Patrick Freyne: The braindead are a nightmare, and zombies can be a bit of a chore too

If zombies are metaphors for our deeper anxieties, what does The Walking Dead say about us?

The Walking Dead returns, but are we who still watch it those walking dead of the title?

The Walking Dead returns, but are we who still watch it those walking dead of the title?

 

Zombie films and TV shows have always been metaphors for society’s deeper anxieties at a particular moment in time. George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead channelled the unthinking racism at the heart of American society. Dawn of the Dead’s shopping mall-trapped zombies were clearly slaves to consumerism.

The zombies in The Walking Dead, meanwhile, are obviously metaphors for the television programme The Walking Dead. Because it too has surpassed its natural life cycle, is more dead than alive and is starting to smell. And are not we who still watch the programme, in a way, the walking dead of whom the title speaks?

When The Walking Dead debuted it was, for about five minutes, a visceral terror-filled depiction of a society in freefall, and we bonded with its hero, the cop Rick Grimes (Anthony Lincoln), as he tried to help his family and a small band of survivors to survive. Then we realised he was a terrible, terrible leader. Every haven the heroes found ended up being destroyed.

The zombie stakes have been raised by the excellent Black Summer, in which zombies are still terrifying rage monsters that are very hard to kill and the shortlived humans barely have time for painful grunting

Meanwhile, whole communities were being built elsewhere, and when our “heroes” encountered them it usually signalled their complete collapse. In the way that a visit from Jessica Fletcher usually indicates imminent murder, the arrival of Rick Grimes at your well-functioning postapocalyptic community usually meant you would soon be gnawed upon by a walking corpse.

Okay, some of you will quibble and say, “But the Governor’s town in Season 3 was a dictatorship, the cheerful townsfolk of Terminus were cannibals, Negan’s compound was the plaything of a sociopath, the rich nomadic culture of the zombie-skin wearing Whisperers belies their prolific murdering.” To which I say: nobody’s perfect.

Yes, I’d take the cannibals of Terminus, with its sophisticated social system and pleasant market-town bonhomie, the Whisperers’ fascinating needlework traditions and Negan’s home-spun nihilism over Rick’s chaotic freewheeling libertarianism and sense of manifest destiny any day. Yes, they may eat the occasional drifter, but at least these “so-called baddies” have a clear and functioning social contract. I think this must be the European in me. The one I ate, like.

As The Walking Dead progressed, more and more time was given to torturous and repetitive speeches and less time was given to battling zombies, who were now barely an inconvenience, easily dispatched with a knife to the head or a particularly longwinded anecdote from Rick. The braindead zombies were also increasingly the most compelling characters on screen, and I longed for some Ferris Bueller-style narration from one of them.

The White Lotus is a dark, brilliant critique of the tourist industry in which the tired staff of a Hawaiian resort dance attendance on clueless, rich, white people. It isn’t a satire. There’s no over-the-top lampooning of power going on

More recently the zombie stakes have been raised by the excellent Black Summer (Netflix), a show in which zombies are still terrifying rage monsters that are very hard to kill and the shortlived humans barely have time for painful grunting, never mind endless pieces of oratory about the lot of man. This possibly influenced the dialogue-free opening minutes of the new series of The Walking Dead (Disney+), in which a group of survivors try to retrieve supplies from a military base filled with sleeping zombies.

Rick’s gone now (he left the show in season 9 but is due to return in a cinematic spin-off), and leadership has fallen uneasily on the grumpy heads of others. In the most recent episode Maggie takes a troop of gun-wielding zombie-killers, including the inexplicably reformed baddie Negan, into a subway tunnel where they quickly find themselves besieged by their archenemies, zombies. They are always surprised to find there are zombies, despite the show not being called The Inert Dead. Meanwhile, some of the other heroes are being interrogated by the police force of a hierarchical, class-based society known as the Commonwealth.

In the original comic books, the final few volumes found some far more interesting conundrums for the heroes to face than flesh-eating monsters and murderous psychopaths. In these comics the Commonwealth arc is, unusually for The Walking Dead, a morally complex tale of class and elitism. So, I live in hope that there’s still some brain activity left in this shambling mess.

American television drama is generally bad at dealing with class. Another corpse of a show, Gossip Girl (Wednesday, BBC One), was reanimated this week with an all-new cast and a cannibalistic regard for its predecessor. From this meal it regurgitates an overly complicated plot about estranged sisters and a gossipy Instagram account. Like the teen dramas of yore, from The OC to Beverly Hills 90210, a young, poor person, who still manages live in New York, is faced with a private school filled with snooty, sexually aggressive pseuds who will, inevitably, learn from her homespun Manhattan ways.

The creators have wisely rejigged the race and gender politics of its white, straight namesake, but it still struggles to have anything meaningful to say about the riches it glamorises. So, in the new context, wealth feels like just another sort of identity. The bullied teachers and poorer students pray for a kinder, warmer type of rich person to rule them, but they never once consider violent revolution, which is frustrating.

Any of us who have been tourists in a poorer country have been versions of The White Lotus’s parasitic rich. Here the very act of accumulating excess resources is presented as immoral and dehumanising to everyone concerned

Mike White’s The White Lotus (Monday, Sky Atlantic), on the other hand, is a dark critique of the tourist industry, and it’s brilliant. It’s a six-part miniseries in which the tired working-class hotel staff of a Hawaiian resort dance attendance on clueless, rich, white people. It isn’t, despite what some have said, a satire. There’s no over-the-top lampooning of power going on.

These characters – the affluent flake, the entitled business heir, the weak-willed bride, the tech mogul and her overeducated family, the aggressively obsequious hotel manager, the disenfranchised and exoticised waiter, the exhausted but hopeful masseuse – all feel grounded to me. If the show seems grotesque, it’s not actually a satirical distortion – it’s because wealth disparities and the sheen of manners we use to gloss over them are inherently grotesque. The White Lotus is great because it isn’t heightened. It’s a pretty straight mirror of reality, and American TV doesn’t make too many of those, so it ends up feeling abstract and stylised.

In fact it’s a beautifully made but discomfortingly realistic programme. Like Succession (the only other American show I can think of that presents wealth as actively pestilent), it has the beats of comedy but it rarely defuses its tension with a punchline. Here the problem with wealth isn’t that the wrong people have it or that the rich need to be kinder or that the state needs to intervene. It’s creepier than that. In the White Lotus the poorer characters aren’t even morally superior to the richer ones (which is a soothing but misleading trope); they’re just less corrupted and less stupefied by comfort. Inequality is increasing in the West, and service jobs are one of the few growing forms of employment.

Any of us who have been tourists in a poorer country have been versions of The White Lotus’s parasitic rich. Here the very act of accumulating excess resources is presented as immoral and dehumanising to everyone concerned. There’s nothing glamorous about it. It doesn’t even look like fun. Their consumption is thoughtless, joyless and relentless. In a lot of ways, The White Lotus is a zombie programme too.

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