The Walking Dead Roadtrip: Disease, Environment, and Humanity


Ok, there are black people in The Walking Dead! I was glad to see the British actor Lennie James, who was fabulous in the canceled TV show Jericho. Lennie plays Morgan James who is central to the first few episodes of The Walking Dead. In ensuing episodes when the two have parted, Rick Grimes, the lead character, played by Andrew Lincoln frequently invokes Morgan, the first person he met in the new world of flesh-eating monsters.

Rick travels on leaving behind bread crumbs or sign posts (i.e. notes on cars) for Morgan to follow Rick and his rag-tag of survivors of the zombie plague. Their travels show the familiar trope of film and television of the buddy road trip–this is the horror show version–traveling across many terrains. Transforming the trope, a group and not a pair of buddies travel across the land as the group bonds and develops. I have already seen forming and storming. I am wondering if the series will get to norming, performing, forming and mourning in the midst of living dead chaos.

The backdrop to the character development is disease and the landscape.  The disease that triggers the transformation into zombies and the defunct Center for Disease Control (CDC) condemns healthcare system and perhaps even reform in the United States. The plague is winning, and modern science and medicine are losing.

In one of the first scenes is in a hospital. Rick wakes from a coma, stripping off the monitors to the machines that kept him alive; pre-plague, a suspect shot him while on duty as a police officer. He walks the corridors of the hospital stumbling about encountering the first of many zombies to come.

Looking at the environment, the telling landscapes are in the Atlanta Metro area are a grassy “plain” dotted with trees, the Bellwood Quarry, the empty streets of Atlanta, and the CDC.

One of the first times Rick kills a zombie is on a grassy slope, probably a park. I am assuming the scene is somewhere in Atlanta although I cannot name the place.  A mangled zombie drags herself, half of her body gone below the waist, seeking to chomp on a human. Rick watches the futile efforts and then kills the zombie.

Rick’s humanity slowly seeps away, as he becomes less and less human and more and more dead like the zombies he shoots and bludgeons.

That rag tag group was already forming and living near a quarry while Rick was in his coma in the first episode. The location is Bellwood Quarry in Atlanta. The  place is abandoned, unproductive, non-working–much like the people simply surviving in what is essentially a post-apocalypse. No one is planting crops. Great paintings are no longer being created. The 21st century War and Peace or Beloved are not being written. Civilization no longer exists like a quiet rock quarry that is no longer producing slate for kitchen countertops and outdoor walkways.

Before finding his new and struggling community, Rick makes his way to Atlanta in hopes of reconnecting with civilization–which ultimately serves as condemnation of Atlanta and more broadly dying urban life. The empty streets of asphalt and the sidewalks of concrete are an echo of what once was. The buildings tower, almost close in on Rick. Rather than being greeted by “society” he meets swarms of zombies during this first visit. Atlanta once Rick’s place of hope is now hopeless. The city in 2010 is full of empty condos and houses that will not move in the stagnant real estate market. Like many an American city, particularly downtowns, it is a bleak city. Atlanta is a metaphor for modern issues of poverty and crime overcoming ailing cities in the United States with more zombies than humans wandering around. Dead cities, dead people.

You would think the beacon of hope would be the CDC, another of Rick’s stops. Not. They do not use the real CDC which is on Clifton Road in Atlanta. Security did not allow for access, I’m sure. Pike fences surround the real CDC, which is closed off from the street.

The small group led by Rick arrives on the edges the alternate CDC on open terrain still searching for civilization, along with answers. They find dead bodies scattered on the campus; not a good sign. And the undead are lurching about as usual.

When they get into the CDC after much drama, one man, a scientist still remains trying to figure out what went wrong. Why does this disease vector trigger an illness that transforms people into zombies? He does not have the answers sought by this band of gypsies. And the unspoken question: was the CDC responsible for the plague? There’s no answer for that question either.

Without fuel–perhaps an allegory of 21st Century reliance on fossil fuel, the CDC begins automatic shut-down and goes into self-destruct (so the cache of viruses and diseases that remain in the building are not released)  much like the survivors. When the scientist locks them in with him, locks them into his hopeless and futility, they fight to leave and survive.

The band, the cobbled community are still holding tight to their humanity in the midst of the dehumanizing plague. They still have free will, Christian theology for some, choosing to die with the scientist or continue to live on through the journey. The members of the community leave the CDC without a cure, without the answers to spoken and unspoken questions. Others stay behind choosing to die and give up on the journey, a cure, and their community. No matter the choice, there is free will.

Running across the grounds of the CDC dodging the undead, the survivors leap into the RV and other vehicles to continue their twisted frightening road trip.

What new place is next? Will the disease further strip the group of their humanity? As someone who loves show for the tortured troubled relationships, the struggle to create community, and maintain their humanity–not the zombies and many variations on clubbing and shooting them–I look forward to seeing what happens in the city, on the farm, and in the woods.

6 responses

  1. Nice post. I think the show needs better writers who will invest more in the character development area. I felt a bit slighted by the season finale but the show still has great potential for many of the rich subtexts you outline.

  2. Good write-up, Dianne. I was thinking of this show on a different level–perhaps it was because I was watching it at 1100 p.m. on Sunday night! I am a fan of the original graphic novel, which follows a course somewhat different than what we have seen so far in the show.

    I consistently feel that this show’s genius is actually showing how traumatic an actual event like the dead rising would be. We often fantasize that such an disasterous scenario would lead us to new levels of freedom that our modern world does not allow. In ‘reality’ it would be on a level of trauma that many of us never knew existed. I believe that the greatest example of this is shown in Morgan during the pilot episode. The agony of seeing his wife turned into one of the undead is palpable and easy to see on the husband’s face. So well is the role played that it reminds of me the real losses you and I see on a regular basis at our place of ministry.

    Like a lot of fans, I feel somewhat jaded that the ‘season’ only consists of 6 episodes, however. It seems just in time for Christmas (of course, I will go out and get this ‘season’ on DVD). How can a real season only be six episodes? Did the AMC big shots think ‘The Walking Dead’ would not be accepted?

    • Tim, I agree with you on those scenes of Morgan struggling with killing his zombie wife. I also felt for his son who could not come to resolution about his mother’s death because she was still physically out there although her mind was gone. I also thought it was interesting that the wife retained some semblance of herself because she returned to her home turning the doorknob trying to get in every night.

      Andrew Lincoln is also going through a spiritual process as he destroys the zombies like the others so there are some truths in the violence.

      Overall it gets repetitive though, and I am wondering how long the tv-watching attention span will be sustained.

      As you well know, many scifi shows start off strong but wane. Part of the problem is the cost of the doing high quality speculative fiction. Jericho got canceled because the cost of producing a drama and low ratings. The Walking Dead is not high tech but I’m sure the makeup and filming on real locations rather than sets is very costly. It’s also an ensemble drama which is also costly. And if the actors have a contract for one season and the show renews, they will be asking for a great deal more per episode. This stuff is not cheap like reality tv. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.

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