Zombies Aren't the Scariest Part of "The Walking Dead"

03/18/2013 05:22 EDT | Updated 05/18/2013 05:12 EDT

The Walking Dead, now in its third season, has become one of the most popular AMC shows. Marketed initially as a show about zombies, the show is a dystopian view of the world as overrun by zombies. Like many shows before it (such as 24), The Walking Dead relies on a narrative of urgency: we must do this now; we must act now, or else we die. And that's one of the ways it keeps people watching. Like eating a bag of chips or consuming a pile of candy, you can't stop, can't tear your eyes away, even if what you're seeing has so little nourishment. And indeed what you see is bleak.

If the world was like The Walking Dead then it would be a world where nearly everyone alive speaks English, nearly everyone is white, and nearly everyone is male. All the thought leaders, leaders of action, and decision makers are male. Gender roles are delineated in predictable ways where women who formerly had "important" jobs (city planners, lawyers, mothers) now cook, clean, and do laundry (and these prove to be the most important tasks of all in preserving some semblance of humanity). Men are responsible for hunting and protecting the home.

The show pretends to be progressive by designating some women as "strong." Andrea becomes a gun wielder and tries to prove that she is as capable as the men of providing protection and fending off the evil zombies. But the show fails to show progressive action that would be deemed "feminine." None of the men perform domestic tasks. None really look to be diplomatic, peacekeeping or loving. An "every man for himself" attitude prevails, with formed communities echoing American military sentiment of the Bush era: "you're with us or with the terrorists."


The Walking Dead Season 3

For example, in season two when Rick and his group are stationed at Hershel's farm, the group must decide what to do with a hostage, with the majority of group members wanting to kill the hostage. Few of the women offer their opinions. Carol asks to abstain from making such decisions. Andrea, unsurprisingly, supports Shane (kill the hostage). Lori, Rick's wife, rather than giving opinion, merely states that she supports the choices of her husband. And that seems to be the main function of the women on the show, to validate the men and to keep them assured of their decisions, even when their decisions are clearly bad ones. By the time we reach the Woodbury arc of the show, not much has changed. Despite Rick's waning sanity and despite the Governor's megalomania, untrustworthiness and unpredictability, they are the leaders who come together to discuss the fates of Woodbury and the Prison. While Andrea tries to get a seat at that table, she is ousted by both men.

Where women get the short end of the stick, people of colour perhaps get the shortest. Frequently painted as noble savages, the people of colour are often of stronger moral fibre than others. But these characters are alienating and alienated because they are overly introspective and gloomy (Michonne) or overly bland (T-dog). In short, they get little to no character development at all. Moreover, the American code of assimilation seems to be about the only measure of worth for a person of colour. In the most recent episode, for example, Maggie (whom we are supposed to like because she seems to be the most progressive -- she is, after all, young and dating an Asian) asks Merle: "Even Michonne has accepted our ways. Why can't you be more like her?"

Where do we locate humanity in this show? The philosopher Dale, he who was perhaps one of the few souls of the show, one who considers what it means to be human and civil and to live together with others, is martyred. What is more, the white characters like Dale are privileged to have noble deaths, buried with Christian burials and mourned by other characters (and audiences). The people of colour who die, die brutally, quickly and with little evidence that they ever existed (Tyreese, Jacqui, prisoners).

There have been moments of hope in the show, most notably in the characterization of Daryl. He becomes increasingly humane and increasingly the character allowed to grow. If his ascent to humanity marks one of the show's triumphs, then the decent of the protagonist into a baser state marks a kind of failure, and one which mirrors the imagined audience. Rick's increasing cynicism, paranoia and militarism is perhaps disappointingly real, but the biggest failure of the show is to have the audience rooting for a society that preaches tired principles of some bodies as more important than other bodies, violence, lack of community, selfishness, capitalism, patriarchy, and shoot-first mentality.