In AMC’s adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, The Governor of Woodbury adopts a much more subtle psychopathy than that of his comic counterpart. Having organized a group of survivors to clean out, border, and protect the small town of Woodbury, The Governor takes every step necessary to protect his enclave–and his own power–from forces outside the town’s gates, whether they be living or dead. To this end, The Governor kills the surviving solider of helicopter crash, massacres the soldier’s encamped men, and orders Michonne’s murder in the forests surrounding Woodbury.
David Morrissey’s role diverges from the comic again when we learn that he was married, and discover that he has a daughter, Penny, who is now a walker. The Governor secretly stows Penny away in his private quarters. In one scene we find him brushing Penny’s hair when a clump of scalp detaches from her head, sending her into a fit. The Governor holds her tightly, whispering to ease her struggle, as a father might with a tantrumming child. The scene injects The Governor’s character with a compassion otherwise hidden behind his ruthless acts as the town’s leader.
The scene and the character exemplify a recurring theme in The Walking Dead, and one that I believe pervades the entire zombie genre: the constant struggle to wake up to the reality of the world. Zombies are an enduring allegory. Zombies themselves are often employed as the carnal representations of deadening forces within culture and society. In Night of the Living Dead they represented the mindless scare over nuclear fallout, in Dawn of the Dead they were stand-ins for ruthless consumerism, and in Shaun of the Dead they might have been personifications of mid-twenties directionlessness. But on the flip side, survivors of zombie plagues could be interpreted as embodying mindfulness: those who have received a jolting wake-up to the reality of the world and its faults. Survivors are never allowed to put down their guard. They must always be vigilant about their surroundings, their escape paths, and bumps in the night. Survivors are challenged with facing head-on the apathy and soulessness of contemporary culture by bearing witness to, and fending off, their undead friends and neighbors. In The Walking Dead, it is this constant witness-bearing that slowly drives Rick’s band of survivors mad. Our beloved characters are constantly smacked face by the ruthless nature of humanity, which turns them into a sentient version of the walking dead.
When characters delude themselves by refusing to accept the reality of the zombie plague, they are actively fighting the mindfulness the current moment demands. For these characters, it is more comforting to believe in a hope of the return to the old ways, to an old humanity. This was Hershel’s struggle when he kept walkers in the barn, hoping a cure might revive his wife and neighbors. The Governor holds a similar delusion, but his act of keeping Penny tied up is even more striking, given his otherwise brutal character. Hershel is a man whose faith and allegiance to family motivated him to hold onto the notion that his loved ones might one day be cured. The Governor, on the other hand, is a man who, in all other regards, has fully accepted the ruthless nature of man that the zombie plague has forced humanity to confront. The Governor has become a merciless leader, cunningly killing any survivor who threatens his position of power. The Governor’s temporary suspension of reality by keeping and tending to his zombified daughter, shows just how powerful the lure of turning away from reality can be. Even the most conscious and opportunistic can shy away from reality when it becomes too overwhelming.
This is why zombism is a great metaphor for mindfulness. When confronted with the deadening forces of society, we’re forced to wake up to reality and mindfully engage with the world around us. This is a constant struggle for fathers and other parents as we’re bombarded with the demands of everyday life. For some of us, the consequence of this bombardment is a real disconnect from the ones we love, our family members. When faced with the disconnect, rather than dealing with it, we have a tendency to sink deeper into the stresses of the world as a welcome distraction from our disconnect. Especially when our reality involves loss.
I’ve experienced this type of retreat myself. A big loss that I’ve dealt with is my own father’s withdrawal. My father is still alive, mind you, but I have not talked to him in the past three years. He pulled away from me for undisclosed reasons, and in spite of my attempts to open up conversations, he hasn’t responded to any of my invitations. Yet he and I go through a ritual each year of suspending belief in the reality of our failed relationship when he sends me a Christmas gift. Typically, his gift is a box of meat (oddly consistent with the zombie theme). My dad was a big hunter and a true midwestern steak lover, and so each year a refrigerated box of steaks, fillets, and sausages gets sent to my door. I’ve received his gift even during my vegetarian years.
Excuse this rather gross sentence, but: my accepting the meat box is akin to The Governor brushing a dead girl’s hair. My father and I delude ourselves about just how bad our relationship has gotten. It’s easier for him to send a gift and for me to receive it (and in some ways, expect it), than it is for either of us to be confronted with the reality of our situation. For the holidays it’s easier to forget about my family strife and sit down to an Omaha steak.
At times, we as fathers can retreat to a fantasy, or to the doldrums of a busy life, because it’s easier than facing the disconnections in our lives. This is our undead dad nature. We retreat to a busy lifestyle because, in some ways, it’s easier than facing and investing in the challenges of making our relationships work. It is incredibly difficult to extract ourselves from the mindless cycle of work. Sometimes, just like the survivors of a zombie plague, we need a slap in the face to wake up to the reality of a clump of dead girl’s hair or a box of meat.