Last week’s episode of The Walking Dead (“Forget”) frames a fascinating discussion of post-traumatic stress and the culture shock of leaving a world of relentless stress and horror for a culture of blissful, willful ignorance. It also presents us with an interesting take on the dystopian society that mirrors many problematic aspects of our own in microcosm. While not uncommon in speculative fiction or even the zombie survival genre, this season’s arc sets up an interesting idea of rich, western privilege under siege.
At first, Alexandria struck me as unrealistic even when compared to Terminus, a camp of young hipster cannibals bold enough to advertise across Georgia. To understand the practical problem with Alexandria, we have to start with the fact that zombie fans have spent years discussing and debating how zombie outbreaks might spread across the country. Alexandria, Virginia is not a remote community. It rests at a crossroads of several major American cities within a massive suburban sprawl. At a time when anyone could erect giant walls, there would still be thousands of people trying to get inside them, by force if necessary. This utopian community would become a promised land for refugees and by this point in the zombie apocalypse, gangs would risk everything to find and claim it. After all, Washington didn’t look like Atlanta. It looked abandoned.
It is literally inside the Beltway, so how did approximately half a million people escape the District of Columbia (never mind the 5.8 MILLION in the greater DC area) without some of them stumbling over Alexandria?
Perhaps even more perplexing: Why aren’t its citizens hardened by at least one bloody battle to protect its walls over the past two years – either by a herd migrating out of the city or by a wave of desperate refugees fleeing their temporary strip-mall shelters and overrun camp sites?
The answer is that this is a part of The Walking Dead that isn’t being presented as survivalist porn.
Let’s look at Alexandria as allegory, not as a potential refuge from any kind of disaster. It’s still absurd in theory until you realize how many of the things they do and say mirror how we live today. And then you have to accept that reality is absurd. Well played, Walking Dead.
Alexandria is so isolated and removed from the reality of the Walking Dead world that its leader, Deanna, selectively recognizes threats and dismisses them based on how they impact her plans. For example, she recognizes Sasha’s post-traumatic stress in an academic, detached sort of way until Sasha snaps at their welcome party. After that, Deanna pushes back, essentially telling Sasha she is being irrational and doesn’t know what she’s talking about. When it comes to Sasha calling Alexandria’s safety and prosperity a lie, Deanna gets visibly angry. And when Sasha, Rick and others insist on manning the clock tower to watch over the walls, she grudgingly agrees but it is as if she’s doing the survivors a favor by indulging their paranoia. Like us, the people of Alexandria seem to live in the perfect balance of acceptance and denial.
The people of Alexandria “know” there is danger in the same way our society “knows” the rest of the world. That’s not to say we underestimate global threats because the biggest difference between Alexandria and our world is that our leaders want us to be scared shitless of anything that doesn’t get a semi-erection over baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet. It’s the same because we both carry on with our lives believing we know more than Jack or Shit about anything outside our walls.
Deanna believes that the Alexandria camp is well on its way to rebuilding civilization. As Rick says, they’ve been quite lucky to survive all this time. That’s really the only explanation. They have the benefit of technology and some skilled citizens, but they have yet to encounter a massive herd, cannibals, or a tank-driving Governor. They don’t see the wolves lurking outside the walls or that they’ve been infiltrated by someone who easily slips in and out of town unnoticed. They hand their safety and security over to those who are clearly most qualified, but least trustworthy. In the world of The Walking Dead we know that this safe haven cannot last. In our world, however, we can go on indefinitely with our illusions of security and safety by building taller and stronger walls around ourselves to keep out the horrors we don’t want to see.
Up until now, we’ve been part of a group that hopes for the best while preparing for the worst. Alexandria makes plans on the assumption that the best days are ahead of them and despite having recruiters out in the bleak wilderness, there’s no sense that the general population has taken to heart or even heard what Aaron has seen. I’m surprised that someone as intelligent and intuitive as Aaron doesn’t see that cognitive dissonance. Perhaps he does and, like many in the community, chooses to remain silent in exchange for the life he has behind the walls?
Yes, it would all seem absurd, but that also appears to be much like the world in which we live. America exists as a small community in a larger, wild world. We sit on top of a wealth of resources and even refer to our petty challenges as “first world problems.” Yes, we have real problems like an unnavigable gulf separating our wealthiest and poor but our blessings are also vast. Like Alexandrians, we have the luxury of peeking out over our walls to define the rest of the world from the comfort of our limited perspective.
By now, any human who has survived outside those walls has learned to do so by demonstrating a kind of moral flexibility foreign to the people living inside Alexandria. Long ago, they shed their naïve idealism and they are capable of waiting in the shadows. They are hungry, but not yet desperate. This is why Rick and his group feel comfortable acting against the townsfolk. They are protecting themselves.
To those of us who have lived outside the walls with Rick and his family, we see the obvious problems with Deanna’s plans. In everything from simple design problems like the supporting beams for the town walls placed OUTSIDE instead of in or the lack of a lookout in the clock tower, the lack of any real internal security measures for an outbreak inside town walls — these are the kind of things zombie fans consider almost instinctively. The lack of preparation in a zombie show assuredly means death will follow.
All the residents of Alexandria have the success of the settlement at heart. Those who fear the threat most – Rick’s group – seems prepared to overthrow the system that isn’t scared enough or prepared for the worst threats outside the walls. They seem to believe that reason and proof will fail to persuade them. It will be interesting to see how far Rick’s militaristic, authoritarian posture will take him in preserving safety and security from the admittedly leftist regime.