Why I might stop watching The Walking Dead

Our obsession with anti-heroes

Walking Dead, Circle of HopeDespite my two kids, I managed to view the season premiere of what was one of my favorite shows: The Walking Dead. I won’t spoil anything for you, not out of principle, but just because the story isn’t really worth telling. It’s just too negative, too vengeful, and too full of violence.

My friend Andrew made such a salient point about shows like The Walking Dead and their anti-heroes (heroes like Frank Underwood and Walter White) that he convinced me to start asking bigger questions about the TV that I consume. He argued that stories carry theological narrative with them. The ones that are showcasing the evils of humankind through their anti-heroes are no exception. He thinks they are channeling the negative theology that Augustine codified; Calvin eventually called all humans totally depraved.

Augustine was a great theologian, but just too influential for his own good. Rather than engaging in dialogue, he offered his personal experiences as doctrine and changed how we think about humanity. (In that era, John Cassian is the greatest person, if you ask me.) He would have been better off moving toward a dialogue of love. Now, the narrative continues: we have stories of people and their wickedness. The stories tell of humans and their depravity. Meanwhile, they do not mention the hope for redemption that one can find in Jesus.

Moreover, they don’t mention the idea that humankind’s sin is no match for God’s grace and how he created us. My sin is great, but the fact that I am related to God my sin is no match for the goodness that God gave me and the rest of us.

Negative stories sell, but they lie

SCircle of Hope, the Walking Dead, negative theologyo why don’t the networks tell us stories about our goodness? Well, it seems like they just don’t sell! If the ratings are any indication, people are drawn to the drama of our own wickedness. They are also drawn to the idea that more violence may indeed bring us redemption. Both major presidential candidates telling us about how they will punish our enemies, for example. Make no mistake, they are no angels themselves. We are drawn to their own evil too.

The other day, Newt was yelling at Megyn Kelly, as both of them were arguing about which candidates’ evil deeds were worth the Fox News’ airtime. They are anti-heroes in their own right and they keep reinforcing the negative narrative about human beings. These stories are manufactured to scare us. They aren’t true and they aren’t complete. They paint a theological picture of who we are and it brings us little but despair. The Walking Dead the other night had me feeling empty. Maybe I’ll never watch the show again.

Another thing these negative stories do is caricaturize the past. We hear of the horrors of the “Dark Ages,” the evils of foreign empires. But that is rarely the complete story. They tell us how bad humans are, almost as a way of showing us how far we’ve come. Negative stories about humans and societies of the past give us an inflated sense of who we are now and add fuel to the myth of progress. In a sense, they undermine the hope that Jesus gives us because they make it seem like things will just inevitably get better. Furthermore, when you witness an extraordinarily negative character of TV, whether it’s Rick Grimes or Trump, you might think, I’ll never be that bad. You might actually believe that you are OK as you are and that you don’t need to move toward transformation with Jesus.

I don’t know about you, but I find stories about the goodness of humanity more uplifting and not just that, but more true too. These are real stories of real people in real places. The Love Feast last Saturday was filled with them. People are connecting with God and are moving to change the world. Their life isn’t perfect and they are obviously far from “sinless.” But their authenticity brings hope and it shows us how God is alive and working in the world. The people and their stories point to God and not just about how bad people are. I’d rather do that, then just get burned out watching a dude with a bat wrapped in barbed wire wail on my favorite characters.

13 Replies to “Why I might stop watching The Walking Dead

  1. In many ways, the season 6 finale and the season 7 opener of The Walking Dead have left a lot of people feeling a bit raw. I would argue that this is not the result of a narrative that glorifies violence, needless violence even, but rather an issue of the show’s sense of self-awareness of the mechanisms that keep people watching. That said, I’d like to address the opinion that the story is not worth telling because it is “too negative, too vengeful, and too full of violence”. The departure from form was not moral ambiguity, the immorality of the villain is what makes him a villain. In fact, I think it is a fair and popular argument that the balancing act of civility and savagery within Rick’s group is the fulcrum on which the show rests. While it is possible to agree or disagree with Rick’s decisions over the course of the show, or to cringe at the violence of those choices, he acts from a position of moral certitude. He struggles with that certainty to be sure, but there is nothing ambiguous about the morality of his choices. I think that looking for the redemptive message of Christianity to be overtly played out in this program is perhaps wishing too much of a show intended to reach as broad an audience as possible, but there is certainly a Biblical subtext. It just isn’t the half of the Bible you want it to be. Aside from reading between the lines to fit Jesus into the model of Jewish messianic expectations, the Old Testament does not tell the Christian story of love and redemption, and neither does The Walking Dead. The Old Testament is one people’s account of conflict and wandering; it is bloody, painful, and terrifying… and a much better analog for the story of Rick Grimes’ people.

