Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Walking Dead explores the last taboo by hinting at cannibalism in season five

Sunday's "A" episode of The Walking Dead had what looked like a
slaughtering pit filled with human skeletons. I could be wrong though.
If there is insecurity in my writing, it's that the things that I like to read or watch broach subjects so hard-hitting and in ways that are so real, that I doubt my own abilities to recreate the same. I think I'll never be able to evoke this kind of emotion. Take dark fiction as an example. Everyone knows that I'm a fan, especially when it comes to science fiction that takes on a horror twist. When I'm engrossed in these kinds of stories, inevitably I compare them to my own works. The little voice inside pipes up and says, "Your stuff is boring compared to this." Maybe it's just an uncomfortable truth; I guess only a lifetime of writing will give me the perspective to answer this to my liking.

Cormac McCarthy published The Road in 2006. It's a post-apocalyptic story where a father and his young son (over a period of several months) cross a landscape languishing in the fall of civilization. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2007. In thinking of the blasted environs of The Road I am reminded of the sardonic voice of Tyrion Lannister in George R.R. Martin's magnum opus, A Clash of Kings. Tyrion at one point turns to his "beloved" sister Cersei and says, “A day will come when you think yourself safe and happy, and suddenly your joy will turn to ashes in your mouth, and you'll know the debt is paid."

In The Road, there is no debt to pay unless it is to the unnamed sins of the survivors who are ambiguous in the insistence that they are the good guys. The land is ashes, it is devoid of living animals and vegetation, and many of the remaining human survivors are cannibals, scavenging the detritus of city and country for flesh to eat. The horrors they face include seeing a newborn infant roasted on a spit and captives being gradually harvested for food.

This is the kind of darkness that has come to The Walking Dead whether by caveat that it was always this way and we were in denial, or whether it was driven in this direction because it is exhausting its ability to continually shock the audience. In either case by the close of season four Rick, Michonne, his young son Carl, and the other survivors reached "the end of the line" at Terminus, are now imprisoned in a rail car painted with an "A" (by what we can presume are cannibals), and are in a heap of trouble.

Is it disturbing how effectively Scott Gimple has been able to build attachment in these characters? Disturbing, yes but also brilliant. It's hard for me to not squirm in my seat. The creepiness of Terminus makes the Governor look tame. I can only imagine that next season will probably be a grotesque blood bath, with amputations being done via tourniquet because the world has no refrigeration. In other words, the living monsters are alive while they eat you (and probably discussing the day's business and how much they miss Facebook). The hints have been strong, from the constant barbecuing of meat when there are no animals around, to what looks like a slaughter pit filled with the bloody skeletal remains of butchered humans (shown only briefly on screen), and the strange foreshadowing of the rabbit trap.

And what about previous episodes? Remember this painting? Contrast it with the appearance of Mary, the woman we met at Terminus played by Denise Crosby, a.k.a. Tasha Yar from Star Trek: The Next Generation.
The image (posted on Reddit) suggests that Michonne and Carl were in this lady's house. Take a look at the hair, the layers of clothing, and remember the bloodbath in the nursery. There was also a picture of a dog on the wall that looks eerily similar to the dog that distracted Daryl and led to Beth's kidnapping. 
The dog on the wall behind Carl looks a lot like the one-eyed dog in
the episode that resulted in Beth's kidnapping.
The theme for this season's The Walking Dead has pretty much been "internal monsters." It isn't too much of a stretch to imagine that the food on Mary's barbecue is human (probably Beth's and that makes me sad). Unfortunately, these events also parallel those that occur in The Walking Dead comic book, a.k.a. the appearance of "The Hunters" that I mentioned in a post last week. This leads me to the next question: what is it about cannibalism that we find so terrifying? Perhaps it's the idea of being someone else's food, and that we can imagine those around us adopting this lifestyle were times to get tough. Yes, you read that last line right. Your neighbors are perfectly capable of eating you if they were starving.

According to a new poll from the Society for Progressive Meat, I learned that 10% of Americans would consider eating humans while a measly 3% would consider going all vegan. 2,500 respondents were polled over a two-week period. Interesting eh? Admittedly, this poll was commissioned by an organization associated with efforts to introduce human meat to the mainstream. So there's no doubt that the members of this society get their buddies to drive up the numbers similar to how bloggers get their followers to do the same on goodreads (should I be disturbed that there's a society devoted to cannibalism?) But the study does seem to point to an unsettling fact: many of us could become monsters if the situation warranted it.

