Holiday Binge-Watching and the Walking Dead

The holiday season isn’t just an occasion to search McDonald’s for the McRib (and points to those who also noticed that McDonald’s added other Christmas menu items, such as the holiday pie and eggnog shake). Holiday vacation means long dinners, large groups of relatives, and rehashing family history—which means it’s the perfect time to binge watch TV on Netflix. If you have an iPad Mini, you can even binge watch under the table during family dinners.

What tops your binge-watching list? For me, it’s The Walking Dead on AMC. I binge-watched it last Christmas and have kept caught up. It is the only thing I watch on AMC. I’m sorry, but I’m not attracted to recreations of the 1960s (Mad Men) or drug dealing teachers (Breaking Bad). Give me post-apocalyptic horror shows any day. The special effects are great, and seeing what happens to the world after a zombie attack is always interesting. These zombies, unlike the ones in World War Z, don’t run; they slowly walk. And yet they prevail simply by the force of numbers and, of course, being hungry.

What really makes The Walking Dead a great show is not the special effects or the wrecked Wal-Marts—though these provide lots of great scenes. What makes it a great show, as with other great science fiction, is the interaction between the small group of survivors. There is always a heroic but flawed leader: the former sheriff Rick. There is always an older man who plays the voice of conscience (this older man is also always eaten by zombies when his noble efforts are proven futile in a tough, Hobbesian world). This time, the older voice of conscience, a former veterinarian, was killed by one of the all-time great villains to ever appear on TV: the Governor. There is the double-samurai-sword wielding amazon warrior, who reminds me of the pilot of the Firefly. There is Rick’s young son, who is growing up in the new realities of the zombie world.

This cast of characters make for rich stories on how human beings interact in the face of adversity. They form a little governing council. They engage in great debates over how to balance security against individual liberties, as when they have to decide what to do with a captured member of a hostile gang or whether to quarantine the sick. They have to choose what is worth keeping from the pre-apocalyptic world and what is not. Will they keep the institution of marriage? How will they educate children? What replaces the market as the way of allocating resources? Is everything to be decided by a Hobbesian calculus when life does become nasty, brutish, and short? Necessity truly is the mother of invention here, but in terms of social organization, not technology.

The Walking Dead, in the guise of a zombie thriller, actually raises deep political, economic, and philosophic questions of the first order—it has probably done more than legions of philosophy professors to get viewers to think about these basic questions of the good life. Give me The Walking Dead over endless hypotheticals about runaway trolleys any day!