Note: This essay could have been longer and more polished, but practical reality isn’t making the subject matter of sufficient value for that level of effort. Readers should view it, therefore, as a sort of notepad of thoughts.
I’ll open by suggesting relief that Timothy Sandefur is not one of the writers of AMC’s zombie drama, The Walking Dead. Whatever their own conclusions may be, at least the show’s writers know enough to leave questions open and allow them to evolve over the seasons. Judging from Sandefur’s article in Reason magazine on the show’s political philosophy, he doesn’t believe any ambiguity exists. Reading his review without having watched the show, one might get the impression that “the point” of the show was set and proven in the very first episode, with six years’ worth of iterations simply restating and refining it.
That is, Sandefur sees the series not as mulling over big questions, but as building a thesis for an answer. Perhaps he’s bringing into relief the contrast between the approaches of an analyst and of an artist.
In a later episode, Andrea falls in with a larger community led by a psychotic despot called The Governor. When Rick’s followers discover that The Governor plans to attack them, they implore Andrea to assassinate him, but when the moment comes, she holds back and is captured. She dies, as she feared, at the hands of a monster.
Her fate might seem conventional for post-apocalyptic literature: a tragic instance of harsh life after society’s collapse. But it is actually just one manifestation of The Walking Dead‘s most distinctive characteristic: its basic belief that civilization and its virtues are not merely doomed, but fundamentally misguided. Where most post-apocalyptic stories portray civilized virtues in nostalgic terms—to show the value of cooperation, gentleness, progress, and law by imagining their absence—The Walking Dead is skeptical, if not downright cynical, about political society and the good life it makes possible.
If the show’s creators have had some Big Idea in mind all along (and they may be simply letting the ideas develop as they go), it may in fact be the error of the “basic belief” that Sandefur accuses them of promoting. Sure, the series doesn’t shy from the characters’ sense of meaninglessness and the way in which the rules of morality change when the goal is simply to survive, but it also flashes massive sparks around the notion that people can’t survive forever without higher meaning and some sense of normalcy. They can’t stop themselves from planning and building and growing relationships.
For an illustration of the point I believe Sandefur misses, consider his reference to a pivotal scene involving Rick, the leader of a here-to-fore nomadic group of Georgian survivors, and Deanna, the leader of an extremely lucky group of Beltway residents who all but stumbled into a well-protected, self-sufficient luxury community:
If there were any doubt of the series’ preference for Rick’s warrior ethic, it’s erased when a gang called the Wolves attacks Alexandria and Deanna concedes the foolishness of her peaceful ways. “They don’t need me. What they need is you,” she tells Rick. He outlines a new, austere regime that extinguishes the town’s middle-class comforts: “We keep noise to a minimum. Pull our blinds at night. Even better, keep the lights out.” The citizens bow to the alpha male, including Deanna’s son, who confronts her angrily: “You’re the reason we’re so screwed! You made us this way! We were never safe here….You just wanted to dream!” Later in the series, the Alexandrians redeem themselves in Rick’s eyes, but only through violence. They prove themselves worthy Spartans, rather than decadent Athenians.
Deanna’s statement might have been more accurately expanded to be, “They don’t need me… right now.” It once took generations to build a cathedral; the gardener and the pastor weren’t needed until it was done, or at least usable. It’s telling that the libertarian Sandefur doesn’t see that. In Alexandria, even the warriors want the long-term plan toward which Deanna was working; where Deanna erred was in not realizing how far back to basics reality had fallen.
To build on his thesis that civilization is an illusion, Sandefur branches into old westerns and literature:
A similar theme appears in John Ford’s 1962 Western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, in which John Wayne plays Tom Doniphon, the legendary white-hat gunslinger who rolls his eyes a bit at Jimmy Stewart’s character, the bookish lawyer Ransom Stoddard. When the villain Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) engages in one of his perennial raids on the town, Stoddard demands justice—but his law books are no match for Valance’s pistol. Only Doniphon can protect the people, and particularly the lovely Hallie (Vera Miles). He destroys Valance, though Stoddard gets the credit.
