Christina Bieber Lake
Survivor fiction is something of a reversal of the usual story of growth in a protagonist because the key is to learn how not to be changed. Rick succeeds in that he strives to remain the best version of himself in apocalypse (though compromised in many ways); Shane, however, slides almost completely into mad despair and selfishness. Shane sacrifices someone else to keep himself alive, later saying that it doesn't much matter if he shoots anyone, because "when you think about it in the cold light of day, you're pretty much dead already." But, of course, it does matter if you shoot someone or not. Characters are forced to choose, all the time, whether to become Rick or Shane. The importance of this choice is why the show often zeroes in on the seven-year-old Carl. He is the one whose humanity hangs in the balance. Every time he is forced to "put down" a zombie to keep himself or others alive, he slips away from the child who had looked with wonder upon the deer, toward becoming a man who would say, as he does to his mother, "we are all food for something else." In this way, the show does McCarthy's The Road even one better, for in that story, the boy's hope and faith in some kind of goodness seem never to be in question. With Carl, both his life and his humanity are in grave danger.
Finally, The Walking Dead is successful because it effectively employs an ancient artistic strategy used by writers ranging from Francois Rabelais to Flannery O'Connor to Cormac McCarthy: the grotesque. The grotesque works by the shocking and revelatory conjunction of things that we do not normally put together: a gargoyle peering down from a cathedral; a child who looks prematurely ancient; a man with a string of human ears around his neck; God distorting himself into the form of a man. It exaggerates the incongruence in order to get us to pay attention to something significant, something that we would rather not notice. It works like a proverbial train wreck, or like a Jerry Springer episode featuring a 600-pound man: you don't really want to see it, but you somehow can't stop looking at it, either. The Walking Dead is that kind of show. It unrelentingly sticks death in your face. This is why I can't help but imagine that Flannery O'Connor would have appreciated it, for reasons beyond the rural Georgia setting and some great backwoods characters. O'Connor was brave enough to write a story in which an entire family is brutally murdered, including a grandmother, and to have the murderer declare that "she would of been a good woman … if it had just been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life." O'Connor knew that it is far better to look death in the face, pump your fist at God and ask him the hard questions, than it is to wander through life in a satiated haze. We need the walking dead because we have met the walking dead, and they are us.
Christina Bieber Lake is associate professor of English at Wheaton College.
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