The Roots of Authoritarianism in AMC’s The Walking Dead

Adam M. Crowley
Husson University
Bangor, Maine, USA
crowleya@husson.edu

 

Abstract

AMC’s The Walking Dead (2010 – ) is a unique artifact in the twenty-first century’s expansive catalogue of undead-themed entertainments. To date, the show’s producers, commentators, and critics have noted the relevance of psychological trauma to the series. If the experience of realistic psychological trauma is relevant to The Walking Dead, then it should be possible for critics to articulate detailed assessments of the particular kinds of traumatic experiences that are foregrounded in the program. Trauma is, after all, an extremely nuanced and highly theorized facet of the human condition. This paper provides one such assessment and considers the significance of ego trauma to the authoritarian dispositions of Merle Dixon and others. 

Keywords:

Zombies, Adorno, Freud, Jung, Authoritarianism, The Walking Dead, Governor, Psychology, Merle Dixon

 

AMC’s The Walking Dead (2010 – ) is a unique artifact in the twenty-first century’s expansive catalog of undead-themed entertainments. As of this writing, it stands alone as the only mass-market television program concerned with zombies that has received widespread critical acclaim. However, while The Walking Dead is a distinctive drama, it is also true that the series advances a particular narrative structure that can be associated with a number of popular, recent television shows, such as Lost (2004 – 2010), Battlestar Galactica (2004 – 2009), Jericho (2006 – 2008), Survivors (2008 – ), and the short-lived reboot of V (2009 – 2011).  Like The Walking Dead, each of these narratives is concerned with a small group of survivors trying to establish social order in the context of a reality-shattering event. Such struggles occur in two basic contexts: within a primary group working to maintain a democratic identity, and between that group and a motivating (read: threatening) personality or organization espousing anti-democratic ideals. Without dismissing any of the fascinating and often unique narrative threads that define each of these shows, it is reasonable to assert that The Walking Dead has a distinctive approach for dramatizing such discordances. More than any other contemporary televised program, it stages and re-stages the significance of psychological trauma to social movements.

To date, the show’s producers, commentators, and critics have noted the relevance of psychological trauma to the series. For example, Andrew Lincoln – who plays the embattled lawman Rick Grimes – states, “The [narrative] moves so quickly that [the characters] don’t have time to catch up with the trauma of what’s happened to them” (Ellwood). Lincoln indicates that such experiences deny the involved the opportunity to enact what H. Eric Bender elsewhere describes in conversation about the show as “positive resiliency,” strategies for dealing with such challenges. Across the blogosphere, there are numerous speculative comments on the significance of this issue. Often, such observations consider whether the series dramatizes emotional pain with the same level of realism that it brings to physical violence and infrastructure degradation. For example, Steven Schlozman notes the show’s “signature thematic elements” and their relevance to “the various ways we humans react to terror.” In a related argument, Mollie Berg attends to the ways in which the show “brings up common issues such as what we, as humans, do when we are desperate in traumatic situations.” These comments, like those offered by Lincoln and Bender, stand on a shared assumption: namely, that there is something truthful about the depiction of psychological trauma in the series.

If the experience of realistic psychological trauma is relevant to The Walking Dead, then it should be possible for critics to articulate detailed assessments of the particular kinds of traumatic experiences that are foregrounded in the series. Trauma is, after all, an extremely nuanced and highly theorized facet of the human condition. Furthermore, if trauma should rise to the level of theme in the program, then it should be possible for scholars to articulate in some detail its significance to and between particular episodes, and also within and between seasons. Certainly, such analysis might begin with a consideration of any number of potential subjects. However, it is worth noting that there is already an interesting vein of commentary in the popular press that approaches these concerns and which could benefit in significant ways from its association with specific psychological concepts.