    The morality of the Old Testament God is bathed in the blood of those who stand in the way of his chosen people, in the way of his will. Violence, in that context, does not always equate to immorality. The Old Testament themes of reluctant leaders pushed to their limits, forced by circumstance (personified in some cases as the very the word of God) to put their enemies to the sword, in order to secure the future of their people is played out every week in The Walking Dead. Rick Grimes has more in common with Saul and Abraham, than he does with most of the New Testament figures. In fact, I don’t think the allusions to the Old Testament are subtle, there is the presence of a character named Abraham in the very scene where Rick is called upon to sacrifice his son for the greater good of his tribe. Speaking of the symbolism of Carl, in season 6 we see Carl lose his right eye… the same eye that was to be plucked from the residents of Jabesh-Gilead by the conquering Ammonites who would have made them slaves… a sort of foreshadowing to the rise of Rick as a Saul-like figure, a leader who brings together the disparate but inexorably linked tribes of this new savage world to overthrow vicious Ammonite tyrants bent on enslaving them. The Old Testament is a story seething with negativity, vengeance, and violence… and it is filled with leaders like Rick Grimes, people who commit horrible acts of violence in defense of a higher moral obligation to preservation of their tribe, morality, and ultimately the establishment of a society where those acts are no longer necessary. What separates Rick from Nahash… sorry, Negan… is that he takes no joy in violence, he seeks peace and mutual prosperity with his neighbors, but his path is bloody, his reign violent, and his vengeance against those who transgress against his people a moral certainty.

    It is not an easy story to watch. The world in which Rick lives is filled with death and evil… but it is a story worth telling. It is a story about a people’s struggle to survive and establish civilization in the face of savagery, in a place and time where salvation is hardfought and not freely given. But even in the horror of The Walking Dead universe there are glimpses of hope, of salvation. There are those who would eschew violence, not out of naivety (like the long-time residents of Alexandria), but out of a sincere dedication to the notion that life is precious. Keep watch, the story of Morgan and now Carol, two of Rick’s allies most capable of violence demonstrate the attempt establish civility, the opening of a path of spiritual salvation. We’ve seen pacifism fail in this world before though. Rick embraced pacifism prematurely, only to be called back to arms to face The Governor. Here is my take: whether the current batch of pacifists stick by their convictions, or get killed for their convictions, or get dragged back into the grim reality of their world of violence is immaterial. The result is not a judgment of the value of their morality, but rather a testament to the personal, and imperfect path to salvation. They will stumble, but their righteousness is not found in their perfection, but rather in their willingness to try in spite of their circumstances, and in spite of even their own actions.

    I will conclude my discussion by pointing out that The Walking Dead presents us with a slew of false leaders offering salvation, safety, security, and… well, you get the point. Each of them has their own take on why their way is good, justified, necessary, or even benevolent… and Neegan is another character in that line of false messiahs, of false God’s… he perhaps more so than his predecessors, projects omniscience, omnipotence, and cruelty… demanding sacrifices of blood and supplies from his followers. He represents false hope, and a kind of philosophical idolatry that gains adherence through fear and violence, through instilled nihilism, rather than moral righteousness. The cruelty of Neegan and his delight in slaughter, separates him from Rick Grimes… a man, neither naive nor cruel, horrified by his own actions, but morally justified by their necessity and the quest for a good and righteous civilization. This story is absolutely Biblical, but I’m not sure it’s entirely Christian… yet (if ever). That’s why Rick is going to kill Neegan, maybe not today… maybe not tomorrow… but certainly by the end of the season.

    Addendum: the problem with the Season 6 finale, and the Season 7 opener is that it seems flippant. That’s because they made decisions based not on servicing the characters or the story, but rather to service the audience (or mock depending on your viewpoint). That’s just bad storytelling, that’s why it took 45 minutes of two episodes to reveal what happened in a short span of time. That’s why it felt gratuitous, not because it wasn’t a story worth telling, but because they told the story badly in an effort to draw out fan suspense. I rolled my eyes hard when I saw the end of season 6, and I think I achieved the full rotation at the opening of season 7. Once they get into telling their story again though, I have full confidence that they will have something worth watching, even if it’s hard to watch at times.

    1. I appreciate the depth of your response, as always Ryan.

      And I also appreciate your distinction between what is biblical and Christian. I’m a Christian and the Bible informs my faith. Since I’ve viewed so many shows and read so many stories that have deliberately Christian themes without being overtly Christian, I don’t think my expectation is too high.

