Warning: this post contains spoilers (of a sort) for The Walking Dead.
Since its brilliant pilot episode aired ten years ago, I’ve had a love-hate relationship with The Walking Dead, with the balance more frequently on the latter than the former. I’ve found it interesting from a critical perspective for reasons that should be obvious—I have, after all, been preoccupied with the 21st century’s critical mass of post-apocalyptic narratives for several years now—but I’ve also found it jarringly uneven. What it represents is more relevant to me than what it is, which is to say the show itself I can take or leave, but the fact that it has run so long, maintained its popularity, and is yet another example of “genre” being assimilated into prestige television, gives rise to some very interesting considerations.
Not least of which is how a long-running television series adapts narrative formulae that evolved for a movie-length story. As I said in my post on World War Z, Brooks’ novel is unusual in the genre insofar as it is preoccupied less with the catastrophe itself and more with how society rebuilds in the aftermath. Considering how long TWD has run, it is perhaps unsurprising that the series has put down roots, so to speak, and devoted at least some of its storylines in the past several seasons to how postapocalyptic societies forge new bases in law and civic responsibility. It took the show quite a while to get there, however, largely because it spent its first five (six, really) seasons cycling through the basic zombie movie formula … again and again. And again.
To wit: your standard zombie film begins with the outbreak or immediate aftermath, through which the protagonists must fight their way and flee. They will then find their way to respite and safety, whether that be a mall, the Winchester Pub, or Bill Murray’s house. That safe space then proves untenable: it is either breached by a critical mass of the undead, or else someone’s malice or stupidity renders the space unsafe, and then the protagonists must again fight their way through and flee. They then either find their way to another safe space that we are led to understand will not be breached, or find rescue, as in 28 Days Later; or they all die, as in Zack Snyder’s 2004 Dawn of the Dead; or the ending is left ambiguous, as in George Romero’s 1978 Dawn of the Dead, in which the two survivors fly off in a helicopter into the night.
For TWD’s first six seasons, Rick Grimes and his merry band reiterate this pattern, with each cycle culminating, much like boss fights in video games, in a showdown with increasingly villainous Big Bads. In season one, the survivors find safety in their initial camp until it is overrun, and then the CDC complex in Atlanta, until it is destroyed by the sole remaining doctor there, who has gone mad; then they make their way to Herschel’s farm, then the prison, then the uncannily wholesome town of Woodbury, then Terminus, and finally the settlement of Alexandria. Along the way they battle the zombies themselves, then the ignorance of those who don’t grasp the severity of their threat, then the Governor, then the cannibals of Terminus, and finally the sociopathic Negan and his cultish followers (I’m leaving out a handful of side-trip threats, but you get the idea). Now the Big Bad is Alpha and her Whisperers, but at this point the characters seem to have settled into a more or less permanent archipelago of settlements, and for a while there it seemed as though the show’s preoccupation was shifting from peripatetic flight from one safe space to the next, to how these neighbouring settlements might manage to function as a society.
The key moment signalling this shift was quite probably inadvertent, but it caught my attention, so who knows? At the start of season eight, Rick’s people in Alexandria and those in their allied settlements prepare to fight back against Negan and his Saviours. The leaders of the three communities—Rick, Maggie, Ezekiel—stand in the flatbed of a truck and deliver rousing speeches to inspire their people as they prepare to do battle. My first thought was of the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V, which is often staged in a similar fashion, with Henry standing in a cart or tumbrel while he enjoins his army to do battle against fearsome odds.
And in case we missed the reference, Ezekiel specifically quotes the speech, or rather paraphrases it, as he says “For he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother,” then turns to acknowledge Maggie, adding, “And she today … my sister.” Nice catch there, Zeke.
When I say that this scene is “probably inadvertent,” I don’t mean it accidentally echoes Henry V, because it is quite obviously deliberate. What I wonder is whether it is merely a convenient allusion to what is the most famous pre-battle speech in history, or whether the writers meant to evoke the subtler significance Henry V specifically and Shakespeare more generally had for the evolving sense of British nationhood from the late middle ages into modernity. Henry V came to be seen as an iconic English king, and the Battle of Agincourt a defining moment—the victory in spite of the five to one advantage the French had was taken as evidence of England’s divine providence. After the battle, when it becomes obvious what massive losses the French suffered, Shakespeare’s Henry attributes it to God’s intervention:
O God, thy arm was here;
And not to us, but to thy arm alone,
Ascribe we all! When, without stratagem,
But in plain shock and even play of battle,
Was ever known so great and little loss
On one part and on the other? Take it, God,
For it is none but thine!
Further, the play symbolically brings together the factious identities that will eventually be knitted into the United Kingdom, with a representative Irishman (MacMorris), Welshman (Fluellen), and Scotsman (Jamy), who spar verbally with their English comrade Gower, but who ultimately fight together. Kenneth Branagh did a nice job of visually evoking this symbolic union in his 1989 film adaptation: as Henry addresses his army, we get reaction shots of different groups, each comprising a different element of British society: the nobility, the rank and file, the future (represented by the character of “Boy,” played here by a young Christian Bale), and of course the four nations that will come to comprise “Great” Britain. All are brought together at the speech’s crescendo:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.
The soldiers burst into a huge cheer, and Branagh cuts very quickly between the different elements of Britain in a unifying montage.
All of which is by way of observing that the St. Crispin’s moment in TWD, whether deliberately or not, comprises as a comparably symbolic gesture of nascent nationhood as defined in battle against great odds. And for a time, the defeat of Negan and the Saviours fundamentally changes the dynamic of the show—and though, not unpredictably, it takes them an entire season to get there, the protracted war itself shifts the show’s preoccupation to the necessity of alliances and collective action. Prior to the arrival of the next Big Bad—i.e. the Whisperers—the character of Michonne drafts a constitution of sorts for the coalition of communities.
It was of course not unpredictable that the promising signs of unity and the hope of a new society would not last long, as resentment and grudges directed at the assimilated, ostensibly contrite Saviours created fissures, and Rick’s decision to leave Negan alive festered with those who wanted him dead (i.e. everybody by Rick). After all, a utopian vision of people working happily together in the postapocalyptic world wouldn’t exactly make for gripping television.
Still. Now that TWD has legitimately become a franchise, with its spin-off Fear The Walking Dead going into its sixth season, at least one feature film in the offing, to say nothing of myriad film shorts and smart phone games, it is venturing into the kind of world-building to which the normally myopic genre, being as preoccupied as it tends to be with the narrow horizon of a handful of desperate survivors, doesn’t tend to lend itself. A second spin-off series, The Walking Dead: World Beyond, will deal with the next generation of humanity after the apocalypse, and what the world will look like in the decades after TWD.
Which, if nothing else in our present moment, reminds us that there’s always a beyond.