The general notion that the show’s survivors are unable to “catch up with the trauma of what’s happened to them” bears on related conversations concerned with the show’s illustration of developing authoritarian attitudes. For example, Zack Beauchamp states that the major authoritarian players – e.g., Rick Grimes and the Governor – act as they do as a natural consequence of the difficult fact that “you can’t trust others to remain peaceful” in the brutal Walker-infested landscape. Elsewhere, the anonymous blogger behind “Green Fissures in an Otherwise Pristine Robot” notes a more nuanced explanation for the phenomenon. The blogger links key characters’ incipient authoritarian attitudes with a general “grief process that we have to go through” wherein the bereaved individual attempts to establish a rigid hierarchy to stave off the pressures of a rapidly collapsing world. While intriguing, this view – like Beauchamp’s – locates the dictatorial impulse in a rather nebulous set of conditions with a particular aim to establish order in reaction to a disorderly or potentially untrustworthy world. Though these views are not unreasonable, they lead to exceedingly general questions about whether the impulse is a common or uncommon reaction to such conditions. This concern is relevant to The Walking Dead, as the major characters, while certainly traumatized, do not all demonstrate the same authoritarian strategies, and some do not demonstrate any such strategies.

An indication that a consideration of the specific psychological rationales for authoritarianism may clarify such observations can be inferred from comments about Woodbury’s paramilitary strongman, the Governor. In an interview with IGN.com, David Morrissey describes his desire to align his portrayal of The Walking Dead’s Governor with the character described in Robert Kirkman’s novels The Walking Dead: Rise of The Governor and The Walking Dead: The Road to Woodbury. He explains that he prefers the novelized version of the character to its comic book counterpart because the former demonstrates greater “complexity” than the latter. For example, in his comic book representation, the Governor comes across as an unrepentant savage who meets an early and extremely violent end. He is brutal without apparent remorse or evident reason. In Kirkman’s novels, there are events that contextualize the Governor’s sadism. For example, in Rise of The Governor, the reader is exposed to the long and arduous road that leads Brian Blake to renounce his extended adolescence and adopt the power-focused persona of his deceased brother, Philip. This transformation involves an evident psychic break, during which Brian begins to conceptualize himself from an external position: “His consciousness now floats above his body, a ghostly onlooker, gazing down at himself in that airless, reeking, crowded community room in the old Woodbury courthouse” (306). In this state, he murders the ever-threatening, would-be Woodbury strongman, “Gavin.”  When the rescued townspeople ask for his name, he identifies himself as “Philip … Philip Blake” (308). The significance of this transformation as it bears on Blake’s evident complexity is that, by this point in the novel, Philip’s obsession with power and violence has led him to a grim and ignominious end. Whether Brian has adopted the moniker to redeem or impersonate his sibling is an open question at this point in the narrative.

During his tenure on the television program, Morrissey makes this already fascinating character a substantially more psychologically complex and believable entity. The essence of this complexity is indicated in the events surrounding the murder of a number of well-armed National Guardsmen in “Walk With Me.” In this episode, the Governor leads an assault on a group of unsuspecting soldiers. After dispatching the troops, he takes their supplies and returns to Woodbury, where he fabricates a story in which the Guardsmen were murdered by “Biters” in the wilderness because they lacked “the walls, fences, and other protections” that are readily available in the enclave (IGN.com). As Morrissey explains, this fiction has a purpose: namely, to provide the survivors with a sense of security while confirming their worst fears about the outside world. However, what Morrissey does not explain, and what no one has bothered to address in detail to date, is the question of why the Governor would enact this specific deception to achieve this particular effect.