      I think that’s at the crux of my post. We are good enough to tell good stories and be good people. You argue that Rick is also good enough and just uses wicked means for the sake of his tribe. Tribalism and nationalism have their own faults, but that exceeds the scope of our discussion obviously. I don’t think Rick uses violence as a necessary evil all the time and is often using it for the joy of it. Every one of his kills isn’t necessary, that’s for sure. Even if that were the case, though, I think that sort of Machiavellian violence isn’t what Christians should do, even if it’s biblical.

      I believe the show won’t devolve into complete nihilism, but that’s because the viewership ultimately wants hope. But the show the other night just lacked any sort of creative nuiance. What the audience wants is for Rick to seek revenge on Negan. When that happens, salvation won’t be any closer, but the character’s depravity will be even moreso on display.

      1. The season opener was creatively bankrupt, without a doubt. The actions in the episode would have been justifiable inside of a better story. I think the promise, or rather the potential, of the larger story remains intact. The season 6 finale and the season 7 opener were grossly mishandled.

      2. For the record, I don’t think Rick ever sees the fruit of his personal sacrifice. He never gets to the promised land, he never sees his tribe saved from the savagery of the wilderness. He dies on Mount Nebo.

          1. It’s in the Bible, I’m sure you’ve spent more time with your nose in that book than I have!

          2. Well, I think that by the time Rick lays the groundwork for a civilization worth living in, he will be unfit to dwell in it. Not because he becomes evil necessarily, but because the extremes of his morality will no longer be necessary for peace and justice.

  2. I was curious and watched a few episodes of TWD a while back, so my opinion is not as informed as someone who’s seen every episode, but right from the get-go I was feeling for the walkers, that most other people on the show couldn’t figure out what to do with them except bash their heads off. Even the child ones. Viewing that affected me. I wondered if it was indicative of a culture in the US that can’t figure out what else to do with violent criminals and war violence perpetrators. Too deathy and uncreative for me to keep watching.

    1. They definitely address this question in the second season, and to a lesser extent later on.

      In the second season, the group takes refuge on a large farm in the country with an old timey country doctor, who has been gathering the walking dead in a barn until a cure can be found. The issue is explored at length, but the end result is a rejection of the humanity of the zombies.

      I think the way to see the zombies is as an Old Testament punishment, a sort of mashup between a plague and a flood. For the first two seasons the undead are the primary obstacle with limited group in-fighting. The second season culminates with a horde of zombies overrunning their sanctuary, their ark if you will, the death of a key peacemaker within the group, and the killing of a villain within the group. The death of the peacemaker represents the world’s transition from civility to savagery, and the culmination of internal conflict within the group signifies the transition from an environmental threat to a human one.

      By the beginning of the 3rd season, the group has mastered their environment. They’ve become adept at survival, but from this point forward the threats they encounter are other human tribes following a false morality.

      The issue of zombie personhood arises repeatedly as people cope with the loss of loved ones and their transformation into the undead. People struggle with the horrific transformation of their loved ones.

      In some respects, it is not unlike a pre-Christian world from a Christian perspective, people die… but death is not the end of suffering. And in their search for salvation, they are confronted with many false saviors… the seemingly benevolent dictatorship of the governor, the cross bearing healers of Slabtown who save you then enslave you, the trap of a false paradise at Terminus, the nihilistic Saviors who find salvation in entropy, and then the good but naive safety of Alexandria (a town notably sharing a name with an early and influential church center) where Rick’s group finds refuge… and now Neegan, a King who has assembled many tribes through violence and intimidation and demands sacrifices that perversely mirror the Old Testament God threatens them. It’s a story of a people in search of good and righteous living.

      I say this not to encourage you to watch the show, it’s graphic and difficult to see. It certainly isn’t for all audiences. I will defend the quality of their narrative though. The story they tell is filled with allusion and complex questions of real moral substance. That said, those questions are framed in a world of unparalleled violence and horror, where not even death serves as a release from torment. The characters are forced into a constant struggle against nihilism or worse, evil.

      1. It is interesting to see them try to live normal lives and normal relationships with a constant looming threat around: make a friend (kill a zombie), spend quality time with mate (shut out zombies), go get groceries (kill more zombies), have a baby (run from zombies), take a nap (cut off own limb with a zombie bite). I also think that the show is popular because it mirrors the daily dreads and severe anxieties felt in modern life.

      2. It is interesting to see the characters try to live a normal life with the constant looming threat of death around. Make a friend (kill a zombie), spend quality time with kids or mate (shut out zombies), go grocery shopping (kill more zombies), have a baby (run from zombies), take a nap (cut off own limb from zombie bite). I also think the show is so popular because it mirrors the dread and severe anxieties felt in modern day life.

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