Last night marked the season finale of the zombie apocalypse drama, “The Walking Dead.” The six-episode mini-season follows the classic Romeran arc with a faithfulness rarely seen in the age of hipster vampires. On its face (it’s rotten, dead-eyed snarling face) there’s not much new here for fans of the undead. But we live in the age of the remix, the mash-up, where cleverness is probably too often equated with the raw freakiness of any given artistic chimera. So much of what’s on television these days seems almost desperate for a new twist: “Yes, he’s a serial killer,” we can hear the eager young writer, “but he’s also a nice guy!” Or, “It’s about a prostitute with a heart of gold, but it’s a male prostitute!” “The Walking Dead” is not that. This pitch was probably more like, “for totally unexplainable reasons, mindless undead zombies are taking over the world, while a small group of survivors tries not to die — you know, a zombie story.” It might as well be the same pitch from George Romero’s 1968 classic “Night of the Living Dead.” But “The Walking Dead” is one of the most celebrated shows of the year, a curious feat for a work so faithful to the tradition from which it springs. So what makes this show special, then? It’s not just the content, it’s the medium: It turns out that zombies and cable television are a perfect match.
Based on the popular comic book of the same name, the story of good guy Officer Rick Grimes was always meant to be serialized. The durability of the zombie trope and the zombie film is a testament to how multifaceted and dynamic George Romero’s vision was, and television as a conduit for that universe is a natural fit. By allowing the tale to unfold over several chapters, the creators have an opportunity to explore the many aspects of a classic American horror archetype in far greater detail than ever before. Zombie movies aren’t really about the undead, but rather they offer a thought experiment on how human beings (living ones) might change and react to a world thrust suddenly to the brink of certain doom. The most notable feature of the genre is the remarkable transformation that occurs when the bitten lose their humanity and become vacant flesh craving husks, but what makes a zombie tale really engrossing is that other metamorphosis: the one that happens to the survivors. The truly compelling shift is watching our protagonists evolve from victims, floundering in abject terror, into pick-axe-wielding pragmatists de-braining the zombies that used to be family members and friends.
In “The Walking Dead,” we see each character constantly doing the math, trying to calculate the incalculable. At every turn, they’re confronted with powerful questions about whether or not to batten down the hatches and wait for their food to run out, to take their fate in their own hands and commit suicide or to grasp at the dim hope that there’s something else out there somewhere. Nearly all of the characters are believably traumatized as they each grapple with these issues in their own way, and the writers allow them to change slowly, organically. “The Walking Dead” packs all the tension, gore and politics found in its big-screen predecessors, but it also has an open-endedness that makes it unique. That said — don’t confuse uncertainty with hopefulness — what’s gripping here is the foreboding suspicion that in a true zombie apocalypse, even the non-zombies eventually lose their humanity.