In the Daily Beast’s estimation, “The Walking Dead,” which began its seventh season October 23 on AMC, “just isn’t fun anymore.”
They have a point. The show may have once been an over-the-top, cartoonish, violent bit of escapist fantasy, but as soon as the second season, it became clear that behind all that award-winning makeup and special effects lay a nihilistic heart. As one character told Rick, the protagonist played by Andrew Lincoln, “I can’t profess to understand God’s plan, but Christ promised the resurrection of the dead. I just thought he had something a little different in mind.”
This nihilism, and not the violence, is why (as I told BreakPoint listeners via Eric Metaxas) I gave up on “The Walking Dead,” along with “Game of Thrones.” Gratuitous violence, and to a certain extent, nudity, can be dealt with, albeit imperfectly, with your fast-forward button. But, to paraphrase St. Paul, against a story steeped in nihilism there is no remote control.
Now, this could be seen as good news: Time formerly devoted to watching television could be used for reading. Unfortunately, a lot of the fiction that I might want to read for entertainment seems to have caught the nihilism virus.
Case in point: I just finished reading “World of Trouble,” the final installment in Ben H. Winters’ “The Last Policeman” trilogy. The series is set in the months, weeks, and days leading up to the collision between Earth and an asteroid—officially designated “Asteroid 2011GV1,” a.k.a. “Maia” —the size of the one believed to have caused the K-T extinction event, which wiped out, among others, the dinosaurs.
Now to complain about the bleak atmosphere of Winters’ story would be silly. It is about, as R.E.M. famously sang, “the end of the world as we know it.” But even by this standard, Winters’ tale is utterly devoid of hope. His protagonist, Henry Palace, the “last policeman” of the title, is the literary equivalent of the Dementors in the Harry Potter novels: Spending time in his presence sucks the joy, cheer, and hope right out of you.
Palace is a good man but one who has given up all hope of, well, anything. He spends the better part of 900 pages trying to solve a case, even though there is no one to try or punish the guilty.
Even worse, this lack of hope, and the passivity it produces, seems to have infected the entire world. We read about all sorts of responses to the impending collision—people checking off boxes on their “bucket lists,” heading to the proverbial hills, etc.—but we never hear about an attempt to do something, even if it’s futile, about the impending collision. Humanity goes out with a whimper that renders the bang almost superfluous.
None of this should be taken as a criticism of Winters’ writing, which is superb. The problem isn’t his storytelling—it’s the story he’s telling. And it’s a story coming to a television near you.
It doesn’t have to be this way. A story set in a dystopian setting doesn’t have to be devoid of hope. A few months ago, I told you about Justin Cronin’s “Passage Trilogy.” Cronin’s tale about “the girl who saves the world” takes place in a world like “The Walking Dead’s”: a relative handful of human survivors surrounded by a sea of monsters.
In this world, some people behave nobly and others behave badly. Most people oscillate between the two. Beloved characters die and are mourned, by readers as well the other characters. But Cronin’s world—which, based on both the evidence of the text and extra-textual evidence, I suspect is shaped by his Catholicism—has something that other dystopian fare lacks: hope.
After all, it’s a story about “the girl who saves the world.”
Hope isn’t the same thing as a “happy ending.” What it means is that the suffering isn’t pointless. Whereas, as the Daily Beast put it, “events in [‘The Walking Dead’] mostly plod on endlessly from one torment to the next, from one false safe haven to the next Big Bad,” in “The Passage” they are steps in a journey by which the girl saves the world.
Mind you, by the time the world is saved, we are down to what the Bible might call a remnant, probably fewer than the world depicted in “The Walking Dead.” But that’s enough, provided you have hope.
I don’t demand, much less expect, that everything I watch or read be “fun.” But if all you have to offer is “nothing more than pure, concentrated human pain and misery,” then, as my son likes to say, “No, thanks.”
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