Now closing its sixth season, AMC's The Walking Dead has received the highest ratings of any cable drama ever, and its writing and acting have been showered with awards. That's impressive, given that the series is also a deadly serious examination of the nature of political society and the virtues necessary to sustain it.
The series begins, appropriately enough, with what Albert Camus called the only genuine philosophical problem: Why not commit suicide immediately? In one early episode, the survivors of the zombie apocalypse are trapped in a lab that's set to self-destruct by a scientist who, unable to pursue his research further, prefers death to a world without hope of cure or rescue. "Wouldn't it be kinder? More compassionate, to just hold your loved ones and wait for the clock to run down?" he asks. The show's central character, Rick Grimes, refuses. "All we want," he says, is "a choice. A chance."
Another character, Andrea, prefers to remain and die, but is forced against her will to escape. For the rest of her life, she resents her rescuer. "I chose to stay," she tells him. "If I decided that I have nothing left to live for, who the hell are you to tell me otherwise? I wanted to die my way, not torn apart by drooling freaks. That was my choice. You took that away from me."
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.
From The Governor's tyranny to a hospital controlled by cops who have turned pirate, to Terminus—a society of cannibals whose motto is "You're either the butcher or the cattle"—every community Rick's group of nomads encounters turns out to be corrupt, compromised, or contemptible, and the foundations of city life—from religion to agriculture to the pursuit of happiness—are treated as delusions. Andrea's weakness, for instance, is not that she's a coward—she's not—but that she values the the pursuit of happiness more than mere survival. "Every one of us has suffered," she tells The Governor's followers at one point. "So what do we do? We dig deep, and we find the strength to carry on. We work together, and we rebuild. Not just the fences, the gates, the community, but ourselves, our hearts, our minds." That idealism proves her fatal flaw.
To the degree that The Walking Dead does respect the city, its ideal is Sparta, not Athens. The creativity, innovation, democracy, and joy that the Greeks saw as proof of Athena's favor are treated here as petty distractions from the bloody trials of "real" life. The series prefers the aristocratic values of warlord societies: violence, hierarchy, cleverness, honor, and physical labor. The characters never create, they rarely sing, and the only books they read are Tom Sawyer and the Bible. Their highest virtue is loyalty. Their worst sin is being slow on the trigger.
The Walking Dead's Nietzschean indictment of bourgeois decadence begins with its scorn for religion. Its subtle jabs at a faith whose God rose from the dead provide a clever indictment of the longing for immortality that often inspires humanity's worst. This is particularly effective in the episode "The Grove," which ingeniously satirizes the suicidal nihilism of holy warriors by portraying a traumatized teenager so infatuated with the notion that zombies are "happy" that she slices her own sister's throat.
But the program goes further, criticizing not just supernaturalism but the very idea of a universal moral order. Its primary religious character, the priest Gabriel, is a coward, a hypocrite, and a traitor. Another, the physician Hershel, is more sympathetic, but his religion is regarded as at best obsolete, and often a source of gullibility. He keeps a barn full of zombies in hopes of finding a cure, thereby nearly killing everybody. Later, his failure to take simple precautions leads to a zombie outbreak that again costs almost everyone's lives. Captured by The Governor, he reverts to the same naiveté that destroyed Andrea: "Your people, our people," Hershel says, "we can find a way to live together." He, too, is brutally slaughtered.
The other characters live an almost wholly pragmatic existence, in which the closest approach to larger meaning is escorting the purported scientist Eugene to a place where he can save the world. Eugene is obviously a fraud, and when he confesses, it renders the group missionless. "There is no 'right' or 'wrong' way to exist" after the zombie disaster, writes New Mexico Highlands University English professor Brandon Kempner in The Walking Dead and Philosophy. The "one constant left is existing. Surviving."
Survival here means mere life, not human flourishing; to pursue happiness is immature escapism. When the survivors seek shelter in an old prison, Hershel persuades Rick to give up his weapons and learn farming. He grows tomatoes, raises pigs, and briefly experiences a happiness he'd forgotten. But the swine soon contract a disease that infects the humans, and then The Governor attacks the prison, killing Hershel and many others. Time and again in later episodes, Rick curses himself for having beaten his pistol into a plowshare, however briefly. The other characters agree. "I saved you!" his son Carl shouts at him after they're forced to flee. "I didn't forget while you had us playing farmer. I still know how to survive. Lucky for us.…You couldn't protect Hershel or Glenn or Maggie.…You just wanted to plant vegetables. You just wanted to hide.…You just hid behind those fences."
