Vague Spoilers Ahead
The best ways to deliver honest-to-God political theory to unsuspecting audiences is to misdirect them with either pungent vulgarity (e.g., Team America: World Police) or equally outrageous fantasy. The Walking Dead, a post-apocalyptic zombie serial on AMC based on a graphic novel of the same name, is no exception. A plague of zombies has wiped out most of the human race and all of the conveniences of civilization. Scattered humans survive, forced to fend for themselves against unsleeping hordes of shambling dead and against other people competing for the same scarce resources.
The compelling setup, passionate characters, and sword-and-sixgun ultraviolence drew me in. I did expected to see our heroes mow down legions of animated corpses with panache, but I did not expect to see that the show itself would be so animated by fundamental questions from the western canon of political theory. The questions are simple: what does the social world look like with no political authority? do we have moral obligations to other human beings in the absence of this authority? The Walking Dead channels two long-dead philosophers to present competing visions of the situation of humanity without law, order, and civilization. These visions, states of nature, are articulated with stunning clarity in the Two Treatises of Government of John Locke and the Leviathan of Thomas Hobbes. Locke and Hobbes, who flourished in the 17th century, are two of the most important figures of English political thought. A little sensitivity to how these questions are asked and the competing ideas play out heightens appreciation of the show’s ambition and grandeur. TWD is not the first television fantasy to explore larger philosophical questions self-consciously. It is no accident that an important character from Lost is named Locke.
Locke and Hobbes inspire the conflict between the protagonist, ex-lawman Rick Grimes and his eventual antagonist, former partner Shane Walsh. This conflict, both deeply personal and abstractly political, can only end in violence. The resolution and its aftermath taint Rick forever, and we, the audience, are never really sure what the show thinks the situation of humanity actually is. I’ll explore this conflict in four parts. Stay tuned.
Season 5 Episode 9 (“What Happened and What’s Going On”) takes place long after the conflict between Rick and Shane. But this conflict reverberates. This episode reminds us that not every character has completely worked out what he thinks the reality of the post-zombie social world is or what his place in that world is. Tyreese, the emergent moral hero of TWD, has a brief conversation with Noah, who joined Rick’s battle-hardened itinerants after they had another disastrous encounter with a permanent human settlement whose veneer of order concealed a rotten core. The band made a difficult exchange in a hostage situation that had fatal results. Noah and Tyreese chat about their recent catastrophe to kill some time on a long, dehydrating road trip.
Noah: I’ve been wanting to tell you something.Tyreese: What’s that?Noah: The trade. It was the right play. It worked. It did work. Just something else happened after.Tyreese: It went the way it had to. The way it was always going to.Noah: I never wanted to kill anybody before.Tyreese: I’ve wanted that. But it just made it so I didn’t see anything except what I wanted. I wasn’t facing it.Noah: Facing what?Tyreese: What happened, what’s going on. My dad always told Sasha and me that it was our duty as citizens of the world to keep up with the news. When I was little and I was in his car, there were always those stories on the radio. Something happens 1,000 miles away or down the block. Some kind of horror I couldn’t even wrap my head around. But he didn’t change the channel. He didn’t turn it off. He just kept listening. To face it. Keeping your eyes open. My dad always called that paying the high cost of living.
While they speak and Tyreese drives the van, Noah idly handles a now-useless compact disc.
At the end of the conversation, Noah crushes the CD in his hands.
Tyreese is the gentle giant of TWD. He defends the weak, loves his family completely, and sacrificed himself (but did not perish) in battle to save the life of a beloved child that wasn’t even his. Not even Rick is more benevolent than Tyreese, who would rather be himself betrayed than betray another human being. Only now does he recognize the remorseless logic of “what is going on,” and that the engagement with another human petty civilization ended in death, “the way it was always going to.” Tyreese perceives the essential tragedy of human relations in a world without order. This is the state of nature. As Thomas Hobbes puts it in the Leviathan:
“…during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man”.
There is no law, there is no morality, and there is no justice. There are no human aims but security, and in order to achieve that security,
“I put for the general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceases only in death.”
People don’t even have to seek the immoderate power of the vainglorious or megalomaniac, they need merely the power to ensure their security both at the present time and for as far in the future as they can project. But every person in this “state of war” anticipates that every other person is trying to acquire “power after power,” such that all other people either possess potential resources or are potential threats to their own security. Every person decides for herself what she needs, how much she needs, and by what means she might acquire it. She knows that others are trying to augment their own power to guarantee their future security, so her very existence implies that she will be caught up in an arms race that she never chose and probably doesn’t even want. Interactions with other human beings inevitably devolve into conflict: a person anticipates that it is in the self-interest of others to betray her before she has a chance to betray them, so she preemptively betrays any other person and everyone knows that this outcome is inevitable. Consequently…
“In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing, such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
Tyreese realizes after the fact that there never was any hope for a successful exchange of hostages. The violent death didn’t occur because things went unpredictably sideways, or as Noah says, “something else happened after.” It happened the way it did because as Tyreese sees it now, violent death is the only possible outcome.
Before Noah is convinced, he considers the nameless CD in his hands. This CD presumably stores music, an art and a “culture of the earth.” To appreciate the fruits of this culture, one must spin the disc in an “instrument of moving” that “requires force”, “knowledge of the face of the earth”, and an “account of time.” As Noah is gradually persuaded by Tyreese, he squeezes the CD sees for himself how easily the fruits of our industry crumple under a modicum of a different kind of force. We haven’t seen such a stark Hobbesian view of the tragedy of humanity without authoritative order since Shane in Season 2. Tyreese’s moral journey is complete, and this anticipates his even more consequential journey to come. At least for awhile, Shane and Hobbes walk again to remind us that, at least if we believe Hobbes, cooperation among people in the state of nature simply delays the inevitable.