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Will The Walking Dead Jump the Shark?

Can the Walking Dead Return to the Existential Pain That Made it Great?

Can a zombie show jump the shark?            

Folks are going to watch in droves the season premier of The Walking Dead on Sunday night, and I can practically feel the pop culture zombie buzz leaping off of the internet and trying to take a bite out of my jaw or something.  But they way I see it, there’s a lot at stake here for a show that began so well.

Let’s think about the first season.  I know that there are those will disagree with me, but I liked all the drama and I liked all the dialogue.  I liked the alliances and the changed alliances and the ways people had to reckon with what they’d become in this new and awful world that they’d inherited.  Quite literally, the characters made their beds and then had to sleep in them.  In some cases that meant leaving what seemed to be an evil man to die by chaining him to a rooftop and then later deciding to go back and fetch him.  It meant for some deciding that not living at all in this new awful world made more sense than plodding forward.  It was some heavy stuff.

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The existential quandaries were frequent, deft and biting (pun intended), and the zombies themselves were the back drop against which these tensions unfolded and were made oddly believable. In that sense, the show felt paradoxically real.  It is much easier to grapple with the inevitable displacement that TV affords – the pondering of what you would do if left in a similar circumstance – if that circumstance were in fact a world of zombies.  How can that be?   The rules of engagement in a world of zombies are deceptively complex, and at the same time they differ much less than we’d like them to from the rules of our current world scenarios.  Just watch Zero Dark Thirty and tell me you don’t see similarities.

But then, some fans started asking for more blood, more action, more gore.  And I will admit that a good zombie story requires all of these ingredients; it is just that if these ingredients become the only ingredients, then you don’t really have a zombie movie anymore.  You have an action film with zombies.  That, I will submit, is different than a zombie film with action.

My affinity for the show was tentatively renewed last fall (spoiler alert for those who have not already seen it) when I watched perhaps the most gripping and brutal episode I’ve ever seen on my television. When a baby is born, when new life is brought into the world even as the sheriff’s wife dies, when her own son must negotiate this passage, and when the sheriff himself must therefore wrestle with his frightening unbridled bloodlust…that’s when the show seemed once again to find its philosophical roots.

So, now let’s think of the cliffhanger from the end of the previous season.  That episode ended with two brothers, both changed immensely by hugely different experiences, squaring off in a forced battle derived from the Governor’s dark rage and towering hubris.  That scene is a set-up for either an epic and Shakespearean moment of blood-on-blood battle, or instead a campy moment from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.  Don’t get me wrong – I like Mad Max.  I just feel zombies offer more originality than Mel Gibson and Tina Turner ever gave us in their silly battle scenes.  As you might guess, I hope for a return to the dark existentialism of season one of the Walking Dead.  That would be original and fresh.  Hell, I’ve seen Thunderdome a thousand times already. 

 

Schlozman's novel, The Zombie Autopsies, is currently being adapted for the screen by director George Romero

Steven Schlozman, M.D., is an Associate Director of Medical Student Education in Psychiatry for Harvard Medical School.

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