December 28, 2010
As the election results came in last November, I found myself empathizing with the hero of The Walking Dead; small town sheriff Rick Grimes had newly awakened into a world where large swathes of the populace have been zombified, all mindless hunger and gnashing teeth. At the end of the pilot episode, which aired just two days before election day, Grimes found himself cowering in an abandoned tank that was about to be swarmed by the invading undead. Watching the television maps of the House of Representatives become as red as a tenderloin on the butcher’s table, I couldn’t help but think of the expression on Grimes’ face before the closing credits came on: helpless indignation. I mourned the sense of hope I (and many of my fellow voters) had experienced only two years before.
It’d be easy—not to mention unoriginal—to write an essay comparing the Tea Party to zombies; it would also shortchange The Walking Dead’s decidedly complex approach to the role of raw emotion in governance, especially in the post-Obama period.
The current less-than-flattering—but nonetheless plastered all over the headlines as gospel truth—narrative about President Obama is that he’s an idealist outmaneuvered by Washington wolves and cowed out of his own agenda. Cynics call him a sell-out, those who are more charitable say that he’s a principled man trying to do the best he can against formidable opposition. His decision to prioritize healthcare reform as his first key legislative measure, for instance, was often derided as a waste of “political capital.” Sure, millions of desperately ill Americans were being denied life-saving coverage, but overhauling healthcare was just too unpopular, too risky. He should’ve acted in his own political best interests, or so sayeth the armchair pundits.
Similarly, Sheriff Rick Grimes is played as an aw-shucks everyman whose shock at the world he’s woken up to can’t diminish his fundamental decency; even when this decency negates practicality, like when he uses—some might say wastes—a precious bullet on a legless zombie woman who claws helplessly at the grass, unable to escape the sun-battered patch of land she’s been consigned to.
As the season progresses, and Grimes becomes the de facto leader of an ensemble of survivors, the show tacitly endorses his personal ethic of preserving “the better angels of our nature”—even when, given the circumstances, it borders on willful naiveté—as the ethic of human civilization. Many of Rick’s emotional impulses are rewarded; he is, after all, reunited with his family in a matter of days after coming out of his coma (without even having to will his limbs out of that pesky atrophy–and with all due respect, Mr. Tarantino, you will your limbs out of atrophy, not entropy). Even the gambles that don’t prove as immediately successful, like the ill-advised mission to retrieve would-be a usurper who had to be left behind in the city, provide unexpected opportunities to affirm the fundamental goodness of humanity; this expedition leads Rick to the cluster of bad-ass nursing home aides who’ve stayed behind to protect the elderly.
Rick’s emphasis on communal unity seems far more productive than the alpha male posturing of his old partner, Shane, who isn’t a natural leader, or the most creative thinker. Overwhelmed, yet still trying to affect an uber-competent cowboy facade, Shane begs a natural (though certainly not airtight) comparison to another cowboy-in-chief.
Shane’s decision to keep the group in that one isolated area, as opposed to, say, hoofin’ it to an abandoned military base or at least constructing a more fortified hideaway (with, like, an actual perimeter, and stuff) demonstrates a stunning deficient in tactical thinking skills. As the two zombie infiltrations (that latter attack is truly one of the most devastating moments I’ve seen on television drama, rivaled perhaps by Bobby Bacala’s murder on The Sopranos) make clear, a career in small town law enforcement doesn’t make one a proficient strategist. Or particularly attuned to the needs of the community—Shane only intervenes against the camp’s wife-beater when his own pride is wounded and he’s in dire need of a target. He does nothing to inspire those in his charge to rise above their circumstances. His emotionality, unlike Rick’s, serves no greater purpose. He spins his wheels for the sake of burning rubber.
Under Shane’s leadership, the survivors’ camp is divided (decidedly not united) into individualized factions—the Hispanic family, the blond sisters Andrea and Amy and their surrogate father, Dale, the African Americans (all of two ’em), the rednecks, the bewildered suburbanites–who abide each other with the strained civility of a high school lunchroom. When Andrea sits over Amy’s mauled body (unless the head is destroyed, the body will reanimate as a zombie), catatonic with grief, threatening anyone who attempts to move Amy with a pistol, another survivor named Darryl thinks nothing of aiming his shotgun at the back of her head. When Rick restrains him, Darryl argues that he’s doing what is best for the community, dispatching of another zombie threat by any means necessary.
