Apocalyptic Pop Culture in the Age of a Pandemic

by Mindy Clegg

This image comes from https://etgeekera.com/

The taste for the end times as a dramatic backdrop well preceded our current pandemic lock-down, but now seems as good a time as any to explore the popularity of end-of-time dramas as any other. Perhaps we can take some solace from a discussion of others surviving worse situations than our own, even if fictional. Philosopher and pop culture theorist Slavoj Žižek (or it might have been Fredrick Jameson) once noted that the popularity of apocalyptic culture tended to be driven by the all-encompassing power of our current global system, noting that it’s easier for us to imagine the world’s end rather than it’s transformation.1 This seems to break with earlier popular culture that imagined some level of continuity between our present and the future, such as Star Trek. If today we have a harder time imagining productive change to our globalized system, at least our visions of its collapse are numerous and offer compelling viewing. The Walking Dead comic and TV series are a prime example of that sort of entertainment. I argue here that although the series and comic seem on the surface to explore only the collapse of our modern systems of governance and our globalized economy, the focus instead rests on what we keep and what we leave behind as we rebuild in the wake of some kind of wide-spread devastation. In many ways, the Walking Dead offers an alternative to ideologies like the Milton Friedman “shock doctrine” that turns disasters into fodder for privatization.2

Just a note for fans of the show or comic: I’ll include spoilers here for what I’ve watched thus far and for the comic, as that has recently concluded.

River Song from Doctor Who has warned you!

Laurie Penny recently engaged in a similar discussion over at Wired. She argues that our current event which could have apocalyptic implications, a term which she defines as “time of crisis and change, of hidden truths revealed,” “is less Danny Boyle and more Douglas Adams.” She also notes the above truism, which she heard from young activists over the years, summing it up as “capitalism cannot imagine a future beyond itself that isn’t utter butchery” while calling the capitalist mindset of a “death cult.” She says that’s not what we’re living through now, as people rally around despite the clear deficiencies in our leaders. And she’s spot on to note that disconnect. Outside of overcrowded ICU and the President’s daily presser, our current situation does not feel like a disaster like found in much apocalyptic media. We do all seem to be reaching out to each other, finding comfort in the strangeness of these times where we can. She goes on to note the “alt-right” tone of many post-apocalyptic media, where manly men can do as their “nature” dictates. It’s almost always men who lean into this mythos, she notes, while women tend to be on the front lines of doing the actual rebuilding. She includes The Walking Dead in that list. On that show, I differ from Penny. Rather than a fever dream of socially sanctioned violence in the face of systemic collapse, the comic and the long-running drama instead give us a much more nuanced view of the end of history, or rather the lack of the end of it.3

In case you’re not familiar with the show, the premise of The Walking Dead is rather straight-forward. A small town sheriff from Tennessee by the name of Rick Grimes wakes up in the aftermath of a zombie outbreak which occurred not long after he ended up in a coma (a sort of personal apocalypse for his family). His community appears empty, but he stumbles upon a man and his son, Morgan and Duane, who reorient him to the new reality and help him get on his feet. He heads south to Atlanta where many survivors had gone in search of his wife and son, Laurie and Carl. Once reunited, he ends up becoming leader of their group as they move on from Atlanta, eventually landing in Alexandria, VA. There they settle in and attempt to rebuild some sort of society while facing threats from both zombies and other people. The recently ended comic ran for 193 issues, from October 2003 to July 2019. The show, which often diverges and builds on the comic, continues. There is one spin-off series (Fear the Walking Dead), another in production (The Walking Dead: World Beyond), and a planned trilogy of films about Rick Grimes (presumably after he is whisked away on a helicopter with Jadis).

At its heart (and like many other dramatizations of the end of civilization), The Walking Dead asks what happens when what we understand as civilization collapses around our ears. How do we react? What do we rebuild? What do we abandon? The show and comic asks what happens when our present structures fail to sustain and protect us (something many of us are currently asking about our current predicament). Unlike many other types of end-of-times media, it goes beyond that. As illustrated time and again, the real threat is almost never the hungry zombies, rather it’s the people who can’t let go of a failed worldview. Much like right now, with some pundits arguing that the death of thousands if not millions might be necessary to save the economy, the real enemies in The Walking Dead are other people who can’t let go of their failed ideology, even as new possibilities emerge out of the chaos of day to day survival. Inevitably, the people who find themselves unable to imagine more tend to be the ones who either get others killed or end up dead themselves. One example is Merle Dixon, the brother of one of the most popular show characters Daryl Dixon. He hangs on to his racial prejudices and quickly finds himself abandoned as a real danger to the group. In the third season, after being exiled from the group led by the Governor and joining with Rick’s group, Merle still can’t help but resort to divisive actions. He deploys sexist and racist language in his interactions with others, only giving respect to the patriarchal figure of Hershel. He advocates for relying on preemptive force rather than negotiation with the Governor (which might not have been bad advice on Merle’s part, admittedly). The end for Merle comes when he releases the person the Governor asked him to retrieve in order to get back into his group, Michonne, and is then killed for it. But Merle ends up sacrificing himself for the greater good and letting her go, which only happens because Merle realizes during his talk with Michonne that he’s unlikely to change his ways even if the situation demands it.

