Friday, July 20, 2012

The Philosophy of The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead has become a cross over phenomenon, making the very difficult transition from popular comic book to popular television show. The success of both can be found in good writing that tears at the heart of the human person. It is Lord of the Flies writ large.

For those unfamiliar, The Walking Dead follows Georgia Sheriff Rick Grimes as he tries to lead a small band of survivors through the remains of a world ravaged by a zombie apocalypse. The story is not actually about zombies. The undead are merely the Sitz im Leben of the characters who scramble for survival. The story is instead about the very real human drama and is about what human beings become when society collapses.

The world of The Walking Dead appears to be one of random chaos. At this point in both the television show and in the comics, no overall governing force, be it God or fate or karma, has a hand in the events of the story. This is particularly felt in the way the show approaches death. Often when someone dies it is unexpected, violent, and senseless leading to now greater good. When Obi-Wan dies in Star Wars, we see it as a necessary step for him to become a hero. When (SPOILER ALERT) Dumbledore dies, we can see how that was a necessary step in the chain of events that bring about a greater good.

But there never appears to be a greater good in The Walking Dead. Things go from bad to worse with short pitstops in “not getting worse at the moment.” God is silent. There is no karmic justice, only the scramble for continuing life as horrible as it is. Everything that happens in the story is random and meaningless. The characters change, but they do not grow. This is impossible because there is nothing for them to grow into.

This is the biggest focus of the entire series. What is man? At our core, who are we? Particularly, when the chips are down, how do we act. The Joker in The Dark Knight said that people are only as good as society allows them to be, but if it came down to it, they would eat each other. In The Walking Dead that is literally what happens.

It is of particular note that the story is not about the zombie outbreak per se. Any cataclysm would suffice, be it natural disaster, alien invasion, wrath of God, or what have you. Rick wakes up after the initial onset of the problem and is left to cope with the aftermath. What he finds are survivors riddled with fear who feel forced to do horrible things. The point that the series is trying to make is that man, left to his own devices, is pretty evil.

This is purely the anthropology of Thomas Hobbes. He believe that the human condition is one of selfishness and savagery. In his book, the Leviathan, he said, “In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing, such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

What he is trying to say is that we all want the satisfaction of our desires. We want to kill, dominate, steal, and indulge in any bestial vice we can imagine. The only reason why we do not is because of society. Hobbes described what he called “social contract theory.” In this case, even though I want bash in my neighbor's house and steal his car, I agree not to. In exchange he agrees not to do the same to me and my comic book collection. We all have collective guns to our heads, and if anyone breaks the contract, we come down hard on them with punishment. Thus, we do not need to live in constant fear that anyone anywhere is a potential marauder

But in The Walking Dead, the contract is null and void because society has collapsed. Human society consists of either nomadic tribes or tiny fiefdoms In this brave new world, it is survival of the most violent. We watch Rick's slow decent to brute, dictator, avenger, and killer (even to the point of ripping out someone's throat with his own teeth). And all of this fits with this mad world the writers of the series have created. To be sure, the characters strive to be more than mere survivalists. But they fail again and again and again. Man is a beast. We are live as long as we can and then die. Or as Rick so pointedly put it: “WE are the Walking Dead.”

Admittedly, there is very little to go on here. And I believe that is part of the point. No one knows anything. No one knows how the apocalypse started. No one knows how to cure it. No one knows how to survive in this world. Science, religion, philosophy, government, family, reason, intuition... none of these can guide you. There is no expert in this place, only people who haven't yet died.

With the Hobbesian view of anthropology comes a Hobbesian ethics. Strong governance is needed for peace. But there can be no strong governance with the world in shatters.

In the world of The Walking Dead, there are no moral heroes. There are no saints. When the characters are confronted with a moral question, the result is usually the breaking of another commandment and the slow killing of their consciences.

Take the storyline from the television show when the survivors save the life of one of their attackers. Zombies come to get him and our main characters do the decent thing and save him. But coming to realize that he is a potential security threat, many of them decide to kill him. Only one person, Dale, tries to convince everyone that murder is wrong. But almost everyone is too far gone to see that. You can feel Dale's exasperation as he clings desperately to his humanity but cannot help see it slip away.

In The Walking Dead there is no right and wrong. There is only alive and dead. One of the only reason we continue to stay with the main characters is because the world is too full of people more savage. Particularly the Governor leaves an indelibly mark of sadistic power gone mad. Rick and his followers stay together because the designs of people like the Governor are less likely to fall on them if they stick together. But the odds are not in their favor. The clock ticks. And the inevitability of death awaits.


I have to be fair and say that with a series that is not complete, there is a chance I have misread some of its philosophy. There is still time to turn the story around. If JK Rowling had stopped writing Deathly Hallows after Harry goes into the forbidden forrest, the philosophy of the Potter books would be quite different.

But I think that after 100 issues and 2 seasons, we have a fairly good handle on its themes.

This is not to say that this is a bad show or comic. Like the greatest book I have ever read, The Lord of the Flies, The Walking Dead forces you to answer a question: under what circumstances could you become a monster? That question has haunted me most of my life. I hope that I would be brave and be a moral hero.

But in the world of The Walking Dead, the only saints are martyrs.


  1. I like your analysis and think it is quite thoughtful. I have only watched the first season and played episode 1 and 2 of the game (which Kirkman has input on) but I get a different read on what I have seen. The world seems hobbesian but the main characters themselves are never reduced to Hobbes brutish "war against all" state. Because the main characters remain civil despite the lack of civilization, it almost appears to be dialogue about the nature of man between Hobbes and Locke, with Hobbes representing the world but the characters (who the story is really about) representing Locke's anthropology. Again, I have yet to read the comic or see season 2 of the show so I may be working off of too little data. Just one person's thoughts

  2. I agree that this is how they start. But as the story progresses in the comic and soon to be seen in the show, I think you will see what I did too.