Like F/X’s Justified, AMC’s The Walking Dead is a contemporary western set in the East—mostly in Georgia (although the graphic novel on which the series is based has moved from Georgia to other locations). As noted in an earlier blog post on Hell on Wheels (another AMC series), what The Walking Dead shares with a more traditional western is an interest in observing humanity in a “state of nature,” in returning to a time before the institution of the laws of civilization in order to examine what is essential about human nature outside of the influence of society. The frontier setting of the western provides a “state of nature” environment where that investigation can take place. Different westerns suggest different philosophical positions as to what human existence would be like in a state of nature. In The Walking Dead, a cataclysmic event (the virus that turns people into zombies) has reduced humanity to a “state of nature,” and the driving philosophical concept is Hobbesian—that in a state of nature every person is out for himself, and that without the order of government (or another type of authority), we are in a state of continual warfare. In this state of nature, it is kill or be killed (or, in Walking Dead terms, kill or be eaten).
Although the primary threat in the series up to now has been the walking dead and their voracious appetite, we are seeing more indication that the truly dangerous threat is other survivors (and this is definitely the direction that the graphic novel series takes). Zombies don’t seem to think, don’t move very fast, and seemingly have no instinct for self-preservation. That last one is what makes humans particularly dangerous. In a kill or be killed environment, what will—and what won’t—humans do in order to survive?
Like Justified, The Walking Dead is often playfully conscious of its roots in the western, and there are references throughout the series to western motifs (the sheriff rides into town on a horse when his car runs out of gas, a rider falls off his horse when it’s frightened by a snake, etc.). In the most recent episode “Nebraska,” the story takes up where the last episode before the mid-season hiatus ended—with the zombies corralled in Hershel’s barn (he hopes a cure will be found and that eventually his zombified family members will be returned to normal) let loose by Shane (note western reference) and slaughtered as they emerge. After this, Hershel, who has been on the wagon for 30 years, leaves the farm where they are all taking refuge and goes to the nearby deserted town where he finds a bar and starts drinking.
And here begins one of the longest “western” scenes in the series, an extended sequence inside of an empty bar that looks like it could be used as a set for a traditional western without too much modification. At one point, we see a poster advertising a “wild west show” on a wall. The series’ protagonist, former lawman Rick Grimes, arrives to bring Hershel back to the farm. While they are at the bar, two guys walk in, and what follows is not a joke. The conversation between the two groups of survivors becomes increasingly tense as Tony and Dave (the two guys) press Rick to take them back to the farm. Rick is reluctant to do so, in part because, inviting two guys you don’t know to your safe haven in the midst of the zombie apocalypse is simply not a good idea.
Guns are drawn, and the conversation continues. At one point, Dave jumps across to the other side of the bar (to get a bottle of the “good stuff”) and sets his gun on top of the bar. At a certain point in the conversation, Dave goes for the gun, and Rick demonstrates that he has the quick draw skills of a western lawman by pulling his gun from its holster, and shooting and killing first Dave, then Tony (who also has a gun). This is first western showdown shootout of the series. Zombies, as a rule, don’t carry guns, and so drawing your gun quickly is not a particularly useful talent when dealing with the walking dead. But, the living, on the other hand. . . .
I think this is the first time in the television series that Rick has killed a living human. In the graphic novel series, we’ve seen Rick grapple with this issue several different times, and the rightness or wrongness of his action (killing a living human) is often ambivalently presented. In “Nebraska,” the situation in which Rick’s shooting takes place suggests little ambivalence. Watching this scene, I could almost hear Raylan Givens’ voice in the background saying, “He pulled first, and I shot him. It was justified.” We’ve seen similar scenes in westerns hundreds of times, and the genre context tells us that Rick did what he had to do. I’m not sure that the report of what he has done will be received that way when he returns back to the farm, so I guess we’ll see how that plays out. In the graphic novel, Rick’s actions are more questioned and are presented in ways that are more ambivalent than in the television series—which thus far has used the character of Shane instead to explore the edgier terrain of how far one can (and cannot) go in terms of violence and still be acceptable.