This accusation is revealing, because civilization ultimately depends on fences and on "playing farmer." In Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, historian Edward Gibbon contrasted the lifestyles of the "shepherd" and the "husbandman," arguing that while the farmer's "patient toil" is the basis of stable society, the "vagrant tribes of hunters and shepherds, whose indolence refuses to cultivate the earth, and whose restless spirit disdains…confinement" generate instead "the fierce and cruel habits of a military life." Two centuries later, the philosopher Jacob Bronowski agreed: "Civilization can never grow up on the move," he wrote. "The largest single step in the ascent of man is the change from nomad to village agriculture." But The Walking Dead's characters learn to disdain patient husbandry as a superficial indulgence, and choose a life of roaming and the Will to Power. The show's use of a prison as the site for this lesson symbolically underscores its view that peaceful productivity is only a kind of "confinement."
Rick shows he's learned that lesson in a later season, when the group reaches an oasis in Alexandria, Virginia. An experimental housing community designed to be self-sustaining, Alexandria generates its own solar electricity and running water. The residents are wisely governed by a former congresswoman named Deanna, and they live a comfortable, even cultured existence, hosting dinner parties and making art. Deanna's architect husband even has plans for new construction.
But for Rick and the others, this is only proof of the Alexandrians' pathetic softness. "I like it here," says Carl. "But they're weak. And I don't want us to get weak, too." Rick agrees. At first, this just seems a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder: After a year among the zombies, it's hard readjusting to civilian life. But the episodes that follow take sides against the Alexandrians and their alleged flaccidity, and the series returns again to its critique of civilian life per se. Rick's followers conspire to overthrow Deanna, and when they learn that one of the townspeople is beating his wife, they don't bother with a trial: Rick tries to kill him in the street. When Deanna rushes to intervene, he pulls a gun on her. "You still don't get it," he sneers. "We know what needs to be done, and we do it." As he continues, the camera cuts away to one of Rick's followers, coolly shooting down zombies that bang on the city's walls. "We're the ones who live. You—you just sit and plan and hesitate. You pretend like you know, when you don't.…You want to live? You want this place to stay standing? Your way of doing things is done.…Starting right now, we have to live in the real world. We have to control who lives here."
Only one of Rick's followers resists his cynical call for military dictatorship: Michonne. Once a cultured socialite, Michonne is now a deadly swordswoman who joins Rick's group months before they reach Alexandria but misses the time when safety and comfort were possible. She is a modern version of Athena, the warrior goddess who in Aeschylus' Oresteia invents the city by chasing away the forces of revenge and instructing her people: "Here in our homeland, never cast the stones/that whet our bloodlust.…Let our wars/rage on abroad…[but]/My curse on civil war." Rather than taking up arms within the city walls, Athena warns, citizens must respect "the majesty of Persuasion," which alone can bring peace and prosperity.
Unlike Athena, however, Michonne yields to Rick's muscular realism. When the Alexandrians meet to decide whether to exile him for his outburst, his followers agree to concoct a story to protect him. Michonne at first holds back. Why lie? she asks. The answer: "Because these people are children, and children like stories." She balks: Surely reason and persuasion would be better. But when Rick describes his plan to slit the leaders' throats if they rule against him, she falls silent. Her loyalty to him outweighs her belief in the well-ruled city.
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.
This critique of modern civil society as a flimsy myth is not new, but the ferocity with which The Walking Dead advances it is unusual. Joseph Conrad expressed a similar attitude in the novel Heart of Darkness, presenting civilized society as a canvas stretched over a brutality too dreadful to acknowledge. The narrator, Marlow, searches the Congo for Mr. Kurtz, lauded in Europe as a shining symbol of humanitarian progress. What he finds is that the celebrated Kurtz is a madman whose sanguinary philosophy is scrawled at the bottom of his philanthropic manuscript: "Exterminate all the brutes!"
After tracking Kurtz down and witnessing his death, Marlow cannot bring himself to admit the reality behind the explorer's myth. Meeting Kurtz's fiancée back England, he can hear the man's final words echoing in his brain ("The horror! The horror!") but tells her instead, "The last word he pronounced was—your name." For a moment, he thinks the sky will fall on account of this lie, but it doesn't. He begins to wonder if perhaps it would fall if he told the truth. Walking out into London—"a city that always makes me think of a whited sepulchre"—Marlow concludes that civilization depends on the little lies we use to explain away an unspeakably violent reality.
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.
