Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson review The Walking Dead each week in a series of letters.
Man, the game is afoot. For the first time ever, I feel like The Walking Dead is actually starting to build a world. I don’t mean that as a criticism of the old episodes, because it’s hard to build a world when the world was literally just destroyed. But the truth is that we’ve been waiting for this kind of expansion—the sense that other communities exist, with people who are neither outright good or outright evil, but living with the complications of this strange new human ecosystem.
The Walking Dead, for all its excellent entertainment, often takes a very childlike view of morality. Groups are either mostly good, like Rick and the gang, or just weird and evil, like the Wolves or the cannibal people at Terminus. That probably has a lot to do with comic book sensibility (though I don’t pretend to have any familiarity with new comic books, which I’m sure are more sophisticated all the time), and that’s fine. But the thought that stuck with me after watching “Knots Untie” was this: If George R.R. Martin ever wrote a Walking Dead episode, it would probably look like this.
Think about all the very real-world themes running through this episode. First, the entire focus of the trip to the Hilltop revolved around trade, which would be so important in a rebuilding apocalypse world, but isn’t the kind of sexy topic that usually fuels this show. The dominant negative theme was extortion, which again is a very realistic outcome in this universe—more so, for instance, than a bunch of people carving the letter “W” on their heads and charging around like mindless sadists. And throughout, you had people debating the merits of having children in a world that seems to be teetering on collapse. (And man, please spare me from ever hearing Abraham talk about sex again…Bisquick, pancakes and galoshes will never again be innocent nouns in my poor, corrupted brain.)
One thing we didn’t see, beyond one token scene after the car crash, were zombies. I have a feeling that the huge battle two episodes ago marks the zombies’ last stand, to some degree. Not that they can’t still inflict damage, but I’m getting the sense that the fear of a massive zombie takeover no longer applies. Instead, I think we’re seeing a pretty marked transition to a new kind of drama—the human kind, where various groups are fighting for power and resources in a broken social order.
Personally, I can’t wait for this new phase. I would love if The Walking Dead became about the rise of little city-states throughout the wilderness, competing for influence as various political philosophies come to the surface. Will capitalism be restored, or a barter economy, or will tyranny win the day? I’d love to see how this plays out.
But first, they’ve got to stop Negan, who remains mysterious. I’m going to toss it your way now, Josh, with a couple questions. Do you see this as a transitional moment in the show, or am I stupid to forget that the zombies are what makes the whole system go? Is Negan a mere boogey-man, as Daryl says? Is Daryl a little too combative around strangers? And holy shit, how weird is this Gregory character?
Jesus said it best: “Your world is about to get a whole lot bigger.” Rick’s ecosystem has been slowly expanding since the first episode: The hospital room, then Morgan’s house, the camp outside of Atlanta, the farm, the prison, the encounters with Woodbury and Terminus and then Alexandria. But this is the first time we get another budding society that Rick’s group isn’t going to fight, merge with or take over. And this is just one of the communities that Jesus has hinted about. But this America, Shane, and my attention can only be held so long by trade negotiations and diplomacy. I want to meet Negan.
The comic-book sensibilities of The Walking Dead is part of what’s made it so much fun to watch. The ideas of varying forms of government are interesting side trails (Hilltop’s seems to be tolerate the insufferable Greg simply because he got to the history museum first). But I’m ready for the character who’s been teased off screen for years and on screen since the Daryl, Sasha and Abraham met the biker gang—Negan.
So yes, this is a transitional point in the show, but that transition won’t be complete until we meet Robert Kirkman’s best villain. I haven’t kept up with the comic books much past this point, but there are more considerations now than just what’s happening inside the walls of Alexandria. The zombies have long since been the biggest threat to Rick’s group; they’ve now even successfully battled a full herd. They’re the cause of the lawless frontier our heroes occupy, but the Saviors are the real threat.
Gregory is indeed a strange one, and no matter how idyllic the Hilltop seems, I don’t think he’s the leader I’d want for the zombie apocalypse. Anybody who introduces himself as “the boss” and asks his guests to go wash up is someone who I might hesitate to save from his own people. But it wouldn’t be a proper introduction to a new place without Rick killing someone and getting covered in their blood.
