Last week, Steven Wilson made an impassioned argument for why we should stop watching The Walking Dead and like so many other pieces he writes, it’s hard to argue against the individual points. He’s right that we haven’t learned much — if anything — new since the first season of The Walking Dead. He’s also right that five years from now, The Walking Dead is likely to be the same show, only the characters and locations will have changed.
The fact that the writers are able to make you actually care about these characters while they torture them for your viewing pleasure shouldn’t be taken as a evidence that the show is any good as a story. It’s a shell game that convinces you to empathize with characters as they’re ground into dust. The empathetic characters are an essential part of the sadistic machine. But it’s only a treadmill of emotion to keep you marching towards the nonexistent dangling carrot. To their credit, the producers of The Walking Dead are putting to air the most overwhelmingly popular snuff film in history, week in and week out.
But constant death and hopelessness isn’t a story. Stories have trajectories. They might go from bad times to a happy ending or good times to a tragic ending, or dance all around in between, but if it’s just a flat line of suffering, that’s not a story. It’s just pornography of misery.
The piece nagged at me, as I’m sure it nagged at many others who love The Walking Dead, because he’s not wrong. So, then, why is it so beloved by so many (including myself)? Is it because we haven’t seen through the shell game yet? Or is it that we haven’t been able to recognize the “pornography of misery.”
Ironically, this week’s episode of The Walking Dead, “Here’s Not Here,” answered to my satisfaction exactly why we love The Walking Dead in spite of those truths:
“It’s about people. Everything in this life that’s worth a damn is about people.”
Those were the dying words of the “cheesmaker,” Eastman, who we were introduced to in this week’s episode, which covered Morgan’s backstory. Eastman was a forensic psychologist that Morgan stumbled upon after he burned down his home in King County during one of his fits of lunacy. It was Eastman, we came to learn over the course of the episode, that instilled in Morgan a belief in the preciousness of life: He would not kill anyone ever again, no matter how evil they appeared. That, as we found out at the end of the episode, included the member of the Wolves he kept himself from killing two episodes ago.
The episode didn’t bring much new to the ongoing narrative aside from the last minute screams from Rick in the present day, “Open the Gate!” he yelled, suggesting that he was urgently attempting to get away from a threat arriving at the gates of Alexandria.
The episode did remind me, however, of why we love The Walking Dead. It could’ve very easily been a frustrating episode for failing to advance the plot or reveal the fate of Glenn. However, as Steven noted himself, The Walking Dead is not about pushing the plot forward. No matter what happens, invariably its storyline is going to circle back around to another similar situation where the life of another beloved character will hang in the balance.
“It’s about the people.”
That’s exactly why I continue watching The Walking Dead, even though I understand that most — if not all — of the characters will eventually die. Isn’t that true of all of us, though? And if you take the longview — the God’s eye perspective — isn’t existence itself little more than “pornography of misery”? Why fall in love if our hearts will eventually be broken? Why wake up each morning if we know we’ll eventually die? Why continue doing the laundry every week knowing that the next week there’ll just be more dirty laundry to clean? Why do we do anything if it’s all eventually proven to be pointless?
Because it’s about the experience of living, the journey through life toward our inevitable deaths. After all, how much have we as a species really learned since dawn of man? We are born, we fall in love and procreate, we die, and we begin the cycle again. Some of us are good. Some of us are evil. Most of us are somewhere in between.
But living is not about death, no matter how grisly or banal that death may be. Living is about experiencing and adapting and evolving and making the best what’s left with our time on Earth. That’s what we see every week on The Walking Dead. We do not see people marching inexorably toward violent deaths. We see people trying to survive. We see people heroically sacrificing themselves. We see people adapting to their new surroundings, just as we adapted and survived through hundreds of wars, the plague, the Industrial Revolution, the Cold War and the smart phone.
We know these characters will eventually meet their makers, but we root for them to make the most of their miserable lives anyway, just as we root for those around us to make the most of theirs. We like these characters, and the longer they are on the show — and in our weekly lives — the more we grow attached to them in spite of knowing what fate will inevitably befall them.
The Walking Dead is not about awaiting death. It’s about witnessing their lives. It’s about seeing Carol evolve from an abused spouse into the powerful, bad-ass woman she is today. It’s about seeing the white-trash thug Daryl find purpose in a post-apocalyptic world. It’s about seeing Glenn and Maggie fall in love and fight for their lives together. It’s about how the differing philosophies of these characters clash in an apocalypse. It’s about applying my own belief system to a different landscape. The story may not advance, but the characters do.
“Get busy living, or get busy dying,” Morgan Freeman said in Shawshank Redemption.
Well, why can’t we do both?
The Walking Dead is “about people,” and it’s not about their deaths. It’s about their instincts and desires to survive, no matter how dreary the circumstances. That’s why we watch The Walking Dead: To see what these characters will do in the face of insurmountable odds to live another minute, another day, month or year.
It’s also about watching Michonne cut off zombie heads and every once betraying a smile.