Negan provides another example of people unable to let go of past structures. A typical tin-pot authoritarian, lording what little power he has managed to carve out over other communities. As leader of the group the Saviors, Negan depends on strategically deployed violence rather than cooperation to redistribute scarce resources. Even his own group has a class structure, with some people forced to provide various kinds of labor for his cadre of enforcers (cooking, cleaning, light manufacturing, even sex, although Negan makes it clear he abhors rape). The Saviors represent a group modeled on criminal syndicates, a top-down patriarchal family model that conducts business via force instead of egalitarian trade (it could be argued not unlike unregulated neo-liberal capitalism!). Though Negan claims he represents a new world order, in reality he only manages to replicate capitalist logic at its most naked and violent. Unity via top down force has its limitations. When the Saviors go to war with Rick and his group (in both the comic and show), Negan ends up in a jail built by Rick specifically for the purpose. He eventually escapes and fights in a later conflict with the Whisperers, only to be exiled for the rest of his life after that. At the end of the comic series, Negan is shown living alone as Rick’s son Carl leaves food on his door step. Although Negan survives, his dictatorial style honed in a capitalist system proves his undoing. Rick’s insistence on cooperation on all groups in the area prove far more effective than Negan’s active subjugation of others.

The last example proves the most illustrative of the problems of clinging to a failed system of the past. The Commonwealth comes at the end of the comic series (there are hints the show will eventually get there, such as Eugene’s communication with a mysterious stranger via shortwave radio). When Rick’s rag-tag group of communities discover it, the Commonwealth seems to offer all the survivors could want – greater connectivity between communities, larger societal structures, institutions such as governance, restaurants, a police force, and brisk trade between communities, among other things. Led by Pamela Milton, the governor (a different governor than the previous governor), and protected by a military force with a monopoly on violence, the Commonwealth connects communities that have slowly begun to rebuild in the wake of the zombie apocalypse, bringing together nearly 50,000 people. It exudes civilization. On the surface, it seems nearly miraculous, having built up an even more impressive system of communal interconnections than Rick’s community has with the former Saviors community, Alexandria, Kingdom, and the Hilltop. But it turns out that, much like the pre-apocalypse capitalist systems, the entire thing is knit together by a class-based hierarchy, built very much on ideas of prestige in some professions from the past division of labor. When Michonne, Eugene, and several others from the core communities we’ve been following arrive, they end up with a personal meeting because of Michonne’s previous profession as a high powered lawyer. She agrees to join the community and to take up the practice of law once again when she discovers that her daughter lives there. She (and others) soon discover that class tensions simmer dangerously beneath the surface and threaten to destroy what they’ve built. Pamela’s son, Sebastian, exemplifies that class tension, looking down at every one and consistently abusing his standing as the son of the governor. A series of misunderstandings and hostile acts threaten to spin out into a war with Rick’s people stuck in the middle, as Pamela decides to use force to put down a restive population rather than address the reasons for the tensions. As fighting is about to destroy the work the people of the Commonwealth have built, Rick steps in and successfully deescalates this situation with a rousing speech. Pamela is jailed for her actions, but later freed by Rick. However, her son later kills Rick late one night, as he blames him upsetting his position of privilege in the Commonwealth. Sebastian is convicted and imprisoned for life, something for which Rick would have advocated. Alec Bojalad at Den of Geeks does a brillant job of illustrating the threat actually posed by the apparent normalcy of the Commonwealth. They simply mapped the past into the present with both the old inequalities and the stability. Bojalad argues that “[author of the comic series Robert] Kirkman, in presenting these new bureaucratic enemies, might have revealed that we never wanted our characters to find the old world. We wanted them to find a new one.”4

Rick’s sacrifice bears fruit (and later a statue). In the coda of the comic, Kirkman shows a future where the direct threat of the walkers has been largely eliminated from people’s daily lives. Although one only gets a taste of that future, it’s enough to get a sense of a future built on innovation of the past, but with an eye to greater freedom and equality. Old characters are shown in new positions of authority. Michonne is now the highest judge in the system, while Maggie Rhee holds the office of the presidency. Both characters are who evolved and grew that the reader is meant to implicitly trust not to abuse their new positions of authority. The reader is to assume that they came to those positions fairly, primarily by displaying not only good judgment, but a willingness to listen to other viewpoints and to take those under consideration. They exhibit leadership over a desire to accrue power to themselves. That is a key aspect of the comic and show that is sometimes overlooked in favor of the violent struggle for life. Rick Grimes represents the struggle between displaying leadership in a time of uncertainty as opposed to merely taking advantage of a dire situation to exert power and control over others (or to ruthlessly profit at the expense of others). Ultimately, Rick’s way (built on him making mistakes and course correcting) wins out because unlike some others who claim the mantle of leader, Rick’s vision for the future rests on cooperation in the cultivation of what are becoming scarce resources rather than competition for those resources so characteristic of the modern capitalist system. In the post Cold War, neo-liberal era, the capitalist competitive cycle has heightened globally, with even the remaining communist states acquiescing to these cycles. In our current global emergency the limits of our system are being revealed. The Walking Dead then brings that to light. It does more than just give us a violent apocalyptic vision on which we can project our fears that there are no alternatives. Rather it gives us a vision of retaining what works from our current system, but embracing equality and sustainability that draws from all of us. That’s a message that we can all use as we shelter in place—that we can build something better for our future.


1This quote has been attributed to both Slavoj Žižek and Fredrick Jameson both of whom write on the totality of the capitalist system. This is part of the basis for Mark Fisher’s book Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative, London: Zero Books, 2000

2 For “shock doctrine” see Naomi Klein, Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Toronto: Knopf Canada, 2007. Also see the websites for both the comic and TV show.

3 Laurie Penny, “This is Not the Apocalypse You Were Looking For,” Wired, March 30, 2020, (accessed April 1, 2020), Wired. You can also check out Penny’s blog.

4 Alec Bojalad, “The Walking Dead: The Commonwealth is a New Kind of Threat,” Den of Geek, April 1, 2019, Den of Geek.