Yet the film does not treat Stoddard with contempt. On the contrary: Ford recognizes that he represents the future. He alone can give Hallie and the townspeople the security and beauty they need to live the good life. In one eloquent scene, when Doniphon tries to impress Hallie with a cactus rose, Stoddard quietly asks, "Did you ever see a real rose?" Only the law, technology, irrigation, and agriculture Stoddard represents can give her that. He cannot defeat the lawless Valance—only Doniphon can—but, paradoxically, there is no room for Doniphon in the civilization Valance's death makes possible. Like Athena, Doniphon destroys the rule of power and establishes the rule of persuasion, but—also like Athena—he can afterward exist only in myth. As the film's most famous line puts it, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."
Conrad's and Ford's stories are fiction, but they reflect real history. What we know today as civilized society had its origins in the emergence of the burgher—in French, bourgeois—who lived in the walled cities of Europe during the Middle Ages. "The legal relations among the inhabitants of such places were normally governed by contract, rather than status," the libertarian scholar Tom G. Palmer writes in Realizing Freedom. "Legal equality and the rule of law developed in civil society." In that sense, civilization really is artificial: an artifact of human creation, established by burghers, whose social bonds were chosen and mutual rather than imposed and hierarchical. These were true social compacts. Palmer quotes the 13th century philosopher Brunetto Latini: "those who wanted to live by their own law and escape the force of evildoers grouped themselves together in one place and under one government. Thence they began to build houses and establish towns (viles) and customs and laws and rights (drois) which should be common to all the burghers (borgois) of the town." Like commerce and the arts, like intellectual specialization and technological progress, freedom itself is a child of the city.
These cities were not just new political institutions, but the birthplace of a new culture built around what the economic historian Deirdre McCloskey calls the bourgeois virtues. "The four classical pagan virtues are those of Odysseus," she writes, "prudence, temperance, justice, and courage." On the other hand, the bourgeois virtues, or mores, of city life, are those of Ben Franklin: enterprise, humor, respect, modesty, thrift, responsibility. These and other commercial virtues fostered not only economic expansion—credit, for instance, depends on the mores of trust and responsibility—but also social change, as European and American society came to reward innovation, creativity, comfort, and trade. "Ordinary conversation about innovation and markets became more approving," McCloskey writes. "The high theorists were emboldened to rethink their prejudice against the bourgeoisie."
Hollywood once celebrated the bourgeois values—particularly in Westerns. As Henry Fonda shouts just before the gunfight in My Darling Clementine, "I'm givin' you a chance to submit to proper authority!" But the neo-Western Walking Dead doubts that proper authority itself has a chance. Conrad and Ford thought bourgeois life a noble lie. The Walking Dead considers it a fatuous pretense. This is not the orderly anarchy of libertarian theory, but the antisocial pessimism of a new Dark Age.
Or rather, Bronze Age. Like Friedrich Nietzsche, the program proclaims not only the death of God, but the resurgence of the ancient aristocratic virtues and the waning of the bourgeois virtues of commercial civilization. The program's qualms about modernity become clearest in the clash between its most Spartan character, Carol, and its closest attempt at a spokesman for bourgeois modernity, Morgan Jones. Like the women of the ancient Greek city, Carol is a laconic killer who interrupts the children's story time to teach them to use machetes. Morgan, by contrast, has devoted himself to a Zen philosophy of the absolute sanctity of life. His imprudent dogma, however, is only a strawman version of bourgeois virtue—another blind religious faith.
When Morgan captures a member of the Wolves and plans to convert him, Carol rushes to kill the prisoner. Morgan stops her, even as the Wolf calmly swears to murder everyone. "We can talk," says Morgan, as Carol waves a knife.
"No," she says. "This is over."
Morgan protests. "We can be better than them."
"We are better than them," Carol replies.
"Not if we kill," Morgan argues. "With life, there's possibility. Even if we never let him out."
"I'd get out," the Wolf interjects. "You should kill me. But you're all going to die."
Carol then demands of Morgan, "You tell me you're sure. You tell me you know what'll happen—how it'll go." These are reasonable questions, but the show's writers allow Morgan to answer only with silence.
Time and again, The Walking Dead dismisses the bourgeois virtues as superficial, caricatures them as foolish, or parodies them as neuroses. The result is a compelling drama of characters pushed to the limit, but one that also shuns the only shelter humanity has found against the forces of barbarism: the modern commercial city.
What Aristotle said of Sparta and its admirers strikes with equal force against The Walking Dead's writers. "They commend the [Spartan] constitution, and praise the legislator for making conquest and war his sole aim," he wrote. But the Spartans "are not a happy people.…The government of freemen is nobler and implies more virtue than a despotic government. Neither is a city to be deemed happy or a legislator to be praised because he trains his citizens to conquer…for there is great evil in this.…The legislator should direct all his military and other measures to the provision of leisure and the establishment of peace."
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Anarchy, State, and Zombie Dystopia".