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The Walking Dead: In Praise of Stupidity

[SPOILER ALERT: If you’re not caught up with The Walking Dead, or haven’t watched the show at all but are thinking about watching it and don’t want to know about one major plot twist, then STOP READING NOW. Or else DON’T BLAME ME LATER]

Many viewers of AMC’s The Walking Dead have complex feelings for the show. It’s kind of like a high school relationship that makes you listen to a lot of Cure and repeatedly doodle broken hearts in your notebooks – i.e. you frequently want to quit, but then if you did quit, what else would you then wittily complain about to your friends at lunch?

Wildly popular in the States and abroad, The Walking Dead TV show is based on a long-running comic series of the same name, and deals with the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse, in which any dead human reanimates as a flesh-eating monster (unless you stab them through the head first!).

In spite of the show’s high ratings, complaining about The Walking Dead is an art form unto itself and, I would argue, it is one of the big reasons why people keep watching.

This may seem like a backhanded compliment to the show’s writers, but it is, in fact, a genuine one. When you inspire this much debate – even angry, only mildly coherent debate – you know you’re doing something right.

In fact, the most fascinating thing about The Walking Dead is that its biggest flaw, the problem that makes the show seem downright unwatchable at times, is also the biggest reinforcement of what makes horror, and its various subgenres, great to begin with.

In the interest of being fair, I have to first point out that TWD gets a lot of things right. The action is superb. The fake-outs are frequent – audience expectations are regularly subverted, both in subtle and jarring ways. The emotional component of the show is surprisingly potent even six seasons in, just when we think we’ve seen it all. And when all is said and done, I think the moment that Carol’s daughter is finally revealed as having died and reanimated by the end of season 2 should go down as one of the greatest moments in American television.

Still, TWD gets humanity and, particularly, humanity amid chaos and violence, startlingly, frustratingly wrong. The main reasons why have already been laid out by Cracked’s David Wong back in 2014. TWD does a great job on focusing on humanity’s capacity for violence and ruthlessness, but forgets all of the other important factors that have made our species rise to the top of the food chain: namely our capacity for cooperation and the way in which we value practical knowledge.

Obviously, when a show is based on a popular comic series, one wants to lay the blame at the comic’s creators’ feet. But comics are a different medium, and this medium, I would argue, has its own magic. What is believable in a comic series does not always translate so well onto the screen. TWD, as done by AMC, is a great example of this – not when it comes to the action, once again, or its wonderful performances – but in the way in which it explores human civilization (or lack thereof).

My frustrations with the show’s inability to capture different sides of humanity’s response to breakdown – not just the violent side – boiled over towards the end of season 5 and have started to go nuclear while I’ve been watching season 6. There is just something about the writers’ smug treatment of a storyline featuring hardened survivors and their pathetic foils, the clueless residents of the town of Alexandria that has, miraculously and completely improbably, been spared not just the worst but even the merely unpleasant side-effects of a zombie apocalypse.

The majority of Alexandrians are so ridiculous they make that famous Sheltering Suburban Mom meme seem hardcore by comparison. This, in turn, frequently makes for boring, predictable television.

It’s really frustrating to be hit over the head with the “ONLY RUTHLESS KILLERS WILL SURVIVE!” especially considering David Wong’s point about knowledge. In any kind of hairy situation – be it the zombie apocalypse or just a regular old pointless war – brute strength and the ability to murder the living or the undead can only take you so far.

What about the guy who can’t fight but is great at raising crops? The woman who can’t shoot people in the head with as much precision as, say, TWD’s Carol, but knows all about how to fix a solar panel? When things fall apart, all kinds of human abilities are needed to put them back together again. And by not exploring this further, TWD frequently sells itself short.

Then again, the science of why we enjoy the horror genre seems to dictate that we get maximum mileage out of it when we truly feel safe. Personally, I realized that this is true soon after moving to Russia. Horror is a very under-appreciated genre here, mostly because daily life can be so very unpredictable, as opposed to in a country like the States, where such thrills can be a nice distraction from an otherwise fairly predictable day-to-day life.

Of course, our species has a complicated and varied relationship with fear – with some individuals enjoying it way more than other. When it comes to horror mass-market appeal in particular, it seems that so-called “true horror,” unrelentingly bleak and sadistic and piercingly clever about it, doesn’t do nearly as well at the box office or as far as TV ratings go. Why is that? Because it doesn’t alternate its approaches – most importantly by not providing viewers the opportunity to be smug about what’s happening on the screen.

And it may be that the great success of TWD lies precisely in its dual nature – the true horror and despair mixed in with the complete unbelievability of the various plot developments, the zombie apocalypse equivalents of the a girl running upstairs to “escape” the crazed killer of a different subgenre.

Maybe that’s what makes the truly horrifying moments on TWD actually work. If we didn’t have idiotic Alexandrians to jeer one minute, who knows if we’d love skeletal zombies attacking Aaron and Maggie in the sewer quite as much?

In art, the antidote to terror isn’t necessarily harmony, or beauty, or calm. Sometimes it’s plain old stupidity. Stupidity is exasperating – it is also comic, and allows you some emotional distance from the subject matter. How cares if the stupid guy gets eaten? He’s, well, stupid.

For some of you, that’s probably depressing, but I think all artists should take it in stride. Think of stupidity – whether it’s exhibited by the characters, or creators, or both – as the chipped paint of old French villas. Sure, it can technically be counted as an imperfection. But we all know it only adds to the charm.

Photo by Gianluca Misiti, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license