In The Walking Dead — the comic book series created by Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard and, later, the TV series developed by Frank Darabont — groups of characters, both organized and not, wander through the near-future zombie apocalypse. They fight (and many are killed by) “walkers” or the animated dead; as the series develops, however, they spend more time and energy fighting each other, and the threat of gruesome death-by-zombie recedes into the background, remaining a constant source of tension but no longer the center of either the comic’s or tv show’s plot.
In Michael Crichton’s (and others’) Westworld, a dystopian sci-fi series based on the celebrated 1973 film of the same name, an amusement park with sophisticated android-sim technology welcomes wealthy guests eager to play out cowboy fantasies. The androids develop consciousness, however, and so instead of wontanly fighting, robbing banks with, and having sex with the characters populating the park, many guests find themselves running from and being taken down by the extremely uncanny robotic hosts.
Both series play out the axiom of what I like to call the Depraved Humanity Thesis. While a more detailed exploration out of this axiom is beyond this the goal of this post, it is important to identify that both series are often gratuitously violent, problematize the distinction between heroes and villains, routinely break viewers’ hearts by having their most beloved characters die violent deaths and, most importantly, double down on an assumption that cooperation is fundamentally impossible — that forging alliances based on solidarity is ultimately futile. Betrayal is everywhere, deception of both self and other abounds. Characters raised in innocence lose that innocence to trauma, transforming into versions of that which they’d been fighting; sometimes, they even see this transition with perverse pleasure. The stories and trajectories of Rick Grimes, Dolores Abernathy, Carl Grimes, and William each exhibit good people turning “bad” — and there are few examples of characters developing in the opposite direction.
Interestingly, both The Walking Dead and Westworld have been referred to as neo-Western. Although they are Western-esque in different ways (Rick Grimes as a sheriff archetype often makes the case for TWD as a western; Westworld intentionally builds from and plays with a universe of cowboy movie stereotypes), such a designation also reaffirms that these series rely upon a principle of depraved humanity. The western, as a genre, has long been characterised by such a principle: for example, the equation of lawlessness and the frontier with violence rather than cooperation has fueled most, if not all, conventional western movies. Some of those have attempted to paint the “white hats” as saviors, but a fair number, especially from the second half of the 20th century, problematize the distinction between the white hats and the black hats — just like TWD and Westworld.
I don’t have any good explanations about why people like dystopian fiction and buy into the Depraved Humanity Thesis. It’s especially weird that we do this considering so much of our existence at this moment is directly compared to how we imagine the apocalypse will be: isn’t what we see happening outside our windows — or in American or global politics — enough to satisfy our disaster-porn urge? In fact, I couldn’t disagree more with John Malouff, who last year wrote a piece trying to explain our attraction to dystopian fiction. Whereas he argued that dystopian stories “help us feel better about our existing society which, even if imperfect, is far better,” I don’t feel confident that assertion is true. Malouff also suggests that “we identify with the heroes in the stories, who usually are brave and capable.” This may sometimes be the case, but these same heroes become hardened, traumatized villains or unstable vigilantes who don’t really improve the human condition.
But that being said, what do I actually know? I, myself, watch dystopian fiction all the time — even given what’s happening in the real world.