‘The Walking Dead’ writers show just how ‘terrorist’ boogeymen are created
In discussing the mid-season finale of AMC’s outstanding post-apocalyptic zombie series, “The Walking Dead,” it’s rather necessary to take a brief detour back to 18th century France and into the origins of terrorism itself. It’s an interesting fact of history that the word and concept of “terrorism” has its origins in the French Revolution’s “reign of terror,” when heads were lopped off in most theatrical, grandiose fashion. As schoolchildren we most likely all heard of Maximilien de Robespierre, one of the French Revolution’s most committed and, as it were, “bloodthirsty” leaders. Our teachers may even have outlined the “Reign of Terror” as a historical footnote to the establishment of a French republic, but we were never taught the darkness at its rotting heart.
In July of 1793 Robespierre was elected to the Committee on Public Safety (sounds rather like the Department of Homeland Security, does it not?). He was co-equal with his fellow eight committee members but his skill in oratory enhanced his standing and visibility. Writing in his report The Principles of Political Morality, Robespierre stated:
If virtue be the spring of a popular government in times of peace, the spring of that government during a revolution is virtue combined with terror: virtue, without which terror is destructive; terror, without which virtue is impotent. Terror is only justice prompt, severe and inflexible; it is then an emanation of virtue; it is less a distinct principle than a natural consequence of the general principle of democracy, applied to the most pressing wants of the country … The government in a revolution is the despotism of liberty against tyranny.
In short, Robespierre thought that the virtue of republican government justified the use of terror. And so the blood flowed during the Reign of Terror; so much so that there was a revolution against he and the Jacobins. The point in all this is that the inception of terrorism as an idea, a tactic, and a word came about to describe state action. When we see anti-American foreign protesters or American activists at home (mostly on the Left but from some Libertarian circles as well) we often see the phrase “state terrorism” used to describe US action abroad. The French revolutionaries may have defined terrorism tactically and gave it a name, but the tactic existed long before the late 18th century. The Romans for instance described attacks from the Cimbri, a Germanic tribe, as “terror cimbricus.” And during the American Civil War, General William Tecumseh Sherman’s March to the Sea was nothing if not a sustained act of terrorism; though history has mostly absolved him because his efforts in the campaign helped preserve the fragile American union.
Terrorism in its modern form took root during the early days of anarchism, when governments and headline-seeking newspapers rushed to describe anarchists as bomb-chucking wreckers of civilization. Now it’s mostly deployed to describe Islamo-fascists like al Qaeda and the like. If one hears the word “terrorist” they’re likely to picture an Arab-looking man with a turban, a beard and robes, hunkered inside a cave delivering speeches through shitty cameras. Thanks to Bush and the US government after 9/11, the Islamo-fascist terrorist attained the useful propandistic heights imagined in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four—an ever-present threat that must be met with endless war for security’s sake.
Now, onto The Walking Dead and its use of the “terrorist” boogeymen. [SPOILER ALERT]
Sunday’s mid-season finale, “Made to Suffer,” was as dynamic as anything written and filmed in the series to date. The plot was simple: Rick Grimes & Gang, including samurai sword-wielding Michonne, made for the walled dystopia of Woodbury—led by the charismatic and complex leader the Governor—to free Glenn and Maggie from detention.
To protect Woodbury and to preserve his own ambitions of power, the Governor has shown himself to be both ruthless and cunning—slaughtering a small outpost of Army soldiers, then delivering soothingly paternalistic speeches to his Woodbury flock in the aftermath. He also keeps his zombie daughter Penny chained, hooded and confined behind bars as he waits for researcher Milton to find a cure and otherwise unravel the mystery of the zombie apocalypse. That, or he just has a real problem letting go. The Governor, in a character quirk (to put it lightly) worthy of Saddam Hussein and his sons, keeps a wall of fish aquariums inside of which lie decapitated zombie heads. He tells Andrea they were there to remind him of the horrors that lie beyond Woodbury, but one gets the impression that some sadistic impulse drives him to stare at those submerged heads whilst drinking whisky.
When Merle captures Glenn and Maggie as the two lovers are out searching for baby formula in Episode 6 “Hounded (following Lori’s death and Rick’s mental vacation), we catch our first glimpse of the neoconservative, Bush-era man inside the Governor. It turns out that the Dear Leader has his own private Guantanamo in one of Woodbury’s various small town buildings, with the sadistic Merle as point man on torture. That is not to say that the Governor avoids interrogation. He uses the threat of sexual violence to drive Maggie to the brink; but it’s only when he throws her into a room with the battered Glenn, threatening to kill him, that Maggie caves and gives up the location of Rick & company’s prison domesticity. ‘Twas a very extraordinary rendition of the Governor.
In the interest of time, let’s gloss over Rick & company’s infiltration of Woodbury and rescue of Glenn and Maggie. For while it’s all decent action, it’s by far the least interesting part of the episode. (One does wonder why Woodbury’s militia doesn’t simply fire into the smoke unleashed by the Grimes guerrillas’ smoke bombs, or how they manage to escape largely without incident, sans the sadly underdeveloped Oscar. Someone had to die, and strategically it couldn’t be Rick, Daryl, or Glenn and Maggie after their ordeal; and certainly not Michonne, who has a more personal violent rendezvous with the Governor to fulfill.)
