When civilization is the main character

I am writing a series of blog posts about The Walking Dead. In Part I, I revisited the troubled Scott Gimple era of the television show. In Part II, I explored what I consider to be the show’s long-awaited embrace of the zombie’s roots in horror B movies. Now in Part III, I will discuss who I think is the true “main character” of the series, both the comic books and the television show, viz., civilization itself. Future installments may focus on the Whisperers, the role of skills and unlocked capacities in the post-apocalypse, and/or working out the philosophical basis of a civilization as main character.

When I first read the news that Rick’s actor, Andrew Lincoln, would be departing The Walking Dead, it seemed to me that this was the narrative head shot to a show that had been shambling on for a while. It is something of a natural law of storytelling that unless the loss of a main character is elemental to the story’s overarching plot or moral — as in the case of Ned’s death in the first season of Game of Thrones — shows that undergo such a massive change tend not to prosper in the aftermath. And on the surface, Rick did indeed seem so key to this story, both symbolically and in terms of the relationship with us, the audience. He was the small town sheriff turned post-apocalyptic Solon, the symbolic lawgiver; no other character really could suffice as protagonist, not even Daryl, the perennial fan favorite.

Yet, in my opinion, it seems much like the unnatural “walkers” at the center of the show’s story, The Walking Dead has broken this natural law of storytelling. Rick’s kidnapping by a mysterious helicopter certainly felt like a loss, as not only did Lincoln bring gravitas to every scene he was in, but the character was so compelling. Yet, it also felt like a necessary change. The question is why, and I think the answer is that Rick all along had overshadowed the true main character of both the comic book and television series. That main character has been civilization itself.

I loved the comic book series. Yet, I could not shake the feeling that in Issue 164, Rick’s storyline had reached, not a conclusion, but a dissolution. This was when he and Negan were trapped together in a house surrounded by a herd, and to pass the time, they talk about what they feel are the worst things they ever did. It is interesting that what Negan identifies as his worst thing — abandoning his zombified wife — is more specific and personal than what Rick identifies for himself– surviving. Surely, would not a man who rebuilt civilization have overcome his survivor’s guilt, having been able to finally see “the end in the beginning”, the purpose for all that suffering and loss? My intuition is that at this point in the comic books, the author, Robert Kirkman simply did not know what to do with Rick’s character anymore, for he had slowly become secondary to the civilization he had rebuilt.

Kirkman does try to make Rick symbolic of this civilization in his encounters with the Commonwealth’s Pamela Hilton — who, quite purposefully, Kirkman also calls the “governor”, in order to complicate the symbolic legacy of Phillip Blake. It is a worthy attempt, for sure, but for me as a reader, it felt strained, especially with so many characters singing the praises of Rick. Whether he wants there to be a leadership cult around him or not, Rick cannot shake it, and neither can Kirkman, and this becomes problematic for the author. By the time he dies in Issue 192, Rick has, sadly and ironically, become something of a narrative zombie, thereby obscuring the true main character, which is in the totality of all the characters of the series.

In the show, we can see the main character more clearly, precisely because Rick is gone. Suddenly, the character of the cast has become truly ensemble: we can follow Michonne, Gabriel, Daryl, Carol, Negan, Eugene, Rosita, even Siddiq and Aaron, and later Maggie; all are equal in terms of narrative focus. The foundation of the story is no longer Rick, but instead all of these characters who the sheriff met and gathered together during his journey. And this foundation is not put together piecemeal, for the writing does not really treat them as individuals, but as individual members of a collective.

Ensemble cast” is one of those concepts that audiences hear a lot about, but actually rarely see, at least in its truest form. There is usually still some kind of main character, who typically performs the function of being a surrogate, either for the audience or for the author. Arguably, Game of Thrones (and its source material, A Song of Ice and Fire) is a rare instance of a genuine ensemble, even though we can point to Tyrion or Sam author surrogates. In The Walking Dead, Judith and the newcomers, like Yumiko and Magna, serve as audience surrogates in the first few episodes following Rick’s disappearance, but they are eventually assimilated into the narrative. Again, no individual character becomes the major focus, at least not for very long; the focus of Angela Kang and her writing team is consistently on the collective entity each character helps to constitute.