In this summary, Sandefur all but sticks his fingers in his ears and walks past the lesson. Stoddard wasn’t some deluded coward. He was just a bad shot. He courageously stood before Valance in the street while Doniphon lurked in the shadows. They both fired their guns at the same time. Stoddard missed; Doniphon hit. Subsequently allowing the community to believe that Stoddard didn’t miss wasn’t some great deceptive leap in the cause of civilized illusion. The only things disguised were the importance of luck and the fact that the civilization of Stoddard hadn’t yet gotten its aim down. That doesn’t make Stoddard’s courage less inspiring or his views about civilization less correct.
For development of this theme, we can turn to the more-recent western, Clint Eastwood’s film, Unforgiven. In that 1992 movie, a sequence of gunslingers bring a sensationalist western writer closer and closer to the real deal, Eastwood’s character, Bill Munny. In the biographer’s books, real men become fictional legends by glossing over with fiction the dirty, mean world of chance that their survival has actually entailed.
In Sandefur’s view, this might prove that civilization is an illusion against brute force. He would find some substantiation in the character of Little Bill Daggett, played by Gene Hackman, who has been pulling the wool from the biographer’s eyes while trying to prove that his own rationalization and theories have combined with toughness to tame the West in heroic fashion. In a handy metaphor, Daggett is building a house for his future retirement, but he can’t quite keep the roof from leaking.
Stopping the analysis there, though, would ignore or miss three major points contained even within the movie’s script:
- In the end, the biographer asks Munny to confirm Daggett’s gunfighting theory about killing the best shooter first, and Munny acknowledges that he was simply lucky, and always has been, when it comes to killing.
- Ultimately, both Munny and his partner, Ned Logan (played by Morgan Freeman) illustrate the difficulty of remaining in the hard world of mere survival. Even the brash kid who drew Munny into a high-dollar contract killing — Jaimz Woolvett as The “Schofield Kid” — finds his one taste of murder to be enough.
- The whole story is set into motion by Daggett’s failure, as local law enforcement, to treat the prostitutes who contract the killing with sufficient human dignity, as well as their brutal demand for revenge, even to the point of refusing an overture of recompense from a cowboy who was simply on the premises when his friend cut one of the whores up.
On that last point, it’s worth remembering that in Liberty Valance, a big part of the problem is the cowardice and fear of a particular law enforcement figure. The lesson to be drawn is that civilization is possible, preferable, and even more real, but it isn’t perfect and it can be thrown into turmoil for a time, usually when people fail to adhere to basic rules of courage and human dignity. IfDaggett hadn’t treated the women like cattle, he would have secured justice just as surely as Munny and with less violence.
Throughout the movie, the assassins rely heavily on the fact that they aren’t just in it for the money, requiring also the pretense of standing up for a woman. Even when the job is done and the money paid, Munny doesn’t head home until he’s exacted justice for Logan, whom Daggett inadvertently killed. As he rides out of town, to the great admiration of the biographer, Munny warns the townsfolk to give Logan a proper burial and to treat the prostitutes as human beings.
The man who is willing to do anything, in other words, insists that society should live up to its values.
None of this is particularly difficult to draw out of these stories, which makes it something of a puzzle why people like Sandefur miss such elementary things. It might be that they’ve got an aesthetic or temperamental dislike of the rules of society. Maybe they don’t like that civilization allows the weak to live and to assert rights. More often, I think, it’s that they don’t like that Deanna’s time has long since arrived and that the real-life Deannas of our society don’t give due consideration to the warriors’ value, as the Western elite’s war on masculinity has repeatedly illustrated.
One thing that can’t be denied is that hard violence is the most basic level of interaction, with dramatic effects for simple action, even the potential to bring finality in a quick stroke. Those impressed with the seedy underbelly of society correctly identify that much truth, at least. Any individual can turn to violence, and society must therefore have recourse to violence to restrain them. Human nature makes violence real and inescapable. But that does not make violence the most true level of reality or that everything beyond survival and a kill-or-be-killed ethos an illusion. (An essay for another time would connect this misconception with the similar idea that the very self is an illusion.)
Civilization isn’t a battle between the warriors and reality versus the managers and illusion. All of their respective layers are reality, interconnected and interacting. Fundamentally, therefore, the conclusion isn’t that your circumstances define what’s real, but that we can rise above our circumstances and define reality in terms of hope and possibility.