“Made to Suffer” was written by the comics creator and the show’s executive producer Robert Kirkman, who has written few episodes but, alongside showrunner Glenn Mazzara, helps oversee the TV series. Credit must be given to Kirkman and Mazzara here, and perhaps the rest of the writer’s room, for using the crowd-pleasing action of the Battle at Woodbury to set up the terrorism thread in the episode’s closing moments.
Michonne, as noted above, has her rendezvous with the Governor, discovering Penny and the wall of aquatic zombie heads (including that of the helicopter pilot from Episode 1, who she and Andrea were going to rescue before the Governor arrived and detained them). The Governor stumbles into his room as Michonne restrains Penny. He pleads with Michonne to let Penny go, putting his pistol back in his holster and displaying some genuine human emotion. Michonne repostes with a sword through Penny’s head, triggering a tussle with the Governor, which causes the zombie aquarium to crash to the ground with the zombie heads chomping like mutated piranhas. Michonne grabs a piece of glass and plunges it into the Governor’s right eyeball. At which point Andrea (the Governor’s new concubine) arrives, creating an odd moment of silence, before Michonne departs, leaving her friend to sort out the aftermath.
And this is where things get truly interesting. The Governor, sans right eyeball, and now resembling a bandaged, pre-eye patch pirate, seizes opportunity from defeat and humiliation. Any great dictator, or indeed, any government would respond in a manner similar to the Governor.
At Woodbury’s makeshift arena, where militia members have fought surrounded by chained, de-jawed zombies (no doubt a nod to Rome’s violent gladiatorial games and imperial dictatorship), the Governor makes a speech. It is, in a sense, a speech made thousands of times in human history: demagoguery crafted to whip plebeians into fearful, patriotic automatons. And, boy, does the Governor play Woodbury’s refugees with finely tuned rhetoric. In the Governor’s speech one hears the echoes of Marc Antony’s eulogy for Caesar, saying Brutus and Cassius’ assassination plot was an attack on Rome itself. And, of course, we hear the echoes still ranging the American landscape of Bush’s post-9/11 speeches, such as the oft-repeated phrase “They hate our freedoms.”
The Governor, having probably absorbed the delicious American “War On Terror” propaganda campaign from pre-apocalypse days, took a page from Bush’s playbook, and every other leader who has used fear of the “other” to preserve power and make history. Completely ignorant of the Grimes’ Woodbury mission (to free Glenn and Maggie), the Governor supplies his own reasons for the attack. At best the Governor genuinely thinks Rick’s tribe (for lack of a better term) is a threat to Woodbury, though there hasn’t been any contact at all between the groups. And, at worst, the Governor hasn’t considered the possibility that his methods—murder and detention/interrogation—are flawed. Either way there is a complete failure on the Governor’s part to examine cause and effect.
Another possibility is that the Governor believes the lies he feeds Woodbury’s citizens: that Merle was a spy working for Rick’s group, laying the ground work for the Woodbury raid. It would involve an absurdly byzantine conspiracy theory, but paranoid government leaders, especially dictators, have never been in short supply. With Merle’s brother Daryl now a prisoner and set to be executed, the Governor’s paranoia is transferred to the Woodbury populace.
But the causes, the reasons, for an attack become secondary as soon as they can be turned into power capital, exercised through propaganda. And this is the Governor’s pièce de résistance at the Nazi-esque arena rally: Woodbury’s walls have neutralized the zombie threat, and so a more menacing, unquantifiable threat must be constructed, even if it’s largely imaginary. The fear of the “other” shifts from one object to another. It’s rather like when the Soviet-led communist menace disappeared, America needed a new boogeyman to takes its place—the terrorist. This of course eerily resembles Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four playbook with Emmanuel Goldstein’s The Theory and Pratice of Oligarchical Collectivism and of the endlessly rotating wars against Eurasia and Eastasia.
This isn’t the first time that filmed entertainment satirized conservative America’s preoccupation with the terrorist threat. Lost pursued it in a form with the island’s Others, while The Wire in its own socio-political way mirrored the War on Terror with America’s futile War on Drugs. And, yes, the “The Walking Dead” mid-season finale may have been somewhat didactic with the Governor’s new post-apocalyptic War on Terror; but isn’t every campaign to create a boogeyman as rhetorically obvious as the Governor’s speech?
Now, if the series’ writers have any sense about them, they would explore what would certainly be a rupture in Woodbury, with rational people smelling the Governor’s bullshit, and others—sycophants, cowards, the irrational—blindly following. The Governor could become something of a Robespierre and his cadre, post-apocalyptic Jacobins. A resistance could eventually grow within Woodbury to counter the Governor, creating all sorts of rich and bloody narrative possibilities.
That would be some incredibly dynamic TV territory.