Thursday, December 09, 2010

The Walking Dead: The psychology of enclaves

The first season of The Walking Dead ended this past weekend. Did it measure up to the standards set by the comic? Not entirely, but it was damn well done, and I'm excited that there's gonna be a season two. Despite my desperate urge to compare Darabont's adaptation to Kirkman's original, I'm going to do my best to resist, and look at the series on its own terms.

After the various tangents and interjections, what we've ended up with, in this AMC series, is a sort of post-apocalyptic anthropology, showing the breakdown and restructuring of society into various enclaves in an economy of self-defense and scarcity. Rick's family group is the control group, an intensive investigation into the unstable power dynamics and desperate decisions of a fugitive community. It'll provide fuel for a lot more episodes down the line.

But perhaps more interesting are what I just referred to as "enclaves," the isolated autonomous zones that Rick and his group come across as they navigate the landscape. There are really three, aside from the main group: the Jones's household, the Atlanta clinic, and the CDC. Each offers a glimpse into how extreme circumstances may effect human behavior and self-presentation; together, they provide a fascinating perspective on the landscape of desperation.

Morgan and Duane Jones initiate Rick into the world of the walkers, reluctantly taking him in when he wanders into their front yard. When we encounter them (Episode 1), they are isolated and paralyzed, still stuck in the state of shock that the zombie apocalypse has caused. The reappearance of Morgan's wife reflects their failure to accept the zombies as inhuman and come fully to terms with what's happened to the world; they are still undeveloped, showing us the early-development stages of bona fide post-apocalyptic survival. They are an important emotional anchor for the show, but they're not the most interesting fragment for analysis.

If the Jones's are in the primitive stages of adjustment, still showing signs of shock and paralysis, the other two communities -- the clinic and the CDC -- are both communities that have been distilled into pure psychology, representing two opposite sides of pure personality. One is the animal impulse for survival and protection; the other is the rational mind, devouring itself as it stares into the void.

The Atlanta clinic (Episode 4) is truly survivalist. It's a collective of folks from the street, with all the ethnic diversity of urban neighborhoods, who exhibit the highly defensive responses of a family group in the wild. When Rick, Darryl, and T-Dog arrive to demand the return of Glen, Guillermo's group is defensive and reactionary, bristling and intentionally escalating the conflict. Their demand for the guns, and their claim that they're willing to enter into a shootout, is almost a bluff, but it's the type of bluff that could be disastrous if called. Rick and his gang, in turn, refuse to concede the guns, their most important resource. These two groups are like wild dogs, circling, exploring their dominance and trying to find some equilibrium before they tear each other apart.

It's telling, of course, that the clinic residents aren't pure evil. Rather, they're protective of themselves and their families, and they are desperate for the firearms that they noticed in the street. Once they find common ground to cooperate with Rick, they're revealed to be reasonable and deeply compassionate people, holding out in the city to take care of their elderly. According to the show's narrative, their behavior is justified by necessity -- they're really just following their survival and caretaking instincts in a desperate bid for survival.

Contrast this with the CDC (episodes 5 and 6), where the lone Dr. Jenner holds out, having just given up on continuing his research into the zombie plague. Rick and the gang find him on the verge of suicide, having just lost his stock of fresh samples. He makes an exception to let them into his sanctuary, where he's the little glimmer of consciousness in the center of a big electronic brain.

Jenner's misfortunes are telling and troubling. He's absolutely isolated, and his wife died under his observation. He is clearly a smart man, driven by a rational engine that continue to run even after his great emotional breakdown. In a pivotal scene, he uses his wife's brain-scan as an illustration to explain all the functions of the mind and the zombie disease that takes over it. This real-time brain scan even includes the bullet that takes the test subject's life. For Jenner, this lecture is an act of self-deconstruction, ending with a reference to the human "extinction event."

Jenner's wife invested him with a final purpose before she departed, perhaps because she knew he was a goal-seeking type of guy, but with the destruction of his samples, this purpose died, as well. Jenner does not seem to be a man who's interested in pressing on no matter what the costs... for him, life has had a point, and it no longer has one, so there's no longer a reason to sustain it. Jenner's tragedy isn't that he dies for no reason, but that he lives for no reason. This is not how they would frame the situation out at the clinic in Atlanta.

And of course, Jenner's despair almost leads to a suicide for the whole company, including the survivors, the protectors, and the children. Jenner's computer, carrying out a "decontamination" that's actually just a self-destruction, is an extension of his own sense of hopelessness. He is higher consciousness turned on itself, the death drive turned into a suicide impulse, and he even goes so far as to argue to Rick and his companions that it's more merciful than trying to live on.

With these two communities, The Walking Dead sets up an interesting argument by juxtaposition. I'm going to stick this into a classic Freudian framework, so bear with me. Jenner, representing the higher faculties, is a nod to the superego, especially since he ultimately directs his own aggression toward himself... according to Freud, this was the basic mechanism that created self-control. Presumably, this would make Guillermo and his crew the id, a vicious, protective, uninhibited animal instinct for self-preservation. It holds pretty well, considering the Atlanta clinic crew seemed so quick to violence and so desperate for resources.

But the inversion brought about by the economy of scarcity is striking. The Atlanta clinic may be aggressive and reactionary, but it's also protective and self-perpetuating, and ultimately these urban warriors live to protect their own and take care of the collective body, even when it's made up of thugs and aging grandparents. Jenner the superego, on the other hand, despite his claims to rationality and order, is the more destructive of these two forces, because in the absence of a purpose, he directs his frustration back on himself. Reason implodes, and without the raw desire to survive into another day, Jenner just gives up on the whole human project, not just for himself, but for those around him.

Assuming there's something to be said here about Freudian psychology and different cognitive levels, it seems that the show is arguing the reverse of the Freud assumption. The Walking Dead is in fact suggesting that in the absence of order and civilization, it's going to be the animal part of the human that preserves the self and the species, and the rationalizing, intelligent part that dooms us to self-destruction.

If I have time, I'll discuss some more of this fascinating show. Shane alone is worth the price of admission -- his character is thoroughly complex and conflicted, an authority figure tortured by a sudden loss of power and intimacy. If Kirkman had developed Shane more thoroughly in the comic, I'm pretty sure he would have looked like Darabont's rendition. It will also be interesting seeing the development of Andrea, as she's already got the emotional groundwork to build into a strong and complicated character.

No comments: