AMC's The Walking Dead had its mid-season finale last night, and my first reaction was: Thank God, something finally happened! It was a bit slow going. It's interesting, though, that AMC paired Walking Dead with Hell on Wheels, its Reconstruction-era drama about the Old West. As I reflected, I supposed that Walking Dead is more or less a Western in approach and tone, something made rather evident from the pilot when Sheriff Rick rides into Atlanta on a horse like so many marshals from old movies. The addition this season of a gruff old doctor, an isolated homestead, and fights over guns more or less moved the show from horror to Western territory definitively.
But if Walking Dead is a Western, and the humans are the cowboys, the implication would be that the zombies must therefore be the Indians. They certainly act like old movie Indians: Attacking caravans, raiding camps, and picking off settlers. And this is troubling since the main thrust of the last few episodes is whether to see the zombies as human or non-human and we are meant to agree with our heroes on the inhuman status of the zombies.
I'm not one to read elaborate claims about race, class, and gender into TV shows; writers have to churn out product too fast to spend too much time on subtext, and Walking Dead is not particularly subtle or deep to begin with. But if the show wants to use the tropes of the Western, it must expect its viewers to read the show through the lens of the Western. So when little Sofia--a pretty adolescent white girl--has been found to have been taken by the zombies, converted, and made so impure she had to be put down by the sheriff to save her from a fate worse than death, how can I read that as anything other than a latter-day version of old Western trope where the white woman is raped by Indians and forever set apart from civilized white society?
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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