It was probably not a coincidence that The Walking Dead’s shift from survival horror to philosophical horror coincided with the key turning point in the overall narrative: the discovery of the Alexandria Safe Zone just outside Washington, DC. Aaron appears literally the morning after Rick makes his speech of “becoming” the walking dead. Named for the brother of Moses who assisted the prophet in leading the Israelites to the Promised Land, Aaron wants to bring Rick and his tribe back to civilization. Thus, just when the group are consigning themselves to a kind of oblivion, they are brought back into existence.

Kirkman originally intended the discovery of Alexandria to be the end of the story, but then intuited that it was, in fact, the true beginning. Indeed, comic book readers can feel Kirkman’s priorities as a storyteller gradually shift from crafting a realistic depiction of the fantastical zombie apocalypse into crafting something almost like a meta-historical wheel of time. We follow the journey of humanity forced back to zero, only to then replay the major epochs of the past, rebuilding and growing in self-consciousness. The survivors learn to take nothing for granted, to trust themselves, and to live authentically. Although Kirkman does hint in the final issue that this spiritual awakening might not be successfully passed on to future generations, the change in culture is nevertheless real; the new world need not necessarily repeat the mistakes of the old.

As part of the shift from survival to wheel of time, The Walking Dead changes its central archetypes, switching from the hunter-gatherer tribe of “the group” to the Greek polis of Alexandria. To wit, I would argue that each of the major communities in the original comic book story, excluding Woodbury as well as the television franchise’s other communities like the Civic Republic, represent different models of civilization. The Sanctuary represents the pharaonic model, the Kingdom the monarchical model, and the Commonwealth the caste model. The Hilltop, like Alexandria, is also a polis, but the American version Winthropian “city upon a hill” (the two communities make such natural allies in the story because they are, at root, the same premise, one harking to Antiquity, the other to the Enlightenment).

All of these models are essentially spiritual, but in different ways:

  • The Sanctuary and the Kingdom more or less represent the god-kingdom, with Negan ruling as a pharaoh and Ezekiel ruling by a kind of divine right (the pretext of which is his mastery of Shakespearean English and his taming of the tiger). They thus symbolize humanity tendency to seek an authority beyond themselves, in the form of a cultic leader.
  • The Commonwealth represents cyclical reincarnation, à la Hinduism, as one’s occupation in this community is determined strictly by what one did professionally before the dead rose. They, too, symbolize the pursuit of an authority beyond the human, this time in the past and tradition.
  • Alexandria and Hilltop struggle with their own cults of leadership, as well as the past and tradition (insofar that they are both built amidst the ruins of the old world, whether the suburbs of DC or a Colonial-era mansion). Ultimately, though, they represent what happens when a community trusts itself, finds the divine, and hence ultimate authority, in their own ability to reason and feel.

Each of the communities also represent a different relationship to death and afterlife, one can even dare say to resurrection. The Sanctuary and the Community posit resurrection in obedience to a salvific leader, the Commonwealth to the past and tradition. For Alexandria and Hilltop, however, I think the key symbolic moment, as I alluded to in the last post, comes when the Whisperers kill Jesus in the cemetery. What the show is telling us is in that moment is that resurrection will not, and cannot, be individual; it must be collective.

This is why the Whisperers make for such excellent villains to the heroes. They are symbolically dead, having given themselves over to false certainty in the form of a radical ideology. They chant, “We are the end of the world”: their agenda is fundamentally self-destruction, a futile attempt to escape reason and feeling.

The salvific leader may be important to get the process started, and the past and tradition must be reckoned with. Yet, salvation ultimately comes from solidarity between individuals as they work together with concerted effort to build and protect a purposeful world. Resurrection is an active group choice, one that is made either — as the residents of Alexandria and Hilltop do — to commit to a symbolic life of uncertainty and the burden of reason and feeling.

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