Certainly, it is true that early reviewers of “Walk With Me” do mark the Governor’s deception as a revelatory development that is indicative of the character’s disturbed worldview. Yet, they do so only to imply that the Governor’s fabrication reveals a distinct and basically negative aspect of an otherwise positive personality. For example, Phelim O’Neil observes that the Governor’s hornswoggling lends “some ambiguity to the role.” He states, “[U]p until the end, it [is] possible that the Governor [is] a good leader and provider, stern but fair –  but killing off the National Guardsmen then kicking back with a glass of booze … shows there’s plenty wrong there.”  A similar sentiment can be found in the work of Zack Handlen, who notes, “There are times … when the Governor seems like the most openly decent character…. Then the Governor has to ruin everything by shooting a friendly National Guardsman and leading his men to massacre the rest of their group.” These general observations are not, of course, indicative of a critical failure for either reviewer, as O’Neil and Handlen are tasked with writing accessible and entertaining plot summaries. Nevertheless, to date, the question of why there is “plenty wrong there” with the Governor remains an outstanding concern.

One approach for resolving this issue is to recognize that there is already a sizable branch of research on the relevance of trauma to authoritarian dispositions and attitudes. Early considerations, such as those found in works by Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, take the individual as their primary subject, while later efforts, such as those produced by Wilhelm Reich and Theodore Adorno, use the Freudian and Jungian models of individuality as a starting point for considering the significance of the traumatized persona to general society. In what is arguably Freud’s most specific work on the subject, Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), Freud associates trauma with a “comprehensive general weakening and shattering of mental functions” that is brought about by a “very extensive disturbance in the workings of the energy of the organism.” In his later Group Psychology and The Analysis of the Ego (1921), Freud explores how such disturbances can bear on a child’s relationship with a father, the “Commander-in-Chief” of Freud’s family unit. When the relationship is disturbed from its ideal, wherein the Father is perceived as “loving all his soldiers [i.e. children] equally,” the child’s understanding of authority is, Freud claims, compromised, if not shattered, with potential long-term results. Such and related concerns are also relevant to Carl Jung’s conceptions of the “psyche,” which he describes as “the totality of all psychic processes, conscious as well as unconscious,” and its significance to individuation, or the process by which one gets in touch with the various components that underlie the self (Hopwood). According to Jung, when the process is hindered by eventualities, the individual becomes a compromised subject. These notions are meaningful for later theorists like Wilhelm Reich. In his The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933), Reich explores in detail the relevance of traumatized individuals to society and articulates the impact of such populations on authoritarian movements.

By the middle of the twentieth century, these and related efforts established the groundwork for Theodor Adorno’s The Authoritarian Personality (1950). Adorno and his team of researchers consider authoritarianism to be an anti-democratic pattern of expression for traumatized individuals. They pursue “the rise of an [new] ‘anthropological’ species … [who] seems to combine the ideas and skills that are typical of highly industrialized society with irrational or anti-rational beliefs” (ix). Importantly, they view authoritarian actions as being symptomatic of an individual’s movement away from social democratic ideals and toward a redoubtable fascism, and they argue that this occurs as the result of a weakened or traumatized ego (1-27). As such, the authoritarian personality is conceptualized as a personality in development. In terms of The Walking Dead, the approach is interesting, as it appears to account for why and how characters directly confronted with the limitations of democratic thought, such as Rick, Merle, Shane, Herschel, and the Governor, demonstrate authoritarian traits approaching fascist ideals, while other traumatized characters who are not concerned with the revealed leadership vulnerabilities of democracy do not. As such, the approach suggests a scheme for adjudicating the dramatic development of specific characters as well as the significance of authoritarian attitudes to larger narrative developments and potential thematic trends.

