The immigration crisis at the US-Mexico border is beginning to look like an episode of AMC’s widely popular drama, The Walking Dead (TWD). This year alone has seen a 500% spike in apprehension of families at the border, while it is estimated that over 57,000 unaccompanied children have been detained in fiscal year 2014. If these numbers, along with pieces such as Leni Velasco’s on the Filipino sugarcane crisis and NBC’s on Honduras’ gang-violence, are any indications of these travelers’ reality, which includes a search for place amidst hunger, danger, and dehumanization, this alarming correlation between TWD and the current immigrant exodus into the U.S. is not unwarranted.
In line with the experiences of many immigrants, TWD focuses primarily on its characters’ search for a new home and their fight to survive along the way. Although this zombie-filled show has its fair share of zombie-on-human crime, TWD is rarely about zombies, and is instead often at its best when showing the day-to-day struggle of a traveling group of survivors dealing with hunger and difficult social situations, travelers in search of a place to settle down after losing everything. At its roots, the show is a tale of desperate homelessness in a land where finding sanctuary is the hope, and the greatest impossibility.
This sense of homelessness, shared by the show’s characters and the very-real immigrants risking their lives to cross the border, is what I call dislocation: being cut off from one”s own land and the life that comes with it. Like a limb separated from its socket, with great pain, the characters become dislocated from their own homes, pasts, and often, loved ones. The show’s main character, Rick Grimes, knows that stability is important, and as the leader, his number one concern for and answer to creating such stability is to find a suitable place to live and start over, to call home. By the show’s third season, the zombies are almost an afterthought, and easily protected against. The real enemy, then, in both fiction and reality, becomes dislocation.
At one level, the threat of being dislocated from a land to call your own is simple: danger is everywhere on the road. Walkers (the show’s name for zombies) are always a threat; other hungry travelers are always trying to take what is yours; and the places you think are safe and inviting end up belonging to a horde of cannibals. If Cormac McCarthy’s The Road – another father-son tale of wilderness survival – teaches us anything, it”s that traveling post-apocalypse is perilous and unpredictable, which is why it induces so much fear among those forced to wander.
That fear, however, also operates in another register in current political rhetoric: the immigrant’s fear of landlessness is met with fear of the immigrant. This other register displaces immigrants from the place of the survivor, and paints them in the shade of the zombie. For example, Texas Governor Rick Perry sent 1,000 National Guard troops to the Texas border in early August, as if trying to eliminate a zombie threat or contain a contagion, while in 2008, former Senator Fred Thompson likened immigrants to zombielike, “ . . . suicidal maniacs [who] want to kill countless innocent men, women, and children around the world.” Also in zombie-movie fashion, Fox News ran a piece on the possibility of immigrants carrying communicable diseases, noting that some doctors fear that immigrants carry a drug-resistant strain of TB that is spreading in several counties in Texas. The immigrant, in this rhetoric, is the embodiment of an unknown menace, one that threatens the physical, moral, and economic health of America and its way of life—a rhetoric containing a dehumanizing zombification of the immigrant.
In conflicting manner, TWD embodies both this cultural fear of the immigrant and its paradigmatic tales of survival, in terms of a conservative reaction that focuses on setting humans apart from zombie-immigrants. Concerning the current immigration-crisis narrative, the characters in the show simultaneously serve as allegories for both the weary, immigrant travelers looking for new homes and for the conservative project that would keep these travelers on the other side of the wall.
TWD presents the dueling narratives of the zombification of immigrants and of control and counter-immigration particularly well. We simultaneously see a group of survivors and separatists. This conjunction is quite telling at times, especially in exposing what both groups share: a concern for land and place. Throughout the show, this concern cuts through the ambiguous division of good and evil, human and zombie. As far as the zombies are concerned, the only thing that separates them from humans is the latters’ hope of shedding vagrancy and settling down, a further reiteration that the zombies are not necessarily the enemy, but fellow travelers forced into survival against their will. Hence, the worth in calling the zombies “walkers” and “roamers”: they are creatures who wander around, look for food, and kill to survive, much like Rick and his group. Whether Rick is biting the neck off a guy to save his son, or group members are covering themselves in zombie-flesh to disguise their smell and avoid the roamers, the show often plays with the dark similarities between survivors and walkers.
The difference between the dead and the living further collapses when the group discovers everyone is infected and will inevitably turn into zombies when they die. “You KNOW that when we die,” Rick powerfully explains in Issue 24 of the comic book parallel to the show, “we become them. You think we hide behind walls to protect us from the walking dead? Don”t you get it? We ARE the walking dead! WE are the walking dead.”
The arrival at Terminus at the end of Season 4 clearly shows this lack of difference between zombie and human. Terminus is undoubtedly a colony of cannibals, representing the breakdown of the only thing that truly separates walkers from (sometimes) smarter, less flesh-hungry human walkers. Here, people eat other people, formidably bypassing the need to turn into a zombie to act like one. Terminus, which means “end destination,” suggests that cannibalism is the end point on humanity’s devolving path from people into monsters. Terminus is what it looks like to survive in the apocalypse, which means becoming more like the dislocated zombies who roam about.
Despite this dark revelation of their path to zombiehood, Rick”s group is in constant search of what sets them apart from their zombie co-inhabitants of post-apocalypse Georgia, refusing to accept that people can”t be good and live together in peace. That hope is anchored in finding a place to make a new home, a real community in a permanent place. The characters of the show are happiest and most stable when they know they have safe keep. If the most humanizing aspect of TWD is finding a place and a home and forgoing wandering around searching for food like the zombies, then it is clear why places like the prison and the town of Woodbury are so coveted.
But as we have seen, there are pitfalls to even the most stable communities, especially when their sense of community is predicated on fear of the other and on their unity in keeping everyone else out. As much as Woodbury, a protected community with heavy-handed leadership, values place, and people”s attachment to the safety and humanity it brings, it ultimately falls apart from greed, exploitation, and a failure to live with the other. Terminus also seems a stable, safe place to settle down, but the end of the fourth season revealed that it is only a static hub for weary travelers to come and become dinner. In this way, Terminus still relies upon and, literally, feeds off, transient culture.
Whether the show is telling the story of conservative walling off or immigrant survival, or both simultaneously, it is surely concerned with the effects and struggles of people looking for something more while juggling whether or not to let others, outsiders, join in that search. At many levels, TWD expresses our inner brokenness and capacity to devour those around us without concern. In the end, the show powerfully suggests the risky, yet beautiful, reality of letting others in from the outside to live and survive in the land together, a reality ironically and somewhat unevenly expressed in the prison and its farm. Here, Rick and Herschel come to realize land and place are vital to survival, which is what makes them different from the wanderers on the road, both human and dead alike.
The similarities we’ve seen between fearful humans and rootless zombies play into the viscous nature of the characters and their attempt to stay away from such violence. More precisely, I think both human and zombie remind us what we could become if we continue to act in an exclusionary way. That is, if we are unwilling to rethink our own constructed borders, we may find that we, too, are the walking dead.