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O My America: ‘The Walking Dead’ as Holocaust Literature

November 16, 2015

by Lawrence Bush

walking-dead_0SO IT TURNS OUT I’m not the first writer to think about the parallels between The Walking Dead, the weekly zombie show that is one of America’s most popular television programs, and the Holocaust. Turns out that the show’s writers were required to read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, about trying to survive in Auschwitz. So I’ll just join the small chorus: The reason why I’m drawn into watching The Walking Dead each week — despite the show’s many weaknesses of characterization, superficiality, and cartoonishness — is because if, twenty or thirty years from now, I were tasked with introducing a young person to the subject of the Holocaust, and particularly of resistance to Nazism, I might well throw into the assignment: Watch a few episodes of The Watching Dead.

The narrative tells of a world suddenly and grossly changed to one in which death lurks everywhere (as the great majority of human beings has become a mob of slow-lurching, flesh-eating zombies who can be killed only by having their brains destroyed with a blow or a bullet. They are easy to outrun, but they do mob, and there are many, many more of them than there are living human beings).

TWD+603+zombies_thumbnailNormal legality and other rules of civilization have completely broken down; food is scarce and difficult to obtain; everyone is filthy and exhausted; people are constantly forced to choose between strategies of cooperation or domination.

There is no end to the horror or the danger in sight; there is no sanctuary that can be counted on for long. There are comrades who help you and abusers who abuse you.

There are escapes into the forests. There are escapes into the sewers.

I wish, sometimes, that the show’s writers were more conscious of their own subtext and would, once in a while, inject a more philosophical note — they certainly have enough interesting characters to use for this purpose. Instead, the ‘political’ perspective of the show constantly shifts, roughly, from “Good people can unite to survive” to “Good people are helpless in their idealism and have to be bullied in order to toughen up” — and very few characters get philosophical, as they’re usually too busy surviving. I wish the show were more consistently on “my side” and showed the superiority of collectivity and cooperation to rugged individualism and domination through violence. But as I wrote in my introduction to our current issue of Jewish Currents, with its singular focus on Jewish resistance to Nazism, there are enormously varied and even contradictory lessons to be drawn from the Holocaust: from “Never Again!” nationalism and Second Amendment pro-gun activism to radical pacifism and socialist internationalism. The constant shifting of the subtext of The Walking Dead makes it interesting, anyway, and has me hooked as I wait to see how it ultimately resolves, how “liberation” may be ultimately achieved...

THE ALTERNATIVE to thinking about The Walking Dead as a Holocaust parable is to contemplate its popularity, and its messaging, for America today, in the midst of our “war on terrrorism” and our our acutely privatized lives. Are the zombies “everyone but me and my few friends”? (There is quite a bit of diversity within the cast of The Walking Dead — black, white, Asian, and two gay guys so far — but exceedingly little discussion of the schisms and biases that separated America into hostile camps before the zombie apocalypse began.) Have we come to see the world beyond our national boundaries, or beyond the immediate boundaries of private life and private ideology, as the walking dead, hostile and inhuman? Has life in America become so insecure and rocky as to feel like a constant scurrying for survival? Is that, at least, how the shapers of our mass culture desire us to feel, in a state of constant red alert and post-traumatic stress?

It is my search for the subtext that keeps me watching this middlebrow, popular show — and I’m glad to be doing something so “mainstream.” Make room on the couch, America, and please bring me something to drink.

Lawrence Bush edits Jewish Currents.