I suppose it shouldn't surprise me that The Walking Dead is exploring this last human taboo. It's arguably one of the components that led Forbes to declare the season finale "the most watched hour ever." Zombies have been chomping down on humans through four seasons now, so why should it be any different when those humans are actually alive? For me it has to do with the horror of a reality check in which there is no sanctuary at all in a society that utterly collapses. Without some measure of trust, society is impossible. After all, how can you trust anyone who could possibly view you as dinner?

I've got to hand it to the likes of The Walking Dead. The story (in my opinion) is part of a select group of fiction I label "the best in the business." Can something be so good that it actually discourages you in your own ambitions? I think so.

This post is part of the Insecure Writer's Support Group collective. Go HERE to find out more.


  1. Great the population is already dwindling from zombies and these lazy idiots are killing some of the few humans left. They'd probably think I was great eating, though I was wondering yesterday when watching Game of Thrones and they talked about eating the fat soldier from the wall whether fat people would really be that good to eat. I mean you'd have to think most of me would be fat, but then maybe that would seal in the juices of the meat that's left.

    When I was in Traverse City they had one of those exhibits where they show human bodies that have been taken apart and injected with silicone or whatever to preserve them. Basically human meat when you don't color it looks grayish like turkey or chicken. Ie, you probably taste like chicken.

  2. I noticed that screen shot in that episode, too. And spent the whole time leading up to that shot yelling, "It's a trap!" And then made a couple of Soylent Green references for good measure.

    Because I'm cool like that.

  3. @Pat: Are you watching the show? It sounds like you are!

    @M.J.: It's fun to second guess where stories are going.

  4. I just got my hands on copies of the first three seasons of "The Walking Dead" and I'm planning on beginning the series this weekend, so I'll postpone reading this post until later. Thanks.

  5. If you're referring to Game of Thrones, I'm watching Season 3 this week because it's free on Comcast. Then I'd have to wait until next year to watch Season 4, lol.

  6. Hope to catch up a bit as soon as my schedule allows. Which should be sometime after 2015...

    On a positive not, I loved The Road. The movie was pretty good, which makes me want to pick up the book.

  7. Haven't seen this season yet. Time to binge watch!

    Moody Writing

  8. Great post! This episode was amazing on so many levels. I know there is always the element of shock value, but this was the perfect cap to that idea of the living being the true monsters. Rick kills his enemy by biting his throat, yet this is less disturbing than what's happening at Terminus. And the writer in me loved Rick explaining the rabbit trap as a foreshadowing of how the episode will end. These writers really have a grip on the viewers' emotions.

  9. I'm so glad I quit watching, this is just too much!

  10. I'm always drawn to different. I'll have to add the Road to my TBR. Dark often seems richer, doesn't it?

  11. What? Are there no rats left? Do zombies eat rats? Or other animals?

  12. Now I'm glad I'm not watching that show. I'm way too squeamish for that. Enough so that right now I feel the need to wash out my brain with bleach just to get the images out.

    I wouldn't worry about not being good enough. The fact that you are drawn to this sort of story means that you probably should write it. It'll just take some practice to get to the level of competency that you want. If you aren't there already. We tend to be hypercritical of our own work. You're better than you think you are (but not as good as you want to'll get there).

  13. I so don't want to see that episode -- I have such a low gross-out factor. But to give it and The Road credit, they are exploring the dark side of humanity.

    Sure, I've come across writing and stories so good I'm very intimidated as a writer, and when I saw the play The Laramie Project I knew I would never be able to write such astonishingly good dialogue. But you know what? None of the dialogue was fiction; instead it was quoting real people verbatim. So sometimes in our daily lives we can be that good.

    And Michael, my dear, you are more than good enough to keep writing. So keep on writing your wonderful stories!

  14. I do think something can be so good it "discourages you in your own ambitions." I frequently will read something, or watch a show, that makes me wish I could be that good at dialogue or world building.

    And I can be so rude sometimes I worry that I'm already equipped for the apacalypse- zombie or otherwise.

    The world grows more callous by the year. I'd love it to be simpler, but progress demands a sacrifice. Well, shit happens, right?


  15. I have seen The Road and two other post-apocalyptic films, I am Legend and World War Z. I have not seen The Walking Dead yet, though. I've heard so much about it! I think I must get Season 1 on DVD :)

  16. I think cannibalism is so scary because there's no distinction between your companions/group/friends and what you eat. How do you decide who you care about and who you eat?