The End of the World What the Walking Dead Can Tell Us about the National Mood

TheWalkingDeadPosterThank God for Netflix. Outside of sports and political debates, I have little use for appointment television. Frankly, I just don’t have the scheduling discipline to sit down and watch a show at the same time every week. But that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy a good series – that’s what Netflix is for. It does, however, mean that I’m a few years behind the rest of the country when it comes to pop culture. (Any day now I’ll start watching The Wire or Breaking Bad – I’ve heard they’re pretty good.)

The most recent addition to my binging schedule has been The Walking Dead – a show about what happens to a plucky band of survivors after the dead rise and come after the living. (I’m almost done with Season 3, so no spoilers please.) I should probably admit I’m a little obsessed. For example, every day I walk my dog outside a football stadium up the street. But until now, I hadn’t realized how easy it would be to fortify it against hordes of the undead. Some wire fencing would need bulking up, and there are some trees close to the walls that would probably have to go. But I think it would serve. Rick would be proud.

But despite my recent arrival to AMC’s hit show, I haven’t missed out on our national post-apocalypse complex. From Justin Cronin’s The Passage to the popularity of zombies in pop culture to TNT’s Falling Skies or National Geographic’s effort to give the History Channel a run for the title of ‘Once-Great-But-Now-Debased American Brand’ – Americans seem to be gearing up for the end of the world. What gives?

Well, if you insist on putting the country on the couch, there are a few tempting explanations. And trust me, just about all of them have been proposed. You can probably guess the main contenders. For example, as you might have noticed, it occasionally feels like our society is actually about to fall apart at the drop of a hat. That’s certainly how it looked after the financial meltdown in 2008. Remember the days when people were threatening that you wouldn’t be able to get money out of an ATM and everyone (note: not everyone) started hoarding gold?

Then there was the swine flu pandemic that newspeople liked to mention in the same breath with the 1918 Spanish Flu that killed up to 1 in 20 people on the planet. Leading up to 2012, a not insignificant part of the public worried that a Mayan calendar might have predicted the end of the world (spoiler alert: it didn’t). Of course, global warming is a popular threat. Maybe the seas will rise and sweep away the coasts.

With all that, thinking about the end of the world might just be good planning. But the odd thing is that not too long ago, we liked to tell stories about avoiding the apocalypse. The basic plot of Armageddon was that doomsday didn’t come, just like the end of Outbreak saw the heroes stop the spread of the virus. Now it seems like we’ve largely given up – in The Road, Cormac McCarthy doesn’t even bother to tell us what happened. We just pick up afterwards and deal with the fallout.

I take back what I said about NatGeo: the History Channel seems to be putting up a very serious fight for the title.

I take back what I said about NatGeo: the History Channel seems to be putting up a very serious fight for the title.

I don’t think I’m stretching things too much to say that it might have something to do with the inability of our national leadership to inspire much confidence. The days when Hollywood’s American President personally flew combat missions against invading aliens might be gone for good. It would seem that when the country sees threats on the horizon and no one to deal with them, we start telling stories about what we’re going to do after everything goes to hell.

Well, that was depressing. But don’t worry, I’m not going to leave it there. Instead, I have a silver lining. And as is so often the case with things that a put a smile on your face, it features Joss Whedon.

You see, before I started watching The Walking Dead, I watched Firefly – a space western that follows the exploits of a ragtag band of misfits living on the edge of society. Firefly isn’t post-apocalyptic – though the show’s ‘Reavers’ are a little bit like fast-moving zombies with spaceships. Rather, it’s a story about the frontier which happens to be set in space. The charm of the show comes, in large part, from the juxtaposition of six-shooters and gravity-drive spaceships. (I just watched this show in September, even though it debuted more than a decade ago. It was inexplicably cancelled after one season.)

When the withdrawal kicked in, I turned to The Walking Dead. So when in the first episode of the show, Rick Grimes rides into Atlanta on horseback wearing a cowboy hat and a Colt Python, I was primed to see the show for what it was. This isn’t just a show about the end of the world; it’s a show about the edge of the world. It’s a show about the frontier.

Take that premise seriously, and a big bright continuity will pop up in your view of American entertainment. Lost, Star Trek, and Battlestar Galactica were all shows about making life work on the edge of civilization. And so were Gilligan’s Island and Little House on the Prairie – after all, that is the basic American myth. It’s not hard to find shows that celebrate this ethos – just a few years ago shows like Man vs. Wild were telling us that all that stood between us and our ability to survive in nature was an unwillingness to drink our own urine.

Heck, the ad men certainly saw this connection. Bear Grylls and Gerber Gear teamed up for a branded line of survival tools. Take a guess at what the folks on Walking Dead found in an abandoned car? Gerber is now more than happy to sell you the kit.

The end of the world apparently doesn’t mean the end of product placement.

The end of the world apparently doesn’t mean the end of product placement.

So what happened? If I’m right that shows like The Walking Dead and novels like The Road are more about eking out a living on the edge than they are about the end of our world, why all the rubble and destruction? Maybe it’s because the frontier, as we’ve known it, has gone away. In 1890, the Western frontier was declared closed; with the end of the shuttle program in 2011, America might as well have declared space closed as well.

Of course, the frontier doesn’t just have to be a place, it can also be a frame of mind – a certain boldness with which one strives into the future. Isn’t tomorrow the ever-preset frontier? But today’s America seems to be fully in retrenchment mode. As a country, we seem to be suffering from a sense that we’re bumping up against our limits. Like a medieval town in which each generation builds on top of the ruins of the last, today’s obsession with the apocalypse might be our way of tearing things down in order to find some open ground.

That the country doesn’t seem to have a horizon to set its eyes on is a shame; that it’s still looking for one, however, is cause for hope. I say, bring on the zombies – me and my dog will be ready.

Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.

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