“Is Z Nation the same kind of western story?”
Yes. And no. There are western elements in any long-form, post-apoc story, but the style of western is much different. Z Nation is a fun show. It’s a show that focuses on the monster and the spectacle rather than character development. In three years, the only character who has seen significant change is Murphy and he’s gone from exasperating Zachary Smith annoyance to a rather fun Zombie Governor. But even in that case, Murphy’s change wasn’t an organic, developed transformation but a shift in story that required him to change. Otherwise, Warren is still the bad ass leader. Doc is still… Doc. 10K is still the reliable, quiet assassin. They are elastic in that despite whatever happens to them, they snap back into their archetype. The Walking Dead is more about the characters and how their environment changes them. Could they both be westerns? Sure. Z Nation is to TWD what The Wild, Wild West is to Gunsmoke.
One of the interesting aspects of both the comic and television versions of The Walking Dead is the fact that they gloss over the more chilling and terrifying phase of a zombie uprising: the chaos and horror of those first days when things begin to fall apart. We skip over it and catch up with Rick Grimes waking up from a coma in a hospital, similar to the opening of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later. We don’t need to see the monsters because we’ve seen it all before. The viewer knows what zombies are. The sequence at the beginning tells us everything we need to know. The hospital is abandoned and in ruins. Bodies, some bagged and others just covered in sheets, line the grounds and are stacked like cord wood or sand bags when people stopped burning and burying them. Military vehicles and equipment litter the parking lot. Immediately we know the monsters won and caused everyone to flee. The military is gone. Police are gone. Civilization’s bedrock has been shattered. The first monster we see takes the form of a small child. Setting the tone for the series, Rick guns it down. Shit is real and shit is bad.
Rick, in his iconic cowboy hat, drives toward his home and when he runs out of gas, he picks up a horse. He is the quintessential soldier returning to his homestead to find the homestead destroyed and is family missing. His primary mission becomes finding them and discovering why everything went wrong. The world has changed since the traveling hero went away. It might have been a drive, a war, or a prison sentence that explains his absence, but the need to return to the world “of normal” is denied our hero who must decide to accept fate and move on or find a way to sustain hope in a mission that represents all he has left. Somehow, Rick commits to the mission and begins the process of adapting to his new world.
This is a common theme in the American western. Like Malcolm in Silverado, who returns from the slaughterhouses of Chicago to find his father’s ranch overrun by a local cartel. His father is a fugitive on his own land while his sister is forced into prostitution. It is the catalyst event that drives the hero forward to reclaim the land and restore his family’s honor and dignity. Similarly, the Ethan Edwards character in The Searchers has to deal with Comanche raids and the abduction and murder of his family. The theme of changing fortunes and the unforgiving wilderness are important parts of the long-game apocalyptic horror and the western.
The conflict of the more nuanced western comes from how the world changes the person. Where more generic apocalyptic horror deals with “white hat” heroes and anti-heroes fighting cartoonish evil forces, the more enduring western tales dig into the internal conflict that arises in the wilderness, where everyone moves across the spectrum between “good and evil” depending on the circumstances. We see this shift quite a bit in The Walking Dead as Rick changes his leadership style (from “Ricktatorship” to “Gentle Patriarch” depending on the severity of the situation) but also in each of the characters.
Of particular note we have the case of meek, abused housewife Carol Peletier. Carol is one character who transformed from first-world housewife into a savage land bad-ass in order to survive. She lost her husband and daughter on-screen and, once alone, had to change course and choose a new purpose. That purpose became adapting to the wilderness so she could protect herself and her new family at all costs. Not only has she developed a way to physically tackle adversaries, but she has developed a sort of camouflage personality that helped her infiltrate Alexandria as a slightly more assertive version of her old self. She has used this approach to put enemies off guard several times to her advantage. This refers to another trope of the western genre: reinvention. People traveling west go to lose themselves or find themselves, and escape the conventions of polite society. While most of these stories involve men, the west was full of women who took advantage of a situation where necessity required women to be strong and independent, fearless and deadly. Those who weren’t born into that situation had to adapt quickly, much like Carol.
