The zombie apocalypse is the ultimate fictional manifestation of contemporary anxieties regarding our humanity and inhumanity hinged around the end of our Western civilization. Over the last decade, the hit TV series The Walking Dead, inspired by the equally awesome comic books by Kirkman and Adelard, foregrounds the disposal and commemoration of the dead as pivotal to what it means to ‘be human’.
The show offers a particular early 21st-century North American take on Christian morality, martial masculinity and frontier fantasies, associated with gun culture and the moralities and ethics of charismatic leadership and individual decision-making. Of particular interest to me as an archaeologist is how the treatment of the dead, and the past more broadly, has multiple material and spatial manifestations in the fictional portrayal of life among the walking dead, linked to conceptions of what it is to be ‘wild’ and in the ‘wilderness’, and opposed to what constitutes the colony and the civilized.
The world of The Walking Dead is not only a reflection on a fictional future, but a meditation on imagined ‘barbarian’ pasts and wild frontiers, from ancient and medieval times as well as from the modern era’s colonisation of the Americas.
As a mortuary archaeologist, I’m therefore particularly interested in how the ontology and mnemonics of being-in-the-world is configuring in the storyline through the treatment and maltreatment of bodies dying, dead and undead.
To date on Archaeodeath, I’ve explored this theme through 37 blog-posts which identify key themes in the comics and TV show’s portrayals of abandoning the dead, inhuming them, cremating them, and various textual and material media of commemoration. Thus far, I’ve covered the comic book compedia 1 and 2, and the TV series 1-8. Here, I wish to being a survey of series 9 of the TV show and how the material cultures and landscapes of death take on new manifestations. While representations of death, burial and commemoration are more muted, they extend and enhance on themes identified before.
Let’s start at the beginning. Series 9 begins with the episode ‘A New Beginning’ where the Coalition victors over the Saviours enter the US capital for the first time. This venture into the heart of darnkess is to plunder a zombie-infested museum of Art, Natural History and Americian History. I think we are supposed to imagine it is the Smithsonian. The wild west comes to the governmental heart of the now-dead United States, and the first zombie killed by Rick is a former city-slicker in a black suit and a red tie – we can imagine him as a businessman or a government official, now just one of the walking dead.
They enter the museum Rick picks up a museum guide on the way in. They encounter traces of its makeshift use as a place of shelter but then they split up to gather useful items for redeployment in their post-apocalyptic world: the past is a resource to provide the building-blocks for the technologies of a new life without the automobile and telecommunications.
The relationship with the artefacts valued in the world before the apocalypse is portrayed as functional but about the knowledge inherent in the material forms – they take a wagon, a canoe, a plough not only for use in themselves, but as exemplar with whic to make more. Also, the seed vault is regarded as particularly valuable. For instance, Daryl looks at a display about Native American artefacts, but seemingly for information only.
However, there are three exceptions where old things are regarded as having greater significance.
The affective canoe
First, Cyndie seems affected by a dug-out cannoe because it brought back memories of her fighting with her brother (killed by the Saviours). I must confess I had thought Cyndie was a Native American character and that the canoe was going to be a point of reflection on Native American culture. But no, I seem to have been wrong, and it is for Fear the Walking Dead to pick up the Native American dimension to the apocalypse (more on that in future posts).
Democracy and the future
Second, coinciding with the discussion of the forthcoming Hilltop election, Michonne stops to look at an interpretation panel about American history: the ‘conflicts that shaped our nation’. Sword in hand, scabbard across her back, a veteran of conflicts beyond number, is she honouring the ‘perfect union manifest in the story presented before her? Or perhaps she is imagining that the future might realise a dream, rescuing it from an imperfect union of the past.
Third, we have an encounter with human ancestors to make a visual joke about the popular ‘walk of evolution’ meme. Father Gabriel kills a zombie, with a machete, pinning it to a museum display. Stepping back, as if admiring a work of art whilst others walk by uninterested, he realises it is the walk of evolution. The zombie stands right of Homo sapiens and continues the walk of evolution, but slumps beneath a modern human skull, with Homo erectus’s skull tucked under his arm.
The zombie is thus pinned as the next stage in human evolution and yet somehow a dead-end and the demise of all. It is the conclusion of the walk of evolution, both horizontally and vertically.
Father Gabriel smiles as if this is a sign from God and as Jadus walks up beside him he does his sickly grin and says ‘intelligent design’. Jadus (herself an artist) replies, clearly appreciating his slaying as an artistic statement, saying: ‘the de-evolution of man! I like it’.
This is simultaneously funny and irksome on multiple levels. At one level, it plays off the widespread zombie-horror reflection on the undead as God’s punishment, as well as popular t-shirts depicting zombies as the culmination of the walk of evolution. The Walking Dead is largely agnostic in its take on the apocalypse, but in this scene it reflects on the willingness to find God’s purpose in the incomprehensible zombie apocalypse, as well as to mock the scientific ordering of the modern world in the face of disaster. Then again, Gabriel and Jadus are two of the most confused and twisted characters in the show, so their comments are completely in character.
This is a fascinating yet ultimately frustrating start to the series. I say this because the journey into Washington D.C. and into the sanctified museological space of US national self-definition inevitably has to pull so many punches when so much more could have been done with this expedition into the nation’s heart. In particular, both the fate of Native Americans or self-aggrandising nationalist story of American history are afforded a light touch. Michonne’s engagement with the conflicts which gave rise to the nation is perhaps most touching and yet kept ambiguous to the extreme.
Most disappointingly, the human dead do not appear on display. This is partly fitting given the wholesale removal of human remains from archaeological museums in North America, but I cannot believe the makers weren’t tempted to play off the walking dead and the anceint dead. This was a missed opportunity. Still, through the walk of evolution, the human past is mobilised, but to make an insidious creationist statement wrapped in a joke.
More positively, this isn’t the first time that the show has reflected on the pre-industrial past as a source of salvation. The Hilltop settlement was itself an open-air museum before the apocalypse, so this constitutes the second reflection on the utility of the material past in the apocalyptic present, linked to the utility of a romanticised pre-industrial rural, colonial past in the show. Recently, the Hilltop was visited by a mysterious character, at the end of Season 8, willing to share technological knowledge in exchange for vinyl. In contrast, both Terminus and the Saviours’ headquarters are in former industrial buildilngs: they are stuck in the past and doomed to failure.
The Coalition leave the museum on horseback with a wagon, like pioneers treking out West to find a new land in the ‘wilderness’: a new frontier to civilize. They take with them knowledge and artefacts to help them recreate a post-apocalyptic society. Yet, in this series, they will encounter a group who have ultimately given up on human civilization and return to live as wild animals in the wilderness.
In summary, so much that is confused and confusing about the US relationship with its past, including its prehistoric and colonial pasts, is manifest in this opening sequence of The Walking Dead series 9. Still, through the return to the past, its ghosts are exorcised and the group move forward to build a new world from the ruins of what came before: a new beginning.