I see The Walking Dead quite differently than I do other TV shows. I haven’t missed a single episode of it, but that’s not because I think the show is particularly good. Dexter and Breaking Bad were a lot more fun to watch, and I can think of at least four HBO series (including one in Spanish, Sr. Avila) that were better than those.
The reason I watch The Walking Dead is that it forces one to think about pressing philosophical questions in a very practical way. The show is essentially a game in which you have to come up with the right answers to those questions or you die.
What would we do then? At some point we might band together in smaller tribal communities for mutual succor. Then we’d have to face some difficult but familiar questions: What is the proper trade-off between individualism and collectivism, between freedom and security, between personal ethics and the imperatives of survival? What do we need government for? What is government? What is law and where does it come from? Is it possible to have an ethical society when every person represents an immediate danger to your life and to the community?
Since the Enlightenment and even back to Plato, people have wrestled with these questions. Philosophers often started from an imaginary state of nature, which allowed them to reconstruct society critically from the ground up, on the basis of first principles, in the shadow of natural law.
That’s what The Walking Dead does, too, though it might be entirely unintentional. Think about how each episode is put together from the producers’ and show-runners’ point of view. The plot construct they’ve come up with forces them to think through, episode after episode, the very questions that have concerned political philosophers for centuries. The show is valuable because it allows you to apply the principles of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and John Stuart Mill to a sort of game-theory decision tree in a “real world” simulation.
“There are no zombies in the real world,” you might say. But the zombie apocalypse has lots of plausible functional equivalents. The Walking Dead isn’t even really about the walking dead. It’s about other people. It’s about the fact that hell, when it exists on earth, consists of other people.
The Walking Dead isn’t even really about the walking dead. It’s about the fact that hell, when it exists on earth, consists of other people.
The zombies serve only one ongoing function in the show: Having brought about the collapse of political society, their constant menace prevents the reconstitution of political society on any large scale. Survivors therefore have to figure out how to establish atomized communities large enough to save them from a precarious hunter-gatherer existence, but small enough to be manageable as safe, prosperous, and free communities. That proves a constant and often losing struggle in which little survives except our band of fellows and a little hope of a better world, which is why The Walking Dead keeps coming back.
Once the producers of the show put their own instinctive social principles through the decision trees created by their plot constructs, certain consistent patterns appear. If you’re alone or your band consists of just a small number, you’re basically a hunter-gatherer on the run, like our prehistoric forebears, except for the fact that you’re being hunted yourself. Living like that, you are forced to survive like an animal in desperate straits, forced to fear everything and everyone. Salvation lies in finding other people, but you have to assume that any humans you come across are even more dangerous than zombies. It makes you wonder how terrifying it might have been for our ancestors to cross paths with Neanderthals amidst the glaciers of Europe 30,000 years ago.
On the other hand, in The Walking Dead large communities (say 30 or 40) tend to be run as totalitarian collectives. Notice that the large-scale communities in the show are all dysfunctional in some profound way: Either dictatorships (such as that run by The Governor) or centers for organized cannibalism (Terminus) or silly re-creations of suburban utopia that have survived this long only through sheer luck (Alexandria). In none of them is there anything like the rule of law.
Imagine you live in a community of ten people living well out of the way, protected from the walking dead by a mere fence, and a band of three or four desperate wanderers come begging you to take them in. If you say yes, you might overload available resources, and the community will fall apart. If you say no, the wanderers could become enemies and easily overcome what meager security arrangements you have, letting the dead in to overrun your community. So when someone comes asking for help in the world of The Walking Dead, the most utilitarian response will sometimes be to kill them on the spot. That might not sound very ethical, but you can’t be ethical if you’re dead.
One insight of The Walking Dead is that any ethical system presupposes, and is therefore subordinate to, the imperatives of survival.
One insight of The Walking Dead is that any ethical system presupposes, and is therefore subordinate to, the imperatives of survival. Such an ethical system will win out by the brutal logic of natural selection. That insight, presented as a dilemma, is perhaps the most essential plot driver in the show and has defined Rick’s entire character (and those of others, too, such as Carol).
A related insight sounds in pure political philosophy: What prevents us from descending into barbarism is our modest institutions and the peaceful rule of law. Security and plenty are the essential precondition of an ethical society, of humanism itself. “Reason not the need,” laments King Lear in a rare moment of clarity, “our basest beggars are in the poorest things superfluous.” And it appears, from both the show and our own history, that you can’t have security and plenty at the same time without government — and not just any government, but democratic government.
Jonah Goldberg complains of the show that “the best place to live in safety should be the subject of constant discussion and yet it rarely comes up.” But in a sense the characters have been desperately trying to figure out the best place to live in safety from the very start. In the meantime, we’re left to ponder whether our own suburban utopias and bustling cities might not themselves be precariously perched between hunter-gatherer savagery and totalitarian barbarism. It’s a steep slope on both sides.
“I have a hard time believing you could have a community like Alexandria exist in such innocence for so long after the End of the World,” writes Jonah. Alas, that suicidal innocence is all too familiar. For countless millions, the 20th century might as well have been the End of the World. In some places, like the ISIS territory, a kind of zombie apocalypse continues this very day.
And yet here we are in Alexandria, comfortable in the fantasy that we’re prepared for what’s coming next.
— Mario Loyola is a National Review contributing editor.
EDITORS’ NOTE: This article has been revised since its initial publication.