Deus Ex Machina vs Chaos Ex Machina: The Walking Dead and Problems of Post-Apocalyptic Geography

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Disclaimer and spoiler alert: This review covers seasons one to five of The Walking Dead TV show and not the Robert Kirkman-created comic book series. As such, the text will contain some plot spoilers for the main arcs, and any replication of plot points originating with Kirkman should not absolve the TV writers of responsibility for their own plot structures. Equally, this is not a comparison of the post-apocalyptic geography of the two mediums. I should also preface this critique with the statement that I love, and find myself massively immersed in, this show, and so any deconstruction of the problematic elements of The Walking Dead’s geography is the result of deep connection to the characters within it. As the season five finale has just aired in the UK, I thought this would be a good time to briefly analyse why geography is a problem for any long-form narrative with such a post-apocalyptic premise, as has been demonstrated in seasons one to five.

It was not until the show’s third season that I began to notice the scripted references to geography and some problems of what Aristotle would call the improbable or contradictory. Once an audience has made the leap of faith in believing the mechanism by which our fictional world has become apocalyptic, the screenwriter must, as in the case of The Walking Dead, build realistic depictions of a likely decay to modern society. And with this show there is a beautiful, tragic logic to the demographic change inherent in the (initially secreted) apocalyptic mechanism, season to season—as Rick discovers at the CDC in season one, even if one escapes the teeth of a walker, every natural death suffers a grotesque rebirth, so that humans decrease and zombies increase, human communities becoming disparate islands in seas of the dead.

Rosita Espinosa (Christian Serratos), Dr. Eugene Porter (Josh McDermitt) and Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) - The Walking Dead _ Season 4, Episode 15 - Photo Credit: Gene Page/AMC

Photo Credit: Gene Page/AMC

By season five I recorded a distinct triumvirate of strategies for dealing with plot and geography. Even recognizing the limitations of budget and set for any TV series, I joked that season three’s town of Woodbury seemed to be one street located within four miles of the prison, yet neither community knows of the other’s presence until a succession of random events means characters collide and pass back and forth. As an example, look at the script for the Woodbury scenes and you will see that the wilderness between the two oases of Woodbury and the prison is deemed considerable and arduous. Yet, we are expected to accept various improbable interplays such as the collision of Merle, Michonne, Maggie and Glenn in the red zone in the sixth episode. I would estimate this improbability is heightened by the necessity for a second-by-second precision to allow Michonne to witness the kidnapping without actively being seen by Merle. Give season three another viewing and you will find many more geographically challenging meetings. This is the “chaos” of the review’s title.

Season four sees the development of what I believe must be a plot device intended to eliminate these chaotic improbabilities. The separation by post-apocalyptic terrain is a recurrent plot problem. The essence of this problem is that, as with many genres, our beloved characters desire safety, but the needs of the story dictate that this is to be an elusive goal. At each “oasis” Rick finds (his improbable coma-cocoon of safety, temporary camp, the CDC, the farm, the prison), he must be driven out, back into the wilderness. And all of Rick’s extended “family” are separated as well,  but the method used to remedy this is a geographical arrow, the rail line to Terminus. This gives a simple and ominous logic to the season finale, yet the method should not convince any reasonable viewer that the trek there would likely deliver every member of the group alive, almost simultaneously in the same rail car.

aaronappearsdeusexmachinaSeason five plays a completely different angle. There are again structural problems, such as Beth’s rescue subplot and a geographically improbable return of Lennie, albeit with a map to guide him, but most interesting is the subversion of Rick and co.’s agency by symbolic religious intervention. Father Gabriel’s church is the typical oasis, yet poetically, or ironically, they are driven from this in what must be seen as religious symbolism; pushed to their darkest hour following the deaths of three of their number, the central protagonists question the meaning of their struggle. The writing then verges on magical realism with the end of the storm, fortuitous fallen trees taking out walkers. The character Aaron emerges from nowhere, simultaneous with a broken music box’s resurrection, as an almost literal deus ex machina, immaculately clean and suspiciously benign, bearing gifts. The question they had asked of their journey is answered by a new oasis thrown into their laps—the greatest oasis yet, Alexandria.

The search for an environmental oasis has deep evolutionary roots, beyond hominid and into our distant mammalian past, as Reg Monroe conveys to Maggie in the approach to his own tragic terminus (pun intended!). He suggests the “caveman” died out in part due to his nomadic nature, a comment that intersects strongly with the writers intentions in setting up the “Rick and co. versus the effete Alexandrians” narrative mirror. Rick manages to sabotage his own salvation, with the help of Carol’s machinations, of course, almost comically soon, yet while we await season six we can ask: how will they be driven away from this oasis? And please, oh please, let them never be safe!

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Lee Lightfoot
About Lee Lightfoot (24 Articles)
Lee Lightfoot (President & Publisher) is an artist from East Yorkshire, UK, working predominantly in narrative art. He studied a BA in Fine Art before a three-year part-time MA in Popular Culture, the last two years a specialism in cinema, and a dissertation on body horror cinema. In 2011 he founded Black Ship Books to pursue his interest in narrative. Lee has also worked on concept art for small film production companies, and has provided art for numerous sketch card series, including Cryptozoic’s The Walking Dead series and Upper Deck’s Marvel Premier cards.

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