However, it is also true that The Authoritarian Personality offers a very broad array of assessment tools, far too many to be considered in the scope of a single essay. Nevertheless, one vital program of analysis in the chapter “The Measurement of Implicit Antidemocratic Trends” appears to have exceptional relevance to the concepts under discussion. Adorno’s team advances the “Fascist Scale” or “F Scale,” which is composed of a series of personality variables that contribute to an anti-democratic disposition.  These variables include “conventionalism, authoritarian submission, anti-intraception, superstition and stereotypy, power and toughness, destructiveness and cynicism, projectivity, and sex” (228). Each term has its own specialized connotation for the researchers. Arguably, all of these particularized variables are descriptive of characters in The Walking Dead who struggle with or succumb to an authoritarian impulse. However, the variable of “anti-intraception” stands out as being particularly apt for assessing how such actions can arise from a particular form of ego trauma that is germane to The Walking Dead’s major authoritarian players. This is because the term is founded on the notion that it arises directly from a “weak ego” that is compromised by a specific subject: the fear “of genuine emotions” that threaten the ego with a loss of control (235). In order to stave off this consequence, Adorno contends, the anti-intraceptive personality will resist thinking “the wrong thoughts” (i.e., thoughts that would lead to genuine emotion) with a strategy of opposing what he or she perceives as “subjective, imaginative, [or] tender-minded” notions that would lead to self-reflection. Adorno argues that “[a]t its most extreme,” anti-intraception leads the individual to regard “human beings … as if they were physical objects to be coldly manipulated – even when physical objects, now vested with emotional appeal, are treated with loving care” (253).  Evidence drawn from several episodes in season three suggests that the term can be used to illuminate actions the Governor takes that “seemingly ruin everything” and which also “suggest there’s something wrong there.”

In the opening action of “Walk With Me,” the Governor emerges as a nameless figure, barking orders to a group of well-trained subordinates who set about dispatching a minor Walker threat at a helicopter crash site. Their unquestioning loyalty and dispassionate brutality in this early conflict convey a sense of organizational efficiency and purpose. While the nature of that purpose is not entirely clear, it does stand in sharp relief to the deeply troubled point of view through which the audience experiences these events. Hidden in the nearby foliage, a wearied Andrea watches the drama develop in a state of essential confusion and helplessness, trapped by her circumstances while the strongmen ruthlessly go about their mysterious task. When contrasted with Andrea, the Governor appears to be more than simply a dominant force at the crash site: he stands as the literal dictator of what is possible within the immediate context of the aerial disaster. The nature of his command and control is detailed further in a following scene where a kidnapped Andrea and Michonne are transported to Woodbury. Through her bindings, Andrea can hear the Governor communicating with another subordinate – who we later learn is Milton – about the need for a medical team to treat the women, as well as about some Walker-related findings that he wants Milton to research. The relevance of these comments to the Governor’s developing personality and potential anti-intraception is their collective implication that the Governor is in total control of the salvage operation. He is both the macro- and micro-manager of the events, which is noteworthy, if not curious, given the size of the salvage team. For example, it raises the question of why it is that one individual needs to be in control of so many facets of the operation. Certainly, these details do not prove the Governor’s anti-intraception, but they do establish a context for later developments that suggest that the character models such behavior.

In season three, the Governor’s increasingly peculiar efforts to both charm and dominate the lives in Woodbury can be understood as efforts to stave off “the wrong thoughts,” the kinds that would lead either himself or the town’s population to entertain otherwise “subjective, imaginative, [or] tender-minded” notions that would lead to self-reflection. These efforts emerge as part of the Governor’s anti-historical project. He works to define Woodbury as a place out of time, where the calamitous and all-too-human past is literally hidden from the day-to-day political process and confined to discursive spaces where it is only engaged during moments of emotional or political crisis: e.g., the gladiator fights. His dark plan to weaponize the Biters in Woodbury (for entertainment) as well as for military action elsewhere has a potential anti-intraceptive explanation. He appropriates historical evidence of humanity’s downfall to manage social challenges to his own vision of the world for the purpose of solidifying his power within the community. In doing so, he imbues the Biters with new ontological and political significance that denies the very thoughts of horror they should inspire for the human survivors. They are no longer merely evidence of a former civilization: rather, they become champions of the Governor’s settlement program. These and related actions, such as his slaughter of the Guardsmen, indicate that he is more than willing to “coldly manipulate” people as if they were objects. However, and as is shown in his private sanctuary, it is also the case that he is dedicated to “treating with loving care” a collection of objects: decapitated heads and the corpse of his own daughter. When considered in their broader context, these efforts indicate that the Governor is going to extreme lengths to fashion an iron-fisted grasp on a particularized view of reality, one created out of and also at the expense of the fallen world. However, confined to its own demonstrative context, it is also true that it is not immediately clear why it is that the Governor’s anti-intraception is significant to either the man or to the larger narrative he inhabits.

