Earlier this year, a friend encouraged me to watch an episode of AMC’s The Walking Dead. I assured him that I didn’t have time for a television series, yet I reluctantly agreed to watch one episode. Nine months and nine seasons of binge-watching later, here I am, a full-fledged Walking Dead junkie. One of cable TV’s most successful programs, The Walking Dead is embarking upon an impressive ninth season. I’ve often wondered about the source for America’s fascination with the show. Is it that we just have a deep love affair with zombies, or is there something more?
My personal obsession is not difficult to explain. As someone who is part political enthusiast, part minister, and part artist, I am enthralled by the apocalyptic and dystopian themes of the series. I can’t get enough of the spiritual messages surrounding death and the end of the world, the political messages about the genesis of a society, and the thrilling ride of running from zombies who constantly remind us of our own mortality. As a man, the show is the closest thing to a soap opera that I would ever allow myself to watch. Thankfully, the irresistible tales of love, betrayal, and strife are all couched in the persistent threat of zombie attacks. The Walking Dead represents a unique mix of drama, horror, science-fiction, and action that makes it difficult to stop watching.
The survivalist in me wonders what I’d do in a similar situation. I have often found myself sharing the struggles of the characters as though they were my own. I have also found myself thinking and planning for them to help ensure they make it through their seemingly insurmountable challenges. In this way I, like many, have become invested in their stories, their lives, and ultimately their deaths. The writers have a masterful way of creating compelling characters that are a complicated combination of both good and evil. Their duplicity is both frightening and thrilling to watch. As in real life, the good guys and bad guys are not always clear-cut. Consequently, millions of Americans connect to them, as we often find ourselves watching our own reflections.
Season nine is the most politically and spiritually instructive thus far. A group of survivors, some of whom started together in Season one, have just overcome possibly their biggest challenge. After emerging victorious from a two-season war with Negan, a villainous leader who is as merciless and brutal as he is charismatic and charming, the characters are looking to build a new society based on peace and mutual cooperation. Yet joining Negan’s former followers, the Saviors, with other groups of survivors has proven to be quite challenging.
Rick Grimes, the show’s protagonist, learns how difficult it is to bring people together in a common pursuit. One of his most loyal followers is a woman named Maggie, who has been with him since the show’s early seasons. Maggie, a formerly docile farmgirl, has transformed into a capable, discerning, somewhat ruthless leader during the show’s run. She ultimately defies Rick as her code of ethics and personal pain push her towards enacting harsher forms of justice than those he supports. The actress behind the character, Lauren Cohan, perfectly conveys the deep moral complexity of the personalities on this show. She quickly moves from passive and supportive, to violent and unrelenting in her vision for the new society. The acting is as complex and uncomfortable as true human behavior.
Without a redeeming force to alter the natural state of man, we are doomed.
As someone who has led groups with competing agendas, personal conflicts, and clannish divisions, I understand what happens when human nature rears its ugly head. What this season of The Walking Dead demonstrates is that even with external threats like zombies, man’s truest threat has always been himself. Rome collapsed without the help of an outside invader. Likewise, the weakest and most vulnerable aspect of the mighty United States empire may be its persistent internal division.
The apostle Paul wrote heavily about the sinful nature of humanity. Humanity is fallen, perpetually prone to act in ways that are violent, selfish, and immoral. As the theologian John Calvin reminds us, “Original sin, therefore, appears to be a hereditary, depravity and corruption of our nature, diffused through all the parts of the soul…” In episode two of this season, Rick tells Negan that their divided group will ultimately come together despite their differences, as human beings always do. History tells a different story, however. Our collective past and present are full of war, enslavement, exploitation, tribalism, violence, and greed. Without a redeeming force to alter the natural state of man, we are doomed. We all need a savior. Unfortunately (spoiler alert), in the case of the Walking Dead, their “savior” Rick Grimes is kidnapped midseason, leaving the show without his leadership for an indefinite period of time. The group, who thinks he has died, struggles to exist without his guidance.
This significant and daring move by the writers, to remove a character who has been the show’s focal point for eight seasons, further proves the aforementioned theological point. When we place our hope in human beings, they will ultimately fail us. They succumb to their own sinful tendencies, they leave us, they disappoint us, or they die. In an age where we place our hope in myriad human solutions to solve our most significant social challenges, reminding us of our intrinsic need for the divine is the show’s greatest accomplishment.