I wanted to corral a bunch of shorter, miscellaneous thoughts I’ve had about The Walking Dead to end our week-long discussion of it.
The first has to do with podcast guest and friend of OTI Bear McCreary, the composer on the show. As the series was airing (Cabling? Who gets TV through the air anymore?), he posted on his blog interesting behind-the-scenes videos and cue-by-cue breakdowns for each episode. It’s a fantastic window into the creative and production process on a major TV-show, and Bear gives a lucid account of his aims with respect to mythos and ethos—as well emotion, theme, and character arcs.
On Overthinking It, we tend to treat entertainment products with an auteur sensibility, as if they sprung like Athena fully formed from the head of their creators, and were a perfect reflection of their intent and only of their intent. It’s true that strong works of art often have a highly integrated and consistent point of view or texture. But watching the legion of professionals involved in just the music (not even speaking of the rest of the sounds, which are quite gruesome and exciting) of The Walking Dead, all doing their best to kick ass and serve the material, reminded me that it takes a village to make a TV show. (Or a small army. Look in the archives for video of the Human Target soundtrack recording sessions, which involved an orchestra so big they couldn’t fit it in the studio all at once.) It’s interesting to think that one of the skills an artist needs to have to function in the art business is, um, bureaucratic administration.
Anyway, here are the links.
On the level of overthinking, it’s a chance to consider the particular ways in which music relates to image in narrative film—the score can emphasize or ironize aspects of the plot and characters; it can create suspense; it can try to tell you what to feel (to be fair, Bear’s music is never cheap like that, but not all scores can say the same); it can establish a mood and tone, or a sense of time and place—as with the bluegrass stuff on The Walking Dead.
The score seems to speak two langues. The first is the chamber ensemble (a 6-piece string group, the occasional horn or clarinet solo); the other is the rustic bluegrass ensemble. Generally, each of these have two main modes. The strings provide ethereal or suspenseful ambient soundscapes, or else they saw away in a molto agitato frenzy as they do under the main titles. The bluegrass feel can either be earthy or kind of strange—what Bear calls Zombie Banjo. (It can also go freaking nuts, as with the zombie massacre at the campsite, which is just one heck of a good time in a sound cue.) Two languages, two characters; I think it something about the duality of man, sir.
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The other thing I’d like to bring up are the racial politics of the show. (I haven’t read the books, but would be interested to hear whether they play out differently.) The gender politics are retrograde, and not worth discussion—viz. women can’t turn off the lights—but I think talking about race and The Walking Dead is interesting, because Zombies are that genre of horror that draws a bright-line distinction between classes of humans—the living and the living dead—so that the latter can set in relief the inhumanity of the former. Ethnic identity—conceived of as the most primitive sort of us vs. them group membership—is at the heart of the concept. And yet it seems irrelevant, since the precondition of the zombie genre is the breakdown of institutions. You’d think that ethnic difference, which is largely socially constructed, would go too.
Also, it’s worth noting, that explicit overtones of racial politics are present in the genre since at least the original Night of the Living Dead. There are uncomfortable, undeniable echoes of lynching when Ben is shot at the end. (The accents don’t help.)
From our point of view, here in what I think I’ll begin calling the pre-Zombie-Apocalypse Era, The Walking Dead has some good moments—the vatos who run the nursing home fly in the face of our assumptions about young Latinos and what they can do in TV show plots—and some bad moments—random black woman without any qualities other than being black who dies in the explosion at the end, maybe because she’s realized that she does not have any qualities and the realization saps her will to live in a way the zombie apocalypse could not.
But what I’m most concerned with is the persistance of racism in the face of the Zombies.
Zombie stories seem to fly in the face of what we’d expect (hope?) would happen when a large group faces off against a common enemy. Faced with an existential threat, a group can choose to pull together to defeat their common enemy or to…well…not. If not, intra-group business continues as usual, with the added stressor that everyone is going to die, until everyone is dead. But if the group decides to brush aside differences and grievances in the name of fighting the aliens or Nazis or Communists or whatever, there are speeches and fireworks and we learn that it isn’t pretty, but it works.
It’s more comforting to think that when everything falls apart, rather than reverting to a Hobbesian state of nature (though it’s probably a mistake to say “revert”, since a common element among all Enlightenment theories of “states of nature” is that they never actually existed as such; they’re an account of the theorist’s view of what people are like, not an account of an historical period), that Mankind Pulls Together Despite Our Differences And Troubled History To Triumph In The Face Of Adversity.
Hold on. That’s just so noble. I have to wipe away a tear and google Bill Pullman’s speech from Independence Day. Here you go. OK. Carrying on.
But, to borrow Fenzel’s typology, that’s monster movie thinking, not zombie movie thinking. The point of the genre is that they’re us, and we’re just as inhumane as they are. We commit horrible atrocities against one another almost as a matter of course.
Still, we do these things as individuals. In the Hobbesian state of nature, it’s every man for himself. I hate you because we’re in competition for food and shelter, not because you’re a [insert ethnic slur here]. So I’m surprised—wrong word; I’m ingrigued—to see Merle mouthing off, calling names, and making decisions which seem to be clearly against his own interest on the basis of racism.
And then, when the group breaks camp, the Hispanic family makes the surely suicidal decision to split from the main group in order to “be with our people.” They probably mean “family,” but the ethnic difference can’t be ignored.
In a genre of horror the precondition of which is breakdown of institutions, certain institutions persist. Peculiar ones.
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Finally, if you’ve been keeping up with the comments this week, there have been some real gems. I’d like to highlight this explanation of Germany’s love for David Hasselhoff and this mathematical model of the epidemiology of the zombie pandemic. In my role as Fearless Leader of OTI—a role in which I do as little as I can get away with, and let others do the heavy lifting—I never cease to be astonished at the strength, intelligence, good humor, civility, and sheer attractiveness of our community. It’s a great realization to take into our holiday break and the New Year.
Any last thoughts about The Walking Dead before we hit Christmas and go all clip-show? Sound off in the comments!