The Moral Molasses of The Walking Dead

Make zombies walking metaphors for sticky decisions

Posted Dec 14, 2011

So, what do we think so far? Are there signature thematic elements? Does the program feel believable despite the outlandish premise?

From the perspective of a zombie and horror enthusiast, I appreciate most of all the sometimes criticized slow pace that the show allows. We build respect for the tangled nuances of the characters' increasingly complex choices and motivations. We understand that making the "best decision" is deceptively not a dichotomous issue despite the seemingly straightforward world of an apocalyptic zombie plague. This is all the more amazing given the apparent simplicity of the rules:

1. Zombies will bite you and eat you if you happen to run into them.
2. Zombies could be anywhere at anytime.
3. You therefore need to avoid zombies when you can and kill them when you have to.

Those rules are pretty ironclad, but like all good morality tales,(think of High Noon or even Sophie's Choice) moral ambiguity is most starkly displayed in seemingly straightforward circumstances. Please don't misunderstand. I don't mean that these choices are easy. I just think that if you enjoy the show, you really can't watch and not find yourself wondering what you would do despite the clearly demarcated playing field.

Should Shane have killed Otis? Should Zombies be kept alive in a barn? Should those zombies, once free of the barn, be killed? In other words, you can't watch the show without putting yourself in the characters' shoes, and that, for my money, is key to good drama. It keeps the outlandish authentic and real.

This is actually pretty amazing. We get legitimately drawn into what can only be called a kind of zombie verisimilitude. It's one thing to ponder Gary Cooper's dilemmas in High Noon. Those are real and believable bad guys that he's up against. But in The Walking Dead, we're talking zombies, and still I've had colleagues at work who think out loud during lunch about how they would personally handle the messy ambiguities that zombies bring to the table.

In a world of zombie-slasher films, movies where the major premise seems nothing more than the sheer joy of blasting wandering zombies to pieces, using zombies instead to make you stop and think is quite an accomplishment. Not since Battlestar Galactica have moral questions been so keenly and carefully presented in such a freakish setting.

As a psychiatrist, I'd like also to note that the show uses these moral questions as a means for exploring the varied ways we humans react to terror. In the sometimes-confusing world of psychiatric phenomenology, this aspect of the show in and of itself holds considerable value.

Take the depiction of trauma that is characteristic of the emotional tone set early in the telling of the story. Because in the real world we've had to endure some pretty horrific events over the last few decades, we sometimes try to simplify our understanding by believing that every pathological response to trauma looks the same. This is certainly not the case, and The Walking Dead forces us to ponder these issues in the safe realm of displacement. Permit me, then, this brief phenomenological digression in order that I might make my point.

We have a syndrome, PTSD, for which the neurobiology is fairly well elucidated (i.e. most people's brains are doing similar things if they have the misfortune of suffering the long term pathological effects of traumatic experiences) and yet the phenotype of those similarly misfiring neuronal connections is immensely varied. To the extent that we can argue that many of the characters in the show have at least some aspects of PTSD, the show becomes a fascinating example of how PTSD can look very different in different people. Even more controversial, the show serves as a reminder that one person's apparently maladaptive response to the experience of horror might be the key to remaining psychologically whole for somebody else. Responses are unique to the individual, and in some cases we can get ourselves into trouble if we consider a "one-size-fits-all attitude" for what we consider pathologic.

For example, ask yourself this question:

Was Shane always the dark guy he's become? Was he always a utilitarian killer? Is this his uniquely personal and hard-wired response to the events unfolding, or is this the result of changes to his brain as a result of the events unfolding?

Or what about Dr. Hershel Greene? How can Greene, the gentleman farmer and clear-thinking veterinarian, call himself a Man of God and yet still throw precious humans back into the wilderness? The irony of Dr. Greene sitting at his supper table and reading the very Bible that has within it stories and lessons for people in his exact predicament is pretty striking. He could be reading about Abraham offering safe haven to travelers in the desert, and yet still he asks Rick and his people to vacate his land. Is Dr. Greene suggesting that Rick should be concerned less with his current world, the world in which his wife and son now reside? Is that why he stops and asks Rick to appreciate the celestial beauty of the sun? Or is Greene simply battening down his personal emotional hatches and looking only to protect his kin? Is he cruel, realistic, traumatized, angry, self-righteous, caring, or all of above? And how would he have been if instead of zombies it were a hurricane or even a war that had displaced his weary guests?

These are the murky issues that the show brings to the forefront, and these issues are in many ways easier and less unsettling to ponder in the displacement of what is and can only ever be fiction. As I said to a chorus of boo's at Comic-Con, zombies do not exist. We're humans; we have plenty of ways to do ourselves in without relying on hungry corpses to do the work for us.

I do, though, have a specific concern for The Walking Dead. I'd say that the zombies have inexplicably gotten more dexterous and smart. I hope that AMC does not succumb to the siren call of the fast moving zombie. A shambling brain-dead humanoid, after all, shouldn't even begin to open the bathroom door of a Winnebago. Given that near fistfights erupt at horror conventions when discussing the properly drawn skills of a zombie, I'd feel remiss if I failed to at least notice this oozing departure from the classic zombie trope.

So do this for me, AMC. Keep the zombies slow. That was Romero's vision, and that vision lends itself best to the sneaky complexity of zombie tales. That's how things stay interesting. Make zombies move as if they are plodding through molasses. Make them walking metaphors for the sticky decisions that the humans among them must daily face. That'll keep the show going for a long, long time.

Schlozman's novel, The Zombie Autopsies, was published in March.  He is also a contributer to the collection of essays in The Triumph of the Walking Dead.