the walking dead as time travel, continuum, about-ness, and plot

Hey, quick blog-related note. I know that I promised a link to my Barefoot Contessa essay over at the Brattle Film Notes blog. It’s not up yet, but I’ll post on here as soon as it is. Here’s an essay on something else to tide you over until the arrival of that other piece, which I know you have been waiting to read with bated breath and suffering many sleepless nights over. Please, please, don’t do anything rash in the meantime, and thanks for reading.

Update: Here’s that link to the essay link, finally. But rest assured I will still allow you to read the essay below, as well.

Probably more than with any other show, my relationship to The Walking Dead could be described as an addiction. As I watched the third season this past week, I became aware of the almost existential dilemma it creates. On the one hand, I am gripped by the desire to see what happens next, with the visceral reaction that entails. On the other hand, by the time the plot has played out and the show ends, it occurs to me that what I was waiting for could be described as mere information — I wanted to find out who would live and who would die, and that’s about all.

Anyway, after some 12 hours watching season 3, I have had lots of time to cogitate on whether the show is about something more.

(This video is, err, not for the faint of heart:)

I mean, duh, the show is about the characters. But if you were to say that, I would want to reply, in my best/worst stoner voice, “No, man, but what is the show about?” The emphasis on “about” would be an attempt, maybe inarticulately, to explain that what I really want to know is how the show represents the world and what it’s like to look through its porthole view onto the universe. Which aspects of existence, besides the gut-clenching tension of watching people barely survive, does the show remind me to think about?

You could say The Godfather is about the mob and the moral progress (or regress) of Michael Corleone, yet it’s also “about” power and ethnicity in America. Vertigo is about a man enmeshed in a murderous conspiracy, but it’s really “about” obsession. Back to the Future is ostensibly about Marty McFly’s adventures, but actually it’s just “about” having fun. Star Wars is popular not only because it’s a rousing adventure with cowboys and princesses, but because pretty much everyone has a complex about their parents of some sort, and that’s what Star Wars is really “about” (unless you think it’s about the politics of the Galactic Senate, Darth Vader sulking, and blood infections that give you magic powers, in which case, boy do I have the trilogy for you).

I’m frankly not sure if I believe a movie or a TV show can be “about” its plot — maybe that just means it’s nothing more than its sequence of reveals — but either way, I feel like many TV shows are. Even quality cable dramas often seem to revolve around plot twists, even ones where the characterization is fantastic, as it indeed is on many of the most touted shows.

But I can think of some counterexamples that suggest that a show can be “about” more. I’ve already sung the praises of Game of Thrones, but more recently I’ve also felt like Continuum has managed to be about more than its plot. Granted, it takes some watching to realize this, since on its surface it’s primarily about Kiera, a woman cop from the year 2077 but sent back in time to 2012 along with a bunch of terrorists. (Somebody should do or ought to have done a comparative study of the different kinds of explosions-but-not-explosions that accompany time travel in TV and film. If they do, they should call them “chronosplosions” and credit me for creating this term. Kind of sad to say I’m only half joking about the credit thing.)

Continuum actually works quite well if you grant it a few fairly innocuous concessions, such as, of course, the whole concept of time travel in general. It handles time travel unusually well, though: One of Kiera’s first discussions in our time is with the teenage version of her future boss, and he immediately explains that there are two kinds of time travel and they ought to figure out which is occurring — one of the very time-travel best practices I had recommended in an early post, not having seen the show.

Other details are not explained but relatively minor. To take the most obvious example, you’ll need to overlook the runway-ready looks of supposedly gritty terrorists, several of whom have the near-perfect complexions of the genetically gifted, not to mention brunch-ready outfits straight out of a GAP commercial.

All of that taken as given, you could look at the show first as about Kiera’s journey to get back to her family, and on that score it’s probably a little banal. Beyond that, however, Continuum also explicitly raises big questions about politics and society. Its terrorists, though easily condemned for their deadly methods, often seem like they might be on the right side of the fight against a future where everything is controlled by corporations; Continuum is one of the few shows I can think of that dares to talk about the privatization of America. Moreover, it’s not an idea that’s quickly glossed over, but central to the core conflict, and the show’s development is in large part about Kiera’s gradual realization that she might be a pawn of a nefarious corporate regime.

I can’t think of anything nearly as trenchant or relevant to 2013 in The Walking Dead. There are some arguments about loyalty and ideas of democracy, but they’re slight. Since there is no great social structure in the show for the characters to criticize or engage with, the show is essentially about modern people thrown into humanity’s prehistoric past, when there were exceedingly few of us, a kind of time travel to our collective past. It’s an interesting speculative exercise, but one that doesn’t feel very relevant to the real world, where underpopulation hasn’t been an issue since, well, ever. On occasion WD deals with the possibility that the undead still have some humanity, but that issue was almost entirely ignored in the third season, for example, having been briefly raised but then about as quickly dismissed.

For all this, sometimes I wonder if The Walking Dead is merely one of the very best examples of an entertainment that really is about its plot and the emotional lives of its characters. Maybe it’s just about experiencing and identifying with the vicissitudes of the characters without “meaning” anything more than that. Can a TV show — or, for that matter, a movie — just be its plot? Even that’s what The Walking Dead is, for a few days it consumed me in a way that feels bigger than most anything else it could ever be “about.”

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