One of the most compelling elements of a zombie-centric narrative is the opportunity it affords producers to imagine social, institutional, and infrastructural orders under duress. How the world is disassembled and reconstituted—and, just as importantly, what is jettisoned, retained, and re-imagined in these processes—open up fecund spaces for tensions, commentaries, and critiques local and global in scale. The Walking Dead (TWD), AMC’s most watched original series (the mid-Season Two finale drew an estimated 6.6 million viewers according to Nielsen), is particularly interesting in this regard. It is a rare televisual iteration of the zombie narrative, and thus has access to a larger diegetic landscape than its filmic cousins. TWD also unfolds in the American South, a region of the U.S. that has come to stand in for the nation’s historically violent and systematic commitment to “race” and inequality. What becomes of this loaded term—“The South”—when a zombie apocalypse appears to collapse the institutions, infrastructures, and social relations integral to this region’s historical construction? Does this constitute a tabula rasa that breaks from the past?
As the accompanying clip from the series’ second episode (“Guts”) suggests, the show seems to foreclose such alternatives—and remain bound to history—even as it superficially gestures toward a post-apocalyptic blank slate. Merle Dixon (Michael Rooker) represents the archetypal southern white supremacist whose racialized concept of order is predicated upon violence and intimidation against myriad “others” like T-Dog (IronE Singleton). The openness with which he claims authority as the (white) “man with a gun” is a well-worn convention in depictions of overt southern racism. Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) retorts with the familiar “colorblind” model wherein race ostensibly ceases to exist. When Grimes tells Dixon that “things are different now,” he confirms the implicit link between their conflict and the historical transition from pre- to post-Civil Rights era racial discourse wherein “niggers” and “white trash” are replaced by “white meat and dark meat.” If “race” supposedly vanishes in the wake of this near extinction level event, then how does such a seemingly racialized binary—between “white meat and dark meet” and between survivor and zombie—operate within the nascent social relations of the post-apocalyptic American South? How is “race” silenced and made manifest in the show’s perpetuation of white male authority? Rick Grimes may not be Merle Dixon, but why again is he in charge?