If you'd told me even four months ago if I would be really looking forward to the return of AMC's The Walking Dead for the second half of its fifth season, I would have thought you were crazy. I couldn't, quite frankly, figure out the growing cultural fascination with zombies. Really? Slow moving, mindless creatures that eat whatever living thing they can find and can only be killed with a terminal shot to the brain? I just didn't get it.
But then one friend kept mentioning what a great show it was, and another told me that if I could get through the first episode with lots of shooting zombies in the head, I'd be hooked. And, well, I was...and so I watched the first four seasons on Netflix and the first half of season five on demand over the last three months.
Because here's the thing: The Walking Dead isn't really about the zombies. Interestingly, you get quite used to zombies - and more to the point, killing zombies - pretty quickly. Yes, the occasional scene where one comes out of nowhere to terrorize a character can make you jump out of your seat, and watching a zombie tear the flesh of a character - at least a favorite character - can still both gross and bum you out. But otherwise the whole zombie-thing isn't what the show it about.
Rather, the show is about us. Humans. And, more to the point, human nature. At the heart of The Walking Dead are a series of questions: How do we react in extreme situations? What makes some of us develop into better persons when faced with adversity while it seems to undo others? How do we know when to trust others and when to fear them? How do we cope with loss? Where do you find the hope to go on when it feels like there is no hope? When we've made mistakes - even huge moral mistakes - can we find forgiveness, from others and from ourselves? Will we let circumstances dominate us and determine who we are, or will our character allow us to rise above our challenges to imprint and affirm our values in the most difficult of circumstances? And when circumstances do the get the best of us, and we've gone pretty far down a path we regret, how do we find a way back to ourselves.
And all of this points to the show's central question: what does it really mean to be human? It's a question that is amplified by the omnipresent threat of the non-human (and inhuman) zombies.
Very quickly, actually, you the viewer realize the scariest thing in the show isn't the zombies, but the people. And as you get invested in the characters and plot twists you can't help but wonder how you'd do in similar circumstances. Or even in circumstances that aren't nearly as apocalyptic but still seriously threatening to your sense of self.
The kinds of questions I find myself thinking about after watching The Walking Dead, in short, are the kinds of questions good art always raises, and the kind I wish I heard raised a little more often at church, as I think the Gospel has some responses to these questions, or at least can provide us with tools to answering them. And they are asked there, I know, once in a while. Until they come up more frequently, at least I've got the second half of the season to look forward to.