In crudely survivalist terms, it’s hard to fault Darryl’s logic. Rick argues for something more than survival; he argues for a world—even if it’s only as small as this ragged band of strangers—that is worth surviving in. Even when Rick is forced to desecrate a felled zombie (to wear as zombie camouflage so he can maneuver through the throng. Yep. They go there.), he opens the dead man’s wallet just to learn his name and glean anything he can about who he was; his eulogy is heartbreaking—rapturous sentiment expressed in the barest terms (“he had 28 dollars in his pocket when he died, and a beautiful woman”). We can still honor the humanity in ourselves and others—even our enemies—in our bleakest moments.
There is a valid comparison between the ever-fraying nerves of Americans weathering the Bush years—two prolonged wars, an economic downturn to rival The Great Depression, media hyper-vigilance about supposed new terrorist threats—and the collective post-traumatic stress of those left in The Walking Dead’s post-outbreak America. The external menace—whether terrorists or the undead—gives our leaders license to violate the principles we’d like to believe affirm our national identity. In the wake of Abu Ghirab, we became two Americas: the America we believed we were, and the America we actually are.
It’s no wonder that anyone espousing the values of hope and human decency is considered visionary. Though there are several similarities between Sheriff Rick Grimes and President Barack Obama—leaders of smaller provinces suddenly finding the weight of the world on their shoulders—the most pivotal similarity resides in what their constituencies expect them to be. While lamenting the lapses of logic in some of Rick’s decisions (you’re going to ride a fucking horse into the middle of a densely-infested area? Really? Dude. Why don’t you just ride a McRib into the middle of the zombie swarm?), I asked a friend why on earth he was so unquestionably accepted as the group leader. My friend responded that Rick’s belief in the ability of the human spirit to rise above its circumstances links the other survivors back to safer, saner times they thought they’d lost.
As I watched The Walking Dead’s season finale, I couldn’t help but find similarities in Rick’s one “moment of weakness” and the bitterness many hard-line Left-wingers feel about the compromises President Obama has had to make. After the attack on the camp, Grimes sets the group on a quixotic quest for the Center for Disease Control; he believes the CDC may hold answers about the nature of the zombifying infection, but, while there, he learns that there is no recourse—no understanding of how the blight began and no hope for a cure. When the scientist helming the CDC offers the group a mercifully quick death (the building is primed to incinerate once the power generator dies), he discloses that, while drunk, Rick admitted that everyone is doomed to die—and horribly—anyway. Rick’s wife Lori gives him a look of such appalled shock that the scientist might as well have said that Rick confessed to stomping puppies. (This may be the one facial expression the actress playing Lori deploys all season).
Lori’s sense of betrayal is the sense of betrayal many Obamaphiles have experienced, which is to say that it’s not so much a sense of betrayal as an unwillingness to accept that, at times, hope alone has its limits. Sometimes you have to extend tax cuts to some rich assholes to keep unemployment checks coming to good folks who are down on their luck. Cold practicality intrudes at some point. Rather than explore this theme—and, perhaps, the uncomfortable truth that the scientist may not be entirely wrong in his assertion that, under certain circumstances, death is far more life-affirming than life itself—the show ends with the group’s thrilling escape from fiery oblivion.
For a show that been unflinching in its approach to gore (they blew the budget on cornstarch and red food coloring on episode two alone), the final image of the first season is the epitome of stripped-down elegance. As Bob Dylan’s “Tomorrow is a Long Time” thrums in the background, the survivors stare at each other with a hard-won wonderment they clearly haven’t felt in ages. The Grimes family embraces, though haltingly. Rick’s admission lingers in the dust-choked air; though they’ve chosen life, the world they’ve chosen to live in has become a shade darker. As it has, I suspect, for those who expected world peace and an instantly revitalized global economy when they cast their ballots two years ago. For them (and I must admit, I have included myself in their numbers), “Change We Can Believe In” has become “Tomorrow is a Long Time.” Perhaps, like The Walking Dead‘s at times intrepid, at times infuriating protagonist, we must wipe the soot from our faces and try to feel grateful that tomorrow is coming at all. Another season, another term, another day, another chance to be pleasantly surprised.