As many others are experiencing the grief associated with the loss of beloved characters and stories, I have reached the stage of acceptance: Game of Thrones is over, the highly anticipated Winter finally arrived, and the Long Night began and ended in a single day.
This acceptance, however, has come at the cost of sleepless nights, unsatisfactory explanations, and unpleasant implications. My chief grief amongst many is how a television show that made fans wait an entire two years between seasons, aware of the palpable tensions in the world and high expectations of viewers, failed to follow through on the single most important and far most menacing threat: the Night King and his army of ice zombie White Walkers. Last we saw, an ice zombie dragon destroyed the single physical barrier between a tireless undead army and the entire civilization of Westeros. This was no peripheral story—even the first scene of the entire series opens on a White Walker attack in the forest beyond the Wall. It is the single encounter that prefaces the introduction of any character, backstory, or drama.
Even in 2011, the world was more than aware of the implications of this event, the confrontation between humans and the unstoppable exponential existential threat of nature and its imminent collapse. The turn of the decade saw a cluster of high-profile zombie dystopias, including Zombieland (2009), World War Z (2013), and the first season of The Walking Dead (2010), building off the momentum of slightly smaller films that became cult favorites and profitable franchises, like 28 Days Later (2002), Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Resident Evil (2002). The zombie was no longer relegated to the horror genre, and its symbolic representations of real worldly threats became all the more clear on screen, from catastrophic climate change to humanity’s fragility.
The zombie plague provides a new setting, a clean slate, a fantasy of restructuring society, surviving against the odds, or indulging violent impulses. Though you may not be a Resident Evil Alice-type with superpowers, the fate of the world might rest in your hands. Perhaps you will even find yourself in a Maggie/Glen situation–a “not-until-you-are-the-last-person-on-earth” hook-up turned true love story, or create a new chosen family a-la Zombieland in order to navigate the horrors of life with a sense of humor.
In each case, the zombie apocalypse must have its heroes who invariably have to deal with the guilt of surviving and then act on the desire to seek some sort of justice, whether it is an explanation or a cure. There are many causes of a zombie virus: secret government conspiracy to control the population, secret evil corporation creating biological chaos, or sometimes just natural selection and evolution leading to an accidental agent of death.
The cure can be just as varied: an underground government deploying a coordinated military, a corporation reverse-engineering and marketing a vaccine, or nature selecting those with immunity to rebuild society. However, long before movies and television gave us these formulas, it is worth considering the origins of the zombie and how it has changed over time.
“Zombies” as we understand them today were born out of the mixing of various African belief systems and practices during the slave trade in Haiti. In some of these conceptions of the afterlife, death by any means would allow a person to return home so long as the body remained intact. Plantation owners, fearing the loss of capital and labor to suicide, would cut off the heads of the deceased so that the spirits would be unable to return to their lost homes. Instead, the dead were stranded, eternally displaced. The message was clear: after death, there is no going back, as for slaves and so with the world.
Voudou practices have developed varying conceptions of what a zombie is and the rules it follows, but it is rarely the mindless brain-eating and diseased kind seen on screens. These are the product of a later necessity to understand the difference between life and death, with an emphasis on what it means to be alive and to “live;” is it conformity and consumption, power and preparedness, or random chance of circumstance?
In any case, there is a certain human inability to deal with death, be comfortable with its inevitability, and accept it as necessary and not inherently bad. A zombie, however, underscores the fragility and impermanence of the human body and the possibility of the afterlife being a distinctly restless eternity. This fear of death (and the undead who are dead and bring death) prevents people from expanding their perspective beyond the immediate vicinity and forming a real conception of how accumulating consequences irreversibly alter the future.
As quickly as a zombie apocalypse can envelop the world, climate change has evolved from fashionable point of interest to imminent environmental collapse. I cannot even name the ways and means by which I expect the world to be dead in twelve years but I feel quite certain that it will happen. The problem is too expansive, encompassing, and formidable. It is much easier to focus on the smaller-scale struggles of xenophobia, bigotry, and doomed power struggles—which is not to say they are not tied to and responsible for climate change.
Colonialism and capitalism are intrinsically tied to the exploitation of resources and labor, displacement of indigenous communities and loss of generational knowledge that have escalated the destruction of the planet. Inside every wave of nationalist and isolationist policy there is the underlying threat of resource scarcity leading to war and environmental disaster leading to forced migration. It feels safer on the inside of the Wall but its existence does not prevent the world from ending. Walls can only reinforce racist and bigoted beliefs and fabricate the illusion of safety and superiority.
As governments, corporations, and individuals struggle to see human beings as living things of equal value, zombies are ambling back into the mainstream. Zombieland 2 will be released in the coming year and The Walking Dead has yet to reach a conclusion. The world will always find a new way to capitalize on the poetic potential of the zombie. The zombie is right on the dividing line between human and other, and depending on the scale, can speak to even larger questions. Ultimately, the failure of the Battle of Winterfell was a failure in relevancy. Westeros was almost united by the threat of an unstoppable enemy. What is the point of a game when there is an actual zombie army poised to kill every living person and add them to the army? More importantly, what is the point of twelve million people tuning in (and millions more streaming) to watch the inevitable confrontation?
If pop culture truly has the ability to convey the values of a generation, it seems rather morbid that, after surviving the brink of an apocalypse, our beloved characters in Game of Thrones returned back to nursing old grudges and fabricating new dramas as though they had missed the existential precariousness of the situation. However, there is no story if the White Walkers win and the Night King conquers the world. We do not have the luxury of knowing what comes after our battle, nor can we hope that it will be so easy or quick.
Climate disasters are only increasing in frequency. More people will be displaced as the climate changes; diseases will spread amongst the vaccinated and anti-vaxxers alike. Television is a small but necessary distraction from feeling hopeless, angry, and scared. But where the zeitgeist fails us, there is always a new tide of cultural product to fill the void. The last decade has seen movement away from dystopian dread and towards imagined alternatives of sci-fi surrealism with probable futures and actionable solutions.
From Wall-E to Interstellar, films are dealing with the possible outcomes of climate disaster that, rather than revel in the disaster, begin to imagine solutions. Avatar’s blue Pandora planet of indigenous communities defeats their military colonizers. Her makes technology a tool for exploring the vastness of human connection rather than the symbol of social death. Mad Max: Fury Road takes the peak of misogynistic gratuitously violent franchises and reframes it with a group of women overthrowing the male-dominated social hierarchy to begin the process of healing a ravaged planet. Technology, science, research, a self-governed people and community-based lifestyle might just make the planet habitable and humans better, but not without the hard work and labor of imagining that future first.