol (who is now emotionally fragile and has left), it has cost them 50% of all their material goods, and it has likely cost them Glenn.” Well, it did cost them Glenn; someone who’d not killed a single human up to that point, Glenn killing the two Saviours and then looking up to see the Polaroids of people’s bashed-in faces on their walls, hoping to find some kind of redemption, was one of the show’s most pivotal moments and Steven Yeun’s most gripping performance on the show.
But more importantly, it also led to a shift in the narrative: after six years, we weren’t quite cheering for our heroes anymore; indeed, the term “heroism” was being reconstructed to mean something different altogether. Heroism means something very different when you’re “surviving” as opposed to “living”, and that episode from season 6 (Not Tomorrow Yet) unapologetically brought up deeper, darker questions of humanity and morality in a world where survival is the top agenda for humans.
Unapologetic: that’s the most terrifying trait of The Walking Dead. For those unfamiliar with George RR Martin’s A Game of Thrones before HBO made it into the monstrous hit it is today, the death of Ned Stark so early in the battle for the Iron Throne confused viewers: “how could the “hero” die so early on in the story?” Six seasons in, we know that Valar Morghulis (All Men Must Die): a theme that Martin has unapologetically based his books on, and one that he seems to take almost childish pleasure in.
For The Walking Dead, it’s the unapologetic nature of its cringing violence and its absolute disdain towards societal norms of “acceptable violence”, that has split the fandom into opposite halves. Because it has stayed (mostly) true to its source material, the show has an abundance of violence to draw from, but while the audience is usually more lenient for violence in comic books, the same amount of gore on a primetime TV series is kind of unthinkable. And yet, The Walking Dead did it, and it keeps doing it in even more gruesome fashion, despite audience reaction (there were tweets denouncing the gore, online polls asking viewers if they would quit watching the show, there’s even The Walking Dead Quitter’s Club!).
Whether that amount of violence is needed or not, we keep going back to The Walking Dead because of the humanity it portrays so well: down and defeated, we want to see our heroes fight and win. Like cowboys in a small-town Western (hey, sheriff’s deputy Rick even wears a cowboy hat) defending traditionally good values against an onslaught of evil, we want Rick and Co. to survive this and maybe rebuild civilisation (maybe there’s a cure, who knows? Besides Robert Kirkman, of course!).
Long-running TV dramas are difficult to quit, period. Some like Dexter, Battlestar Galactica, Breaking Bad, and Sopranos are every bit deserving of their decade-long runs. Others like Lost, which in its third season, petered down to being a laughable version of JJ Abrams' wishful fantasy, was still difficult to quit for many viewers. Our investment in these shows, the characters, and the lives they build for themselves, speaks to a certain need for validation within us: “we’ve gone so far, surely there must be something more to look forward to”.
Sure, people quit on The Walking Dead (that game has been going on for years), but for every Quitter’s Club, there’s a Redemption Club.
And this is exactly what The Walking Dead has been doing so well for the past seven years: the zombies from the show may be scientifically impossible, but it’s connected with us on a much more intimate level; the show’s many abstract and realistic themes are essentially an ode to human emotions, our emotions: betrayal, distrust, fear, envy, forgiveness, pride, religion, humour, teamwork, revenge. And that all-important one: humanity.