Maybe the zombies have it right, and we have it all wrong. It is very likely that over 14 million viewers will have tuned in to tonight’s midseason premiere of The Walking Dead, and even if those numbers are declining from the show’s catastrophically high record breaking television ratings of the past, there is a good chance that the show about sad people in a hungry world will last until the actual zombie apocalypse. Despite its popularity, the show is terrible. Exploitative plotting, muddy writing and sloppy direction are the trademarks of the series, and in order to enjoy the grey, violent drama on screen, I have to give in to mindlessness.
Abandoning critical human thought is key to enjoying The Walking Dead. And I do enjoy it in spite of myself. When watching the eternal war between the living and undead, there is an instinctual pull I feel to leave behind my higher faculties and join the horde of ravenous fandom. The action is fun, the monsters are plentiful, the characters are archetypal enough to love like Greek gods, and the plot hooks can snag me like a bear trap. When I watch The Walking Dead, I am torn between my inner human self and my internal zombie.
“No Way Out,” the midseason six premiere, is filled with this existential zombie-human conflict. And I don’t mean that it’s literally about humans fighting zombies (even though it is exactly that). The episode suggests that humans, with all their critical thinking skill and personal motivations and systems of faith, should model themselves after the dead for reasons of survival and morality. Essentially, zombies are the good guys, and those who do not act like the shambling deceased are doomed to be consumed by them. The first indication that being human is the new bad deed can be observed in the old post apocalyptic pessimism trope. “No Way Out” begins with Daryl, Abraham and Sasha in a hyper-intense face off with a bunch of dudes claiming ownership over their transportation and weapons. Instead of thinking of the very real need to preserve what’s left of an endangered species, the lead boy starts threatening each of our main cast members with bullet sandwiches before Daryl blows them all up with a rocket propelled grenade.
Juxtapose the high-powered self-extinctive behaviour at the top of the episode with that of the shuffling dead guys that give this show its title. The zombies don’t kill each other. They barely acknowledge their peers unless one is signalling for fresh meat. The zombies’ greatest strength is in complete and unflappable cooperation. If all the humans were dead, there would be creepy, moaning peace all across the earth.
The best success for the living is achieved by adopting the zombie’s cold cooperative morality. Suppressing one’s humanity is a common survival tactic in The Walking Dead, and in “No Way Out” we see exactly what it takes to fully embrace the zombie-core lifestyle with Rick and company’s corpse suit parade. Draped in viscera to mask their scent, Rick, Carl, Michonne and a bunch of disposable life bags join hands and walk unmolested between ravenous monsters. When Sam, a child, is struck with human fear and trauma, he compromises himself and the rest of his tribe by freaking the fuck out. Not a zombie move, Sam.
Sam’s loss of un-humanity costs him his life, the same as it costs his family. Humanity spreads throughout the group and compromises everyone’s safety. Rick suppresses his emotion, playing the role of reluctant zombie the whole time. Even when his son Carl’s eye is shot out, for at least the initial moments, Rick still shuffles and mutters. His survival comes at the cost of his suppressed human instincts. Rick lives because he doesn’t scream as children are eaten in front of him. When his son catches a bullet, his humanity takes over, but even as he carries his perforated son under the protection of Michonne’s swinging blade, Rick acts at least a little like a passable dead man. Just as the zombies thrive on cooperation and so does the world of The Walking Dead. The individual has no place. Re-homed in Alexandria, Rick leaves Carl’s one-eyed (but still breathing) skull with Denise, and as everyone scrambles to help her keep the kid on the human team, our hero grabs an axe and walks out into the horde. What follows is one of The Walking Dead’s rare moments of victory.
Michonne follows, as does everyone else eventually. Regardless of skill or ability, the humans mob together and attack the horde. Sure, they use human things like weapons, and are eventually joined by the machine gun toting likes of the fuel truck crew, but the point lands during the stylized few seconds at the end of the war sequence. Quick, successive shots frame every member of the good guys as they give in to an automatic survival response, demolishing the brains of the corpses who, like the living, are just doing what feels most right: shuffling and gnashing slowly towards lifeless world peace.
By the end of “No Way Out” Alexandria is retaken from the horde by using the zombies greatest weapons against them. Cooperation wins the night, as does mindless, fearless carnage. We can try to reason that in the moments of heroism the Alexandrians used their highest faculties, but we would be lying. Fear of the walking dead isolates us, calls them, and inevitably the most human people are assimilated. Abandoning our individuality, giving in to the violence of the moment, and mindlessly banding together simply because we are alive and they are not—these are the virtues of the zombie church, and they offer salvation.
So, ignore the things that make you cringe. Care not for clunky scripts and inconsistent tone. Forget that your emotions are being exploited with the false threat of meaningful character death. These are the individualistic, critical traits that will point you out to the rotting majority. What’s good is what keeps you walking, everything else is a betrayal from your beating heart. Be like the zombie. Suppress your humanity, dear viewers, lest the walking dead hear your screams.