The latest season of “The Walking Dead” has somehow managed to take advantage of record-breaking viewership to add its best and, arguably, most relevant allegorical flourish yet. It is my favorite allegory-in-your-face television since Season 3 of "Battlestar Galactica."
In that amazing season, the intergalactic pilgrims found themselves living under the military rule of Cylons in a turnabout that put “the good guys” in the position of Iraqi citizens and Cylons playing the dangerous “wiser,” nation-building, Only-One-True-God interlopers.
I’ve never thought TWD was superbly acted, or superbly plotted, or superbly much of anything (BSG was better-acted, but the plotting was frequently full of WTFs). In fact, the show often feels to me like the TV version of “Casablanca,” a concept and chemical combination of factors so wonderful that not even a bevy of dysfunction and malfunction cannot derail it from being watchable. Better, there are times when I think lots of people watch TWD to see what they try and screw up next.
But like most great science fiction, there’s just something irresistable about a show whose message is this: no matter how awful, evil, and indomitable the Others we must face, humanity’s greatest foe is humanity. (Example: This is why “Aliens” is awesome and “Independence Day” is cheesy.)
The second half of the current Season 5 finds our ragtag band of survivors stumbling into the closest thing to non-dysfunctional normal they have yet encountered. Their previous run-ins with “community living” involved evil dictators or evil cannibals, leaving the group unable -- or unwilling -- to trust much of anyone.
But this newest community, located somewhere in Virginia, is almost certainly the real deal, full of mostly well-intentioned humans doing everything they can to survive with their humanity in tact. They have created a safe environment. Everyone has a reasonable job. No one is a slave or being abused. It’s not heaven, but it’s something almost like Life Before The Zombies. Normal, not extranormal, dysfunction.
And many of our intrepid survivors, the characters we’ve grown to admire and love despite their flaws, cannot adjust. The roots of distrust and suspicion have dug in too deeply. The lifestyle of always being at the ready has become too ingrained.
This season is, unsubtly, an allegory for American soldiers coming home. It is "The Hurt Locker" and half a dozen other "returning from the horrors of war" films, except with zombies and some cute ass-kickin’ women. At the conclusion of the latest episode (TINY SPOILER ALERT), the newly clean-cut and clean-shaven Rick Grimes walks up to the wall separating the idyllic small town normal life from the evil undead. Rick can hear a zombie on the other side. Rick raises his hand to the metal and caresses it. You can tell how much a part of him wants to be out there, fighting instead of hiding, no matter how much safer and better the small town life would be for his son and infant daughter.
That’s not Rick’s only sign of struggling to accept the concept of anything less than Defcon 1, and Rick’s not the only one struggling. I won’t spoil any other details, but at least four of "the family" can’t blend in, and their actions and words run a gamut from mere PTSD to borderline sociopathy.
I’d be surprised if TWD can hold onto its ratings, tackling such a tough topic and sacrificing some of its war and gore in the process. Which makes their tack all the more ambitious and worthy of praise, that they’re taking advantage of this peak of pop culture attention to do something beyond merely creative and fun. They’re not preaching, either. They are simply showing us, the viewers, what can happen when people we love have knifed through one too many skulls -- living and undead -- for any sane person’s good health.