The Walking Dead premiered its second season Sunday night. The rotting chased the living. Juicy sound effects accompany dismemberment. A search party finds a church instead of a missing child.
Zombies and the Judeo-Christian apocalypse share a blatant parallel -- the resurrection of the dead. In contrast to the reanimated faithful whose souls relish in the return of paradise, zombies are body only -- completely soulless, mindless and with an insatiable appetite to eat people. They limp across the land to consume humanity and all remaining good. While the classic Judeo-Christian apocalypse is heavenly utopia, The Walking Dead is its inversion -- hell on Earth.
Often forgotten, the Classical apocalypse was considered a comfort. During Second Temple Judaism (300BC to 50AD), Jews in exile had only reflection that things would be better... one day. Recognizing their limitations, they thought of God returning to recreate Eden for the faithful and open a can of banishing whoop-ass on those oppressive heathens. The apocalypse served to disabuse the enslaved or exiled faithful -- it was hope for those who may never escape an otherwise hopeless situation.
Somewhere in the Middle Ages, the end of days became rather scary, and in our post-modern secular world, the end is downright terrifying. It's doomsday where there is no overseeing God waiting to smite the bad guys. When the eternal soul is nonexistent and all you have is a body and pulse, the end is the end.
Whereas the Judeo-Christian perspective has humans turning towards the divine in utter helplessness, the secular scenario puts the onus on humans to thwart Armageddon through ingenuity, science and heroism. We're on our own and must save ourselves from the world-ending threat. On-screen examples abound. Take Armageddon, where Bruce Willis flies to an asteroid, drills a giant hole and nukes it before it obliterates Earth. Contagion has a team of scientists play detective with a modern-day plague to create a vaccine before the population is wiped out or, almost as disturbing, society is broken down for good. Another personal favorite is the parody Mars Attacks, where hillbilly music is the only thing that irritates the aliens so much their heads explode, leaving Tom Jones to sing another day.
Another trend with current apocalyptic dramas is that the cataclysmic event is the central story arch -- not the aftermath. The Day After Tomorrow, Contagion, Armageddon and Independence Day give the viewers a front row seat in watching the potential or realized destruction of society. Beyond the nifty special effects (I'll admit to taking guilty pleasure in watching tornadoes erase the Hollywood sign within the first 20 minutes of The Day After Tomorrow), the plot focuses on those ingenious humans and their infallible problem-solving process. People are the center, not the divine. Perhaps the most terrifying secular doomsday scenario is An Inconvenient Truth as it's supported by science and there ain't no quick fix.
In The Walking Dead, the usual solutions of science, ingenuity and heroism are debunked one by one. At the Center for Disease Control, science is useless and renders the characters nihilistic and eventually, self-destructive. The Government fails to save citizens by corralling them into cities. Gunfire only attracts more zombies. Humans are constantly on the run -- killing a single zombie's not a problem, but when it comes to a gimping herd, all they can do is hide.
The distinctness of The Walking Dead is how it straddles the Classical apocalypse and the secular. The resurrected dead are soulless monsters, but the main Judeo-Christian parallel is when the characters recognize their helplessness in the physical world. While the group is searching for 12-year-old Sophia, timer-controlled bells toll and lead them to a church. The divine calls to them. Eventually, Rick Grimes, the protagonist, is literally brought to his knees to seek help in the sacred space, "I could use a little something to help keep us going... I just need... a sign." Though Rick tries to be the hero, he's realizing his limitations -- as are others. Carol, beseeching self- sacrifice, prays to be punished so her missing daughter will survive. Religion isn't treated as something for the panicked and kooky -- it's a return to humility. Instead of muscle-clad Bruce Willis flying into the sky, the heavens are summoned down for back up.
With a crumbling world economy and ever rising temperatures, perhaps The Walking Dead represents our own desperation and helplessness. If it'll make the talking heads quit their posturing, I'll throw my hands in the air and beg for divine intervention.
There are also the traditional religious parallels from which the series borrows. Rick is the human messiah -- his family thought he was dead until he awoke from a coma and rejoined the living. His pre-zombie job as sheriff's deputy groomed him to become the moral code in a lawless land. Rick's opening crisis-of-faith monologue to Morgan, a man he can't see and doubts can hear him, sets up this unseen father to become the Holy Father figure. "I've lost my faith.... I'm losing hope that you can hear me. But there's always that chance... it's all about slim chances now." Reflecting on a woman who committed suicide in the Season One Finale, Rick contemplates, "She lost faith." Morgan is also a father and the man who saved Rick's life when he stumbled out of his coma into the post-zombie-apocalypse world. Finally, there's the Judas character in brooding, lying and rape-attempting Shane Walsh, who's planning on deserting the group because he can no longer stand in Rick's shadow. There may be hope for him -- when finding a truck full of water, he douses himself and shouts, "It's like being baptized." Personally, I'd rather watch a human like him bathe in sin so I can clap when zombies slurp his brains.
In this post-apocalyptic dystopia, the characters are exiled in the new world from which they need to both rebuild and abandon at the first sign of a zombie moan. They question their decisions, doubt their existence, and are often as much of a danger to each other as the flesh-eating predators. Even when survivors are reduced to double digits, the all-too-human qualities of prejudice, violence and betrayal still exist. While the surrounding world is a bleak one, the unseen becomes much more appealing.
Sunday's premiere is shaping this season to be more complex than its predecessor and most other doomsday dramas (and I can't wait to discover who shot Carl). Heroism and ingenuity win zombie battles. However, they'll need a higher power to win the war.
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