What’s So Wonderful (and Horrible) about “The Walking Dead”

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I just watched episode 6, season 4 (“Mind Wars”), of “Falling Skies” and was left, as I often am after watching that series, with a kind of blank, empty feeling. During the scene when Matt, predictably, can’t pull the trigger on his dad’s kidnapper, I recalled writer/director Guillermo Del Toro talking in an interview about the fact that really bad stuff happens to kids in the real world. Fiction should reflect that, he argues, rather than continually portraying children as protected from the worst aspects of life, political, familial and personal. Ensuing from that thought, I found myself thinking about “The Walking Dead” t.v. series, and the truly horrific things that have happened to children therein: Sophia goes missing and after a long fruitless hunt to find her, is discovered as one of the turned captives in Hershel’s barn; Carl chooses to shoot his mother before she turns; Lizzie, out of utter confusion and frustration, stabs her sister to death, and Carol, who loves her, shoots her to protect baby Judith and others whom Lizzie might harm.

After describing the last scenario with Carol and the girls to my husband, who was not able to keep up with the series with me (but who, I should point out, got me hooked on it in the first place!) he declared he might not be able to watch it anymore. I will admit, “The Grove” was pretty over-the-top for me as well. And yet, as dismally bleak and heartbreaking as it was, there was also, in the terrific sadness of it, something satisfying. The satisfaction, for me, is in the realism of the show. Yes, it’s a show about zombies, but they are almost beside the point. The real point is to watch a group of people try to survive and make some sort of meaning out of a post-apocalyptic world, to redefine their humanity in the face of inhumane conditions. This is theoretically the same starting point as “Falling Skies” (just substitute alien invasion for zombie epidemic) but there is no comparison when it comes to realism. On “Falling Skies,” everyone looks pretty clean, well-rested and well-fed even while living in the alien-run “ghetto”; on “The Walking Dead” people generally look filthy, exhausted, and starving. On “Falling Skies” there is always a heroic plan (or several) underway that may at least partially succeed, and allies to assist; on “The Walking Dead” there is often no plan, allies frequently turn on you, literally and figuratively, and yes, important characters die. And die horribly. On “Falling Skies” the worst thing the badass tough-guy character does is hoard food; on “The Walking Dead” the latest badass orders people beaten to death, and children raped in front of their parents. Shudder.

Isn’t this all too much? Maybe. I may reach a point where I can’t endure the hopelessness, depravity and cruelty and have to stop watching too. Yet I have an emotional investment in these characters, and unlike “Falling Skies” where it feels like humanity’s survival is at stake, but not much is at stake for the main characters–you know they will come out o.k., and not changed in any substantial way–on “The Walking Dead” what’s at stake is each character’s very soul. I care for these characters, even in their darkest moments. Because of their darkest moments. Their bravery and heroism, when it surfaces, is so much more meaningful because of them. Who can forget Hershel’s magnanimous smile before he is beheaded? Glenn and Maggie’s reunion? Carol’s admission of guilt and Tyreese’s forgiveness of her? The real heart of the show is not the adrenaline rush, but the ensuing hush that begs the question: what would you have done, and what would it have cost you to do it?

So bravo, “Walking Dead,” for being both highly entertaining and deeply meaningful, so wonderful and horrible all at once. Bring on the new season!

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