Sometimes post-apocalyptic narratives begin with a slightly gimmicky hook, that tends to follow a formula: what if the end of the world came when [person/people] were [doing something] in [unique location]. Perhaps my favourite example of this is the BBC zombie apocalypse mini-series Dead Set, in which the survivors of the undead pandemic are the contestants on Big Brother—sealed in their closed set, they are initially oblivious to the carnage happening beyond their walls.
Now, I might have more to say about Dead Set in a future post, as I consider it one of the finest examples of the zombie genre, and it is an extremely smart and trenchant critique of celebrity culture. But that is not what I want to talk about today. Today I want to talk about a television series that is perhaps the most flagrantly jingoistic apologia for the American military I have ever seen, the most emotionally manipulative paean to honour and duty since A Few Good Men, and the most overt recruitment ad for the Navy since Top Gun: the series The Last Ship.
Reader, I loved it. And I am very conflicted about that fact, given that it genuinely is little more than five seasons worth of U.S. Navy propaganda. Hence the designation “guilty pleasure” in my title, in spite of the fact that I have long believed one should not ever feel guilty about the reading and viewing in which you take pleasure.
(Unless it’s Twilight. Because seriously, fuck that shit).
To plug in the variables in my above formula, The Last Ship’s premise is that the end of the world in the form of a virulent strain of flu comes when the sailors and soldiers on the missile destroyer U.S.S. Nathan James are on a four-month radio-silence mission in the Arctic. Unbeknownst to the captain and crew, the scientists whom they’ve been transporting have been tasked with finding the “primordial strain” of a virus that is tearing through the Middle East. The mission the ship is on is little more than a cover for the scientists’ work. The captain and crew have no idea, because radio silence, that the United States has, in the four months since they put to sea, been savaged by the illness. They only realize that something is hinky when they’re attacked by Russians intent on kidnapping the lead doctor and taking her samples. What follows is a battle sequence that fetishizes the kind of high-tech violence a top-of-the-line missile destroyer can unleash, and which sets the tone for the way the series will unfold.
You get the idea.
To be clear, the Russian attack, and the subsequent revelation of the doctors’ true mission and the truth about the global pandemic unfolds in the first fifteen minutes of the first episode. Whatever the series’ flaws, economy in storytelling is not one of them, except for the requisite sequence that seems to happen in every episode when throbbing, sad music plays over a montage of (a) sailors mourning the death of a comrade, (b) the captain looking tormented by the difficult choices he has had to make, (c) stoic sailors and soldiers carrying on in their duties in spite of the difficulty/pain/trauma, or (d) quite often, all of the above. The captain is played by Eric Dane (aka McSteamy from Grey’s Anatomy), and his second-in-command by Adam Baldwin (aka Jayne from Firefly, aka Mr. Gamergate, aka another reason I’m conflicted about the series), and they are all about honour, naval tradition, and square-jawed stoicism in the face of adversity.
What’s interesting about The Last Ship in the broader context of pandemic/post-apocalyptic narratives is that it’s something of an outlier: the more common tendency is to depict societal institutions failing and collapsing when confronted with catastrophe. The brilliant pilot episode of The Walking Dead memorably depicts military barricades littered with corpses, and tanks and armoured vehicles sitting forlorn and empty, having proved useless in the face of the onslaught of the undead. World War Z shares in a very slight degree with The Last Ship a faith in military ingenuity, but that only happens after the U.S. Army fails spectacularly to stem the zombie tide, and is only efficacious when it learns to reinvent itself. The Last Ship, by contrast, presents the Navy as it is as the bulwark against chaos, not only in its aforementioned fetishization of advanced weaponry, but in its valorization of longstanding naval tradition. The very stubborn refusal to change or compromise is explicitly framed as a virtue, which, indeed, is in keeping with naval tradition more generally (in the U.S. military, the Navy tends to be the most conservative branch, resistant to change; by contrast, the Marines, who rely on the Navy for their budget and equipment, tend to be the most improvisational, as they traditionally have always had to do more with less).
Over its five seasons, The Last Ship indulges in increasingly more ludicrous plot arcs, but in its early stages comprises some pretty decent, taut storytelling (aside from the aforementioned portentous montages), and speaks to some of the issues I’ve raised in recent posts about narratives dealing with the aftermath of catastrophe and the rebuilding of society. The idea of America persists (because of course it does) in The Last Ship, but is at various points tenuous—the Nathan James returns home with a vaccine and a cure for the virus (because of course it does), but also has to contend with the breakdown of governance and the difficulty of re-establishing a republic after the descent into Hobbesian chaos. The series features the kind of regional fracturing I mentioned in my last post, with regional governors being initially amenable to a central government and the swearing-in of a president (á là Designated Survivor, the sole surviving member of the presidential line of succession is the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development), only to later become more obstreperous and unwilling to accept presidential authority, culminating in a conspiracy to (successfully) assassinate the president, and (unsuccessfully) eliminate the federal government and wall off the regional authorities from one another.
And what is the glue that finally holds the battered nation together? Duty and honour, as our naval heroes remind their army comrades—who have come under the command of the conspirators—what their oath to the Constitution entails.
I may have rolled my eyes a little at that part. But I was also enthusiastically eating my (figurative) popcorn.