Philosophical horror and the Walking Dead

I am writing a series of blog posts about The Walking Dead. Part I concerns a revisit to the troubled Scott Gimple era of the television show. Part II will concern the show’s recent embrace of the horror B movie aesthetic, and Part III will concern who I think is the true main character of the series.

While crunching on my dissertation this past summer, I have caught up on The Walking Dead. Like many fans of the show, I grew frustrated with the seventh season and quit during the eighth. The extremified depiction of Negan, the comic book source material’s most compelling character, and the death of Carl, arguably the soul of the story, signified for me an inexcusable decline in storytelling that, while never consistent during the show’s run, had inexorably began to decay during the inchoate sixth season. An old friend, though, prevailed on me to give the show another chance, and I must say, not only have I been surprised by the improved quality since Angela Kang took over showrunning duties from Scott Gimple, but I am enjoying the show more than I did even in its heyday. And as surprising as this may sound, I think this is because the show has become both more genuinely horrific and more genuinely philosophical under Kang’s stewardship.

However, before I can get into what I think the Kang era has so far gotten right, I need to explore why the Gimple era seemed to go so wrong, and whether this ill reputation is entirely fair. In brief, I think the negative reactions aroused by the seventh and eighth seasons were indeed merited, but specifically with respect to the execution. What Gimple and his team were trying to do, however, was both worthwhile and necessary by that point in the show’s evolution.

As is by now notorious among both professional critics and fans of the show, the storytelling under Gimple’s stewardship started strong then became strange. It was not as simple as inconsistency in characters or what many considered to be attention-getting tricks (most notoriously, Glenn’s fake-out death and the sixth season cliffhanger). There was a deeper sense that the show had somehow become disembodied. Daryl lampshades this perception early in the Kang era, when he reminisces about the nomadic days immediately following the apocalypse. The audience was not mistaken; there had been a real change, a loss of viscerality and, with it, clarity of purpose.

Many were perplexed as to what happened behind the scenes, but I think the explanation can be found by just looking at the writing itself. In my view, The Walking Dead attempted to shift from survival horror to philosophical horror. This shift can clearly be seen in how we in the audience went from watching characters actively contending with the dead walking and civilization collapsing, to watching characters ruminate about these terrible things. In other words, the story stopped being about characters living out these tremendous and fearful ideas through their actions, and became them grappling with the meaning of living out these ideas. When Heath bitterly remarks in the seventh season, “I get it now. If it’s you, or someone else, you take what you can, you take who you have to, and you keep to get going,” these words are much too self aware, or too explicit, for a person who is in the throes of taking what they can, taking who they have to.

If you have read Plato’s Trial and Death of Socrates, you will recognize the transformation that I mean. The first three parts, Euthyphro, Apology and Crito, are compelling because we see the philosopher intimately grappling with the injustice of his situation. Confronted with a terrible idea – the idea of his unjust execution – he immerses himself in it through dialogue with Euthyphro and Crito, and direct confrontation with the tribunal. The content is about ideas and not emotions, and Socrates is prone to ranting, but nevertheless there is an intense pathos. However, in the conclusion, Phaedo, Socrates becomes a different character. Written by an older Plato who was less interested in memorializing his mentor than in using his mentor to advance a philosophical program, Socrates comes across as less of a real person and more of a legend. His characteristic rants become expository, and his friends, who once engaged with him so intimately, just sort of listen. If this sounds familiar to you, that is because this transformation is essentially what slowly happened in The Walking Dead over the course of the Gimple era.

To be clear, I am neither saying that philosophical horror is a bad way to do horror, nor that writing Platonic dialogues with zombies is the only way in which to do it. I am also not saying that what Gimple (whose team did basically end up writing Platonic dialogues with zombies) was trying to do was uninteresting – to the contrary. If initially the symbol of the zombie, the proverbial “walking dead”, had been a representation of physical death, somewhere between the fifth and sixth seasons, Gimple revised it into a representation of a state of nature so completely lacking in higher purpose that it was the existential equivalent of death. The Wolves, who were created specifically for the show, and Morgan, who was changed heavily from the original source material into a post-apocalyptic Caine, clearly embody this revision. Gimple’s choice makes sense, because by this point, the characters are being confronted with the chance to finally have something more than just brute survival, and the anxciety of losing it is horrendous.

As humanity’s ancient cave dwellings attest, brute survival is boring. And not just boring in some trivial sense; boring in a deeply unsettling, torturous, yes, horrific sense. Our species needs something more; we need to see a meaning behind what we are doing, hence the beautiful depictions of all those ancient hunts, stylized and mythologized. The longer any of us must persist in brute survival for survival’s sake, the greater the toll it takes on the mind, until eventually it does indeed feel like we not truly living, even if we are physically alive.

Probably the most potent example of Gimple’s shift from survival horror to philosophical horror can be found in Rick’s famous speech from the fifth season about metaphorically “becoming” the walking dead. The televised version was changed in an important way from the original print version. In the comic books, it is a cynical statement about the purposelessness of survival, while in the show, it is a statement of how to survive. According to Rick, humanity must subsist in the state of nature until civilization can somehow be re-established. Gimple and his team at the time surely understood that what they were having Rick propose was a very serious logical and moral disconnect between means and end, viz., that living purposelessly in the short term will enable living purposefully in the long term. I would wager that this disconnect was the hidden point of the speech.

In pure dramatic terms, Rick’s speech is manifestly an expression of trauma, exhaustion and desperation; it is spoken by a man at his wits’ end. However, the philosophical nature of it – no, the broken philosophical nature of it – is key. The speech’s logical-moral disconnect expresses not only trauma, but a transitional moment between being immersed in tremendous and horrifying ideas as one battles to simply survive them, to regaining some mental distance and reflecting on just how tremendous and horrifying these ideas really are. This was Gimple’s strategic pivot, even if as time went on, he was less and less capable of implementing it. Because, crucially, Rick’s logical-moral disconnect sets the stage for both much of the inner character conflict to come, and the story’s self-realization that the character it is really about, whether in the form of a small tribe or competing city-states, is civilization …

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