The Walking Dead is a Western.
I had this realization a few days before the show's sixth season premiered, before I had watched "First Time Again," the first episode of said season. If I had watched it, I perhaps wouldn't have been so pleased with myself for coming up with it, because "First Time Again's" centerpiece is basically a giant cattle drive, only with zombies as cows.
Now, the series has always had its Western elements, but this Alexandria arc has pushed them even further to the fore. Let's take a look at some of the prominent Western elements that cropped up in "First Time Again" and the series to date.
1) The series is about who makes the rules out on the frontier
In the wake of the end of the world, essentially the entire country has become the Wild West. Bands of lawless brigands roam the countryside, there's danger everywhere you look, and what communities there are tend to be insular and suspicious of outsiders.
That same description could apply to just about every TV Western that attained any real level of popularity, from Gunsmoke to Deadwood. Out on the edges of the frontier, there was no real guarantee that there would be a government with enough weight behind it to enforce the social compact. That was left to the good-hearted citizens of the small towns dotting the West, who often faced impossible moral choices. Even foul-mouthed Deadwood was fundamentally about how civilization forms because it ends up being most convenient for even the most lawless individuals.
And, really, what show on the air right now does that apply to better than The Walking Dead? Rick's in charge because he was once sheriff, and because there are far worse alternatives out there. But the weight of that mantle has often caused him to come close to falling apart, while others around him slowly rise in capability. Yet Rick's the guy everything comes back to, because he's the guy who usually makes the toughest choices.
2) Actually, come to think of it, Rick is the prototypical Western hero
Rick is far from the show's best character. He tends to be dramatically inert, and his arc largely consists of "Let's see what punishment we can heap on this guy."
But the show needs him, because he's the guy who puts the knife in Ethan Embry's brain when zombies chew Ethan Embry's face off. He's the guy who wanders around and shouts about making tough choices. He's the show's moral authority, but mostly because he's decided that's who he is.
In the show's early going, it made lots of mention of Rick's role as the "sheriff," as if that meant anything in a post-apocalyptic hellscape. And for a long time, the show's characterization of the guy seemed to boil down to the fact that he wore a sheriff-like cowboy hat, and that made him the good guy in a world full of bad guys and flesh-eating monsters.
Adjusting for our modern era's tendency to complicate morality and play around with the ambiguities of good and evil, that's not so very far from Marshal Dillon on Gunsmoke or any of the brothers on Bonanza. There are dark forces out there on the frontier, but there's also the one guy who makes the hard choices required to beat them back.
3) The zombies aren't really scary. They're mostly wild.
After six seasons on the air, it's rare that the show does a zombie scene that truly freaks me out. (I'll admit, however, that I was a little horrified by that walker whose skin ripped off in the teaser. I'm not made of stone.) The beasts have gotten a little too familiar, and familiarity is the enemy of horror. The show can still do an occasional jump scare with one of them, but even that is losing its potency.
Thus, The Walking Dead has pivoted more and more to treating the zombies as symbols of the open wilderness. As mentioned, they basically function as cattle being driven in this episode, right down to scenes where they stray off course and the heroes wearily figure out ways to drive them back on course.
In other episodes, walkers have mostly functioned as the absolute last thing you need at any given moment, the out-of-nowhere element that ups the dramatic stakes considerably. In a Western, this role was often filled by Native Americans, or some sort of cataclysmic storm, or just a gang of bank robbers that rode into town.
What makes the walkers work as all of the above is the fact that the threat they pose varies based on how many of them there are. That means when they head toward Alexandria at episode's end (drawn by the sound of a mysterious horn), they've turned from cattle being driven to a destructive tornado. They're an all-purpose metaphor for disaster.
4) The cavalry ain't coming
Yeah, it's a cliché that so many Westerns ended with the cavalry breaking over the ridge, there to save the heroes as their desperate last stand went south. But just as many Westerns were about characters who realized they were all they had and banded together to make sure they survived.
That, more or less, is what has happened over the course of this series. The many characters at the show's core come from wildly different backgrounds and walks of life, but the fact that they all survive in the midst of such immense chaos means they're always forced to draw up truces and settle disagreements quickly. This is driven home pointedly in a scene where Maggie discusses with Tara just how quickly the two could patch over the fact that they were once on opposite sides of an all-out battle that ultimately claimed the life of Maggie's father.
Indeed, that's been the idea behind almost every relationship on the show. Daryl was a redneck with a white supremacist brother, but he's now essentially Rick's right-hand man. Carol was an abuse survivor and single mother who turned herself into the biggest badass on the Eastern seaboard. Even Morgan went from broken man to warrior after realizing only he could help himself.
The absence of any larger forces has doomed so many in this world, but those who have survived have been hardened by the crucible. That's a classic idea in Westerns, particularly those that involve characters who push further west because they no longer fit within civilization.
5) The look of the show emphasizes landscapes and wide shots
If Fear the Walking Dead, the show's spinoff, is a slightly claustrophobic affair, The Walking Dead itself has never met a wide shot it didn't like. It'll use them to show off the size of a zombie horde (as with the one imprisoned in the quarry in this episode), or to show our characters hobbling up the road, headed toward whatever their next encounter is. Even the cheapest of TV Westerns did much the same, because the landscapes and vistas of the genre have always been part of its appeal.
I'm not going to lie. The Walking Dead can grow awfully repetitive, and I'm already dreading the thought of Alexandria falling and sending the characters off to find some other new place to live. (I'm hoping those walls are strong enough to hold off the horde.) But the series' sense of grim fatalism is at least earned. There isn't an episode of the show that doesn't underline how tiny these characters are in the face of everything, how insignificant they are as specks against this horrific landscape.
That, more than anything, is what keeps me coming back. The Walking Dead has been pegged, not inaccurately, as a grim, hopeless show, as a show that keeps asking what it takes to survive in this world, only to rip apart whatever fragile peace the characters find. That's a hard thing to watch, season after season.
But by building itself atop some of the most compelling bones of the TV Western, The Walking Dead has found a way to have its post-apocalyptic cake and eat it too. Yes, the series is mostly hopeless. But there's always the notion that somewhere over the next ridge is the place where the survivors might finally rest for a while, and where civilization might flourish once more. And until they get there, they'll get a little bit better at figuring out what does and doesn't work with every new iteration.
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