The new world is an open territory waiting for people to stake their claims. In the two and a half years (more or less) of the characters’ exodus they’ve attempted to settle a few times, only to be run off by superior forces. Still, the group moves forward as a unit, taking in new members as frequently as they are lost.
Stagecoach / Marshall Story – the old world is lost and the Atlanta team gathers together to figure out how to survive. At this point, the residual “survival horror” elements are still present. It is a struggle for physiological needs; food, water, and shelter. Safety, when found, is fleeting. A new leadership dynamic emerges when Rick finds the group and realizes that his wife Lori and son Carl are still alive and that his old partner, Shane, is in charge of the group. The group is a mix of resourceful individuals and lost souls. There are hints about their back stories, but the important thing is to survive and decide how to move forward. This is the Wagon Train phase. New to the frontier, hoping to find something better, people have put their fate in the hands of leaders with some skills, but who are fallible and just as lost in many ways. They are only leading because they know how to manage the unknown and handle the sometimes violent world with resolve and clarity. They are lawmen in a lawless land. Danger often forces them to change direction or speed up despite the unknown dangers ahead being more lethal than the known peril in pursuit. The stagecoach story ends when a destination is reached – either the intended one or one that allows the train to rest and regroup. In this case, our heroes find themselves on the farm. Much of the story focuses on Rick’s journey and the survivor’s plan to get through hostile territory to a place of safety. In their mind, the CDC is the most likely place to find safety. That doesn’t work out well and our heroes are back out on the road again, much like John Ford’s Stagecoach.
Ranch and Marshal Story – With all its visual and emotional ties to the old world, The Greene Family farm looks like a paradise. The family is remote enough and has precautions to prevent walker attacks. The Greene family itself is not so happy with the newcomers, but decides to share its land so long as they accept their beliefs and ways. In this sense, the Greenes believe the dead are just sick and could be cured one day. Killing them is akin to murder. Both sides see having more, able-bodied people around works well for everyone, but concerns about the local resources and ideologies drive them apart. It isn’t just between the Atlanta group and the Greenes but within each camp. Shane believes they should demand to be treated equally or take an equal share from their hosts by force. He rejects Rick’s less-aggressive tactics, especially when people begin to die on the farm. By the end of the season, as the homestead is overrun by walkers, everyone is forced back on the road. This is a classic story of civilization attempting to take root in the wild but struggling to rectify differences between what some civilians consider “civil” in terms of law and order, morality, and who gets how much of available land and resources.
Ranch and Revenge Story – After a long time in the wilderness, the Atlanta/Greene group settle in a prison. Nearby, a community of other survivors have established a community called Woodbury. On the surface, Woodbury (and its leader called “The Governor”) represent the arrival of civilization in the wilderness. It’s a modern town with storefronts and parks, children and lots of supplies. However, we soon learn that Woodbury is successful because it raids surrounding camps and murders survivors. Its leader is also a cruel, unbalanced soul who entertains his people by pitting criminals and prisoner against walkers in an arena. The Governor must have absolute control over Woodbury and no rivals. This means the camp at the prison has to be destroyed. He is Calvera from The Magnificent Seven and Santa Ana from any version of The Alamo. After claiming an initial victory over The Governor, Rick and his team rescue some of the residents of Woodbury and bring them into the prison, leading to a siege by the surviving militia and a vengeful Governor.
The current season (7) is similar in many respects. There are settlements and “The Saviors” – led by Negan – control those surrounding communities by force. By Season 7, the walkers are mainly background noise and only appear to complicate the danger presented by the Saviors and other human adversaries. You’ll notice that by this point human beings spend a lot of time outside the safety of their walls and feel comfortable herding thousands of undead with a careful plan. Negan’s Saviors are a grave threat to the living and do not seem to fear the walking dead. Think water rights, ore mining, rail lines, violating aboriginal tribal lands… not that that happens these days (sigh)…