As for Daryl, it takes a long time to get past his defenses. Denise (Dr. Oatmeal) is only now beginning to earn his trust. I wouldn’t expect him to warm up to Jesus and the Hilltop gang for quite a while.
But I’m worried about all of our survivors, Shane. Just as they’re beginning to settle down, find love or have babies or lay in the grass after getting choked and have some weird relationship epiphany, they’re all off to a war that may be bigger than any of them are prepared for.
We’re headed toward another big confrontation, and as I toss it back to you, what do you think of Rick’s plan to take the fight directly to the latest threat rather than waiting for it to come to Alexandria?
I love Rick’s plan. Let’s face it, when the only story you’ve ever heard about this guy is that his group showed up at the Hilltop, killed a 16-year-old kid to set the tone, and then demanded half of everything, there’s no reason to wait for him to get stronger and find you. The one thing Rick’s group has is fighting experience and guns/ammunition, so they may as well put them to use in a pre-emptive strike. I just hope they understand that if they engage in regime change, it could create a dangerous political vacuum, and we all know what happens in a poor, war-torn area when a despot is killed: ISIS takes over.
Wait, sorry…I’m getting my stories confused.
In truth, the only way to deal with a Negan type—assuming you don’t want to be subjugated and starved—is to take him down with force. Which means it was probably a mistake for Negan to become a strongman originally, because it put a huge target on his back. My opinion is that societies will always tend to gravitate toward political systems they’ve known for centuries, so maybe if this were Russia, Negan’s tactics would be exactly what the people ordered. Instead, it’s America, where the survivors will retain democratic impulses, and Negan is too simple to know that people should be controlled and subjugated through capitalist forms of oppression, not pure violence.
Gahhhh I keep going back to the real world. My sincere apologies.
I have a proposition: Last week you asked me when I’d be willing to call Dr. Oatmeal by her real name. I’m not there, Josh, but since she made Daryl some oat cakes in last night’s episode, I’ve decided I will meet you half way and call her Dr. Oat Cakes, Medicine Woman. Deal?
Now, since I’ve apparently drifted off into the political sphere (what a shock!), I’m curious whether we can find real-life analogues for leaders on The Walking Dead. I’ll start:
The Governor = Vlad the Impaler, ie the real-life inspiration for Dracula. The heads in jars are like the bodies impaled on sticks, and despite his brutal tactics, he’s weirdly loved by some of his people.
Rick = George Washington. Often confused, with a series of failures to his name in the early days, but with his heart in the right place. Wins the trust of this people, at this point will probably go down as a legend.
Gregory = Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Pretty creepy, has an annoying smile, and has no real power because of Negan (ie the Ayatollah).
Now, I’ll kick it to you for real-life comparisons to these folks: New leader Maggie, Negan, Shane, Emo Hipster Douche, Hershel.
Oh fun! Part of what I love about post-apocalyptic fiction is how it reminds us how fragile—and how good—civilization can be. Human nature is tribal at its core, and it’s taken us a millennia to get to a point where at least parts of the globe value and protect the other (and even in the most enlightened parts, we still have massive inequalities).
The tribes we’ve seen gather together in the Walking Dead world mostly reflect the personality of whoever has taken over as leader. To compare them to real-world leaders:
Maggie = Obama. She’s the optimist of the group full of hope, talking of change, wanting to bring people together, but up for a fight. Last night we saw a savviness there, too, driving a hard deal from her political opponents.
Negan = Fidel Castro. As the smart-ass on the motorcycle put it before getting blown up, all your possessions belong to Negan (the state). He’ll let you know what you can keep. In the comics, he’s full of charisma and will try to charm you even as he beats your friends to death without a care.
Shane = Ted Cruz. Cunning and not particularly interested in making friends. Also not interested in being the vice president.
Emo Hipster Douche (Ethan) = Jim Jones. Terminus was a cult holding to the firm belief that you’re either the butcher or the cattle. Don’t drink Kool-Aid and don’t eat Mary’s mystery meat.
Hershel = John Kasich. Folksy but smarter than he sometimes sounds. He seems well meaning if I don’t agree with all his policies (like keeping a barn full of walkers alive).
Please don’t get killed by Negan, Daryl Dixon.