I have been binge-watching The Walking Dead in between grading papers and exams. There’s a line in there about being the butcher or the cattle. The butcher survives and the cattle dies. It’s a central theme throughout the show, although one the writers are smart enough to keep on complicating in unexpected and increasingly riveting ways.
My guess is there are a number of people out there, especially people who have been through hell and back (or maybe never back), who agree with the ostensible lesson: be cutthroat or get your throat cut. I came across a few of them during my military years; the real-deal butcher types, the vulnerable wannabes, and the thoroughly defeated. I’ve even stumbled on a few of them during my more recent, radical years. I don’t think I fit easily into any of those categories, and I’m not sure the people in mind do either. But for the purposes at hand, their fit proves close enough, and I’ve experienced enough to know (and even empathize) with all three types.
Another, albeit related, guess is that the show speaks to wider anxieties about living in a simultaneously hyper-civilized yet hyper-barbaric society. If you’re not one of the millions trapped in urban or rural poverty; if you’re not one of the millions circulating in and out of our rape-haunted prisons; if you’re not one of the millions living underground and under hideous workplace conditions as an undocumented immigrant; if you’re not one of the millions being slaughtered or devastated abroad by our endless wars and (now) daily to weekly drone attacks; then there’s a good shot you’re living one of the most civilized and comfortable existences in human history, even as you remain forever aware of what lies ahead lest you let down your capitalist, ladder-climbing guard, or lest mere misfortune catches up to you. If you find yourself in any of the less charmed predicaments, however, odds are it’s the same as it ever was—barbaric to the core. The Walking Dead, then, channels the ennui, guilt, and atavistic subconscious saturating our lucky class, just as it confirms the suspicions or realities of those not so lucky.
The most ironic aspect of all this, of course, is that despite all the superficial nods to a semi-nihilistic, uber masculine, survivalism, the heroes in the dystopic drama are still not the butchers, and we’re still compelled to shed tears for the slain cattle. If there’s any coherent tonic that flows through each episode, it’s one directed toward the strength and fearlessness of the ruthless and the morality and thoughtfulness of the meek. There’s little doubt a tension exists between the two sensibilities, arguably an irreconcilable tension. But it’s still the central tension of the show’s most beloved protagonists, and given the show’s popularity, it’s still the prevailing tension of our time. (Or at least that’s my final guess.) Where that leads them or us has yet to be determined.