The Walking Dead is the “white trash” Game of Thrones. This is why I love it.
I wouldn’t watch The Walking Dead for a long time. It was gross, silly, or I thought it would give me nightmares. I remember watching the show when I was in high school, then abandoning it for years at a time until I picked it up again sometime in 2016. I started re-watching it after I found out Sonequa Martin-Green had a significant role on the show. She’s from my hometown in Alabama, so I had to show my support.
For the first six seasons, the show is set in post-apocalyptic Georgia. I feel silly summarizing the adaptation of the comic book series since it’s one of the most watched programs in TV history. Regardless: the show opens on a biological family and the remnants of an East Georgia community. Atlanta has been napalmed. Rick searches for his family after being shot in the line of duty—he’s a Sheriff’s deputy. After being in a coma for nearly a month, when the majority of the apocalypse takes place off-screen, we see him come to terms with the post-world and set into survival mode as he seeks out the few remaining survivors in his hometown before setting off for Atlanta to find his wife and son.
We’re eight seasons in. All of the opening moments I just described are years past. Yes, there are dead bodies roaming the land, looking for a flesh-snack. They are always present but in the background. Now we’re in Virginia, a few miles outside of Washington D.C.—we know this from the community name “Alexandria,” which is a town south of D.C. For the first six season, however, we’re on a farm, in a prison, and in various small towns on the outskirts of Atlanta, Georgia.
The Southern landscape can’t be understated for the first seasons of the show. Subsistence is crucial: Rick Grimes knows how to set snares, Daryl Dixon is the “white trash” character that eats raw squirrel when he gets trapped and injured, Daryl’s racist brother, Merle, keeps a bag of meth and doxycycline for the Clap in his motorcycle saddle bags. Hershel Greene runs a farm and teaches Rick how to grow food. The Southern accents aren’t a caricature: a large portion of the British cast have mastered the Central Georgia dialect. That’s what drew me in, because I think it’s obvious who would survive a lawless, diseased land with minimal survival mechanisms. The people who hunt and fish, who farm, who know their way around weapons and distrust outsiders. They’ll survive.
Fear the Walking Dead premiered in 2015. It’s originally set in Los Angeles, surrounding a family of educators with a son addicted to several drugs. Throughout the first seasons, the family travels to Mexico and the surrounding Southwest. Honestly, I despised the show. I give it tremendous props for such a diverse cast of Latinx actors and use of Spanish. That’s not the problem. My problem is this: a middle-class urban family with no subsistence talents will not survive in a subsistence landscape. Not that an apocalyptic show needs realism, but within the first several episodes they board a million-dollar yacht to sail to Mexico. If you’re watching for survival realism, they’d be dead within hours, and I couldn’t get past that.
Along with the diversity of FTWD, the original series takes a particularly nuanced look at what race becomes in with post-world social constructs. Morgan Jones, a Black primary character from the first episode who returns throughout the series, goes through a phase with Aikido and refuses to kill after somewhat losing his mind to killing or, as he calls it, “clearing.” Morgan returns in season 8 ready to fight, killing enemies as the group goes to war without his oath of peace. The saviors, a group predominantly made up of white men and women, are ultimately decimated in several episodes as Morgan’s willingness to kill returns. I’d easily argue that this transition serves as a kind of awakening from post-racial optimism to social realism. Morgan recognizes that other lives only matter in this world when those lives are not trying to take yours. The show is rife with complex, beautifully written people of color, such as Sonequa Martin-Green’s character Sasha, whose sacrificial death after navigating sexual violence and Negan’s grips was utterly painful. Or Michonne, who is now essentially queen of Alexandria and my favorite character on the show, and King Ezekiel, the theatrical leader of the Kingdom. One of the recurring extras from the Kingdom wears a hijab. It’d be remiss not to point out the sheer number of complex characters of color that get significant and thrilling screen time—except Gabriel, of course, but we shan’t speak of him.
I’ve been stuck on subsistence economies for a while now. Subsistence is a core tenant left out of many “characteristics of the South” lists. Steven Stoll’s Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia talks at length about subsistence in the Southeast, and I think he’s right to find something salvageable about subsistence economies that disappears in consumption-driven markets. I can’t help but adapt this idea to The Walking Dead. Survival is the core of the show—there’s no running water, electrical grids, or telecommunication of any kind save a few old, battery-operated walkie-talkies. The characters are forced to eat dogs at a certain point and use firearms and ammunition as currency on multiple occasions. The show isn’t about zombies; it’s about how to survive from absolute zero.
That brings us to the present day. Tribal tensions have risen to a boil, and Rick’s group has allied with two other groups to take on Negan and the Saviors. They’re greedy, feudal, disgusting villains. Negan murdered two of Rick’s closest group members with a baseball bat to prove a point. Beyond exploiting his factory workers, Negan keeps multiple wives coerced to “marry” him out of fear and brute force. The Saviors coerce and scare every group into submission, not salvation.
This article on Medium tried to paint the Saviors as the society-rebuilders. I get it, but not if we look at them from a subsistence perspective. The Saviors don’t grow their own food—they outsource and take food from the others. Beyond weapons and force, the Saviors don’t have very many survival tools available. Lucky for Lady Capitalism, they have currency: weapons.
Rick, a former cop, and Daryl, a former deadbeat, were not shy to weapons prior to the apocalypse. Daryl is a crossbow master (he can “shoot a turkey ‘tween the eyes” with one), a Rick was shot before the series began. The women become talented weapons wielders; Carol is a sharp shot with an M1 Carbine and Michonne is a katana master. The rest of the group is made up of other Southerners like Maggie and Abraham, who both seem to have grown up around guns, reiterating the long-held history of genderless survival in the South. These people don’t need the protection of an authority. They need a crossbow and a squirrel to shoot at to serve with a side of poke salad, and will only be the wiser when they abandon urbanity and head back to the forests and farms of Georgia.
In my outlandish overthinking of this sci-fi horror series, I’ve determined one thing for certain. Rick and his group needed to head South a long time ago. Mesmerized by Alexandria’s water, electricity, beautiful homes, and walls, the group left their subsistence tools back in Georgia. Season 8, wherever it’s going, could simply be viewed as an allegory for the choices made in rebuilding civilization. On the one hand, there are dictators, corporate greed (Negan), labor exploitation, land disputes, and absolute rule. On the other, more enticing hand, there’s freedom from markets. In The Walking Dead’s imagined South, there are still outlaws, land disputes, and battles. But the South is vast in this world, sparsely filled while the herds of zombies seek out urban centers for food. Rick was hypnotized by a “better” life, one with faucets instead of springs and electricity instead of oil lanterns. The question for season 8 isn’t whether or not Rick will win the war against the Saviors. The question is whether or not the group will surrender to capitalistic exploitation that might just return society to its pre-apocalyptic days, or will Rick lead the group to return to the life of subsistence and rurality that got them this far in the first place.
Catch season 8 of The Walking Dead Sunday nights at 9/8c on AMC, or start watching on Netflix.