My BFF and I started watching The Walking Dead again after a long hiatus. She just couldn’t stand the show any more after a certain something happened at the start of Season 7 (if you watch the show you know what I mean). And so we stopped watching it. But in time she was ready to get back to it, and we have watched all of Season 7 and are now in the middle of Season 8.
When I watch this show, I can’t help but think of how Gen X it is. The main characters are almost entirely from our generation or from the Millennial generation. There is a smattering of characters from older gens, but they tend not to last, and there are some token kid characters with no real story arc. The Gen Xers are always in charge of the different groups, and have to become ruthless enforcers and daring opportunists, always thinking on their feet and doing whatever it takes for the group to survive. The Millennials meanwhile are the hopeful and idealistic ones, whom the Gen Xer leaders are protecting. What stung so much about the opening of Season 7 was that one of the nicest Millennial characters was brutally murdered. As my BFF put it, “they killed the heart of the show.” That made it hard to care about the series any more.
So on the show, each Gen X leader has their own unique way of leading, giving each group or community its own culture and political structure. The show ends up exploring questions of politics like what gives a ruler the right to rule, or how do you balance the needs of the many with the needs of the few. In fact, when one of our boys was taking a civics class and trying to understand the concept of “rule of law,” I used an example from the show to explain it to him.
There was one not very nice group in an earlier season that had a rule where if you saw something before anyone else and called out “claim” then it was yours. I explained how even the leader had to follow this rule; if one of the others called “claim” on something really nice, the leader couldn’t use his position to trump the subordinate and take that thing from him. If the leader acted that way, this basic rule that held the group together wouldn’t work any more, and the group would fall apart. That was the idea of “rule of law” – the law has priority over the whims of the politicians. This applies even in the very simple polity of a group of people banding together for survival after a zombie apocalypse.
What’s ironic about this show that explores politics being a Gen X show is that Gen X has actually eschewed political involvement our whole lives. It’s like we would only do politics if absolutely forced into it, as would be the case if civilization collapsed. In fact, it seems like Generation X has been waiting for the collapse – it’s our expectation after being told since childhood that the world is doomed. The popularity of end of the world shows like The Walking Dead is a manifestation of our yearning to see it all just go to hell.
I’ve even seen bumper stickers like the one above. You probably have too. We really do want to stand on the sidelines and watch the world burn. We don’t want to choose between the lesser of two evils – we want all the evil to come out all at once. We want to find out how we would handle it. We want the ultimate freedom of a lawless world where the winner takes all ethos prevails. Because that is just so Generation X.
Hence our society’s apocalyptic mood, our deep sense of foreboding that we express in this dark genre of entertainment. We are in a fin de siècle phase of history – the American century is coming to a close, and there’s no telling what come next. Possibly the Pax Americana is coming to an end as well. For some Americans, the wound to the pride has been too much.
Politics is driven by resentment. Long festering problems of economic insecurity and environmental degradation may have grown to the point of insolubility. It might seem that the only way out at this point is cataclysmic and violent change. To cut the Gordian Knot you need the sharp edge of a sword. Or a zombie apocalypse.
But remember it is the cycle that is coming to an end, not the world. Zombies are a fantasy. War, plague, climate change – those are real but of course we can survive them all. As we have before. History is inexorable and will take us into the next cycle whether we’re ready for it or not. We don’t get an escape hatch in the form of utter destruction. This craving for the end of the world is a cop out.
Consider the Greek roots of the word apocalypse: apo- ‘un-’ + kaluptein ‘to cover’. To uncover, to reveal. As in Revelations. The apocalypse is not a violent end, it is a moment of truth. It is the moment when the facade is swept away and the stark reality underneath is exposed, and we have to finally face the problems we have been putting off. It is happening now, shaking up and realigning our politics, pitting group against group.
Generation X can help lead us through this conflict. It won’t be the sci-fi extravaganza we have spent our lives fantasizing about. It will be a messy, mundane effort to reconstruct our teetering old political institutions to deal with life in the new century. And I hope that what prevails is a community built on the principles of one of the good groups from The Walking Dead – one that is fair and kind and inclusive. One that taps into, to quote Abraham Lincoln, “the better angels of our nature.”
But we can’t avoid the reckoning. We can’t avoid getting involved, hoping that it’s all just going to end. Not my generation, not any generation alive today can escape the future. We must face, without fear, the world that is bound to come.