“The world ended. Didn’t you get the memo?”
With that seemingly simple string of words (spoken by a young survivor named Amy in the third episode), the eschatological tenor of AMC’s new weekly television series “The Walking Dead” finds its most succinct and trenchant expression.
Here are the basics: “The Walking Dead” is based upon an award-winning, monthly, black-and-white comic book written by Robert Kirkman and brought artistically to life by Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard. Published by Image Comics, “The Walking Dead” brings its readers into the lives of a group of diverse survivors who are desperately attempting to make sense of their pilgrimage in the aftermath of what can only be described as a zombie apocalypse. In short, for unknown reasons, the dead start coming back to life all over the world—not in a miraculous “Lazarus come forth” kind of way, but in a horrifying “let me eat your flesh” kind of way.
Far from a one-dimensional horror story, however, “The Walking Dead” has consistently accomplished something that no other current comic book can claim: It has created a sophisticated and multi-layered narrative that pits a host of compelling and well-crafted characters against unimaginable challenges and invites the reader to suspend disbelief long enough to visit the remarkable world that it creates. I have read the comic book since its creation in 2003 and have regularly found in its pages an unparalleled blend of pathos and hope. Furthermore, I have yet to encounter the comic book in which issues of theology and community are approached as seriously and creatively as they are in “The Walking Dead.”
It was no surprise to me that the people at AMC saw in the comic book the potential for a weekly television series. AMC wisely tapped director Frank Darabont, whose directorial work in “The Shawshank Redemption,” “The Green Mile,” and “The Majestic” bear witness to his deftness in dealing cinematically with complex redemption stories. Darabont signed on, and so did a cadre of fine actors, many of whom will be familiar to viewers. On October 31 of 2010, “The Walking Dead” debuted as a weekly series and has quickly become my favorite current television show.
Make no mistake about it, “The Walking Dead” is a zombie story. That detail alone will prevent many from taking the show seriously or giving it a chance, and I can certainly sympathize with anyone’s hesitation in this regard. The graphic depiction of flesh-consumption, after all—which is par for the course in “The Walking Dead”—has a way of demarcating sharply the boundary lines between viewers and non-viewers. It is not a show for the squeamish.
And yet, beyond the graphic nature of its spectacle (which only serves as a visual reinforcement of the life-and-death tension that permeates the show’s storyline), “The Walking Dead” is a quality television show because of its dialogue, its characters, its emotional intensity and depth, and its daring efforts to address themes that are as relational as they are theological. Some of those themes are these:
The Theme of Spiritual Awakening: The show’s main character, Rick Grimes (played with great subtlety by Andrew Lincoln) emerges from a coma only to discover an apocalyptic environment that, at first, he is left to interpret on his own. Rick’s awakening becomes a metaphor for the heightened spiritual and relational attentiveness by which all of the survivors must now approach the frightening new world in which they find themselves. Put simply, survival now depends upon the characters’ willingness to lay aside the comfortable numbness that their previous existence could accommodate in order to embrace a heightened level of awareness that will enable them to become pilgrims on a journey instead of cogs in a cultural machine.
The Theme of the Second Chance: “Maybe we got a second chance,” protagonist Rick Grimes says to his wife (from whom he had been somewhat estranged prior to the apocalypse), “Not many people get that.” Call it redemption. Call it conversion. Call it an ironic experience of a new lease on life amidst a mind-boggling scenario of relentless death. Rick’s words bear witness to the show’s undergirding theme of an unexpected—and perhaps unmerited—second chance. Like Moses, Noah, and the Apostle Paul relying upon biblical grace, the survivors in “The Walking Dead” are saved by a mystery that has afforded to them the opportunity to live anew amidst widespread death.
The Theme of the Urgency of Community: In a moment of discernment, Rick offers this salient observation: “There’s us and the dead. We survive this by pulling together, not apart.” In one sense, of course, Rick’s reference to “the dead” is an allusion to the zombies. But might his words also suggest that even the survivors become “dead” (spiritually speaking) when they harden themselves to the possibility of relationship and community? Survival in “The Walking Dead” is absolutely dependent upon one’s willingness to look beyond one’s individual needs and preferences in order to labor for the good of the community. Such a theme resonates with particular vibrancy in a culture (and, for that matter, a church) that often champions a cold self-sufficiency over relational intimacy.
The Theme of Living Versus Surviving: The character of Shane summarizes post-apocalyptic life in this fashion: “We are surviving here. It’s day by day.” Shane’s words serve as a poignant reminder of the vast difference between surviving and living. Those who survive do what is necessary to get by. Those who LIVE, however, are available to the surprising joy and vitality that often hide themselves in the nooks and crannies of a painful journey. “The Walking Dead” recognizes that a willingness to settle for mere physical survival will result in a spiritual somnambulism that is tantamount to death. In that case, the “walking dead” is as much a reference to the survivors as it is to the zombies.
I am uncertain of what it says about me that my favorite show on television revolves around desperate human souls attempting to live (and not simply survive) in a world of flesh-eating zombies. Perhaps I am drawn to the stark yet artistic juxtaposition of life and death that “The Walking Dead” consistently maintains. Or maybe I am simply a sucker for a television show that dares to make the zombie a metaphor for a world that is all too familiar to us—the kind of world that eats its inhabitants.
Whatever my motivation, I’ll be there on Sunday at 10:00, rooting for the community as it attempts to cultivate life in a world where a spirit of death is all too common.
Sounds a little bit like the church, doesn’t it?