Adorno views anti-intraception as a response to ego trauma, and for the Governor the death of his daughter — Penny — appears to be a significant, if not the significant, traumatic experience that led this former milquetoast to become a brutal tyrant. His reaction to Penny’s infection and death can be connected to a broader theme concerning loss and its relationship to individual agency and the need for control that bears on the entire series. This thematic association makes it possible to compare and contrast the Governor’s seemingly anti-intraceptive actions with the actions of other characters who have more specific experiences with ego trauma and particular anti-intraceptive dispositions that arise from such trauma.  Arguably, the show’s essential commentary on trauma and individual agency in Walker-ruined America is indicated in the parallel adventures of Rick and Lori Grimes in the pilot episode, “Days Gone By.” Near the end of the adventure, Rick, pursued to the point of utter desperation, faces a difficult choice: death from the Walkers or death from suicide. He chooses suicide, the less painful option – though the act is deferred at the last possible moment. The act requires a willful momentary suspension of any and all possibilities for life, undertaken for a singular purpose: to maintain control of the situation at hand. In this way, Rick sacrifices his sense of self – including his status as a thinking, feeling individual – to mediate the overwhelming pressures of his situation. For her part, Lori is also faced with a transformative choice: to warn potential survivors away from doomed Atlanta or to submit to Shane’s dictatorial demands. By choosing the latter, she willingly sacrifices her emotional investment in others to mediate the overwhelming pressures of her present situation. While Rick and Lori’s experiences are dissimilar in many ways, they are united under the notion that they lead to a moment of self-sacrifice (literal for Rick, figurative for Lori) that requires a willful emotional divestment from an established sense of self and purpose. While these experiences are not indicative of anti-intraception per se, they are indicative of a particular kind of trauma that can be associated with all the major characters who go on to demonstrate anti-intraceptive attitudes, including the Governor.

A striking example of how such trauma can lead directly to anti-intraceptive attitudes can be found in Merle Dixon’s character arc. The character first appears in season one’s second episode, “Guts.” There, the audience is treated to a rooftop exchange between Merle, a dispossessed brute, and Rick, an already-weary democratic idealist. In its climax, the exchange involves the latter informing the former that his established view of self is no longer relevant to the post-Walker world, a world that demands tribal, if not outright democratic, unity. In the rising action, Merle calls an African-American survivor, T-Dog, a “nigger” and then holds a number of survivors hostage at gunpoint, demanding that they recognize his authority. In a parody of democracy, the group complies, and then Rick intervenes violently, disrupting the fascist power fantasy. As he shackles Merle to the rooftop, Rick explains that Merle’s racist understanding of self and the world is outdated: “Look here, Merle, things are different now. There are no niggers anymore. No dumb as shit inbred white trash fools, neither…. There’s us and the dead. We survive this by pulling together. Not apart.” In what will become a defining character trait, Merle rejects Rick’s democratic plea for unity, spits in the sheriff’s face, and snarls, “Screw you.”

In terms of Adorno’s theory, the exchange is representative of Merle’s desire to maintain his established sense of self at the expense of accepting “tender minded” ideals that threaten to undermine his surety. Notably, these ideals are democratic. The fact that Merle believes that he has been abandoned on the rooftop by the end of the episode only serves to strengthen his notion that Rick’s call for unity is farcical and weak-minded in the face of the realities of the Walker plague. This development is significant to what is arguably the first major anti-intraceptive moment in the series. In “Tell It to The Frogs,” the audience finds Merle alone, still trapped on the roof, but now totally divested of his surety. He is reduced to a squirming, squealing victim – horrified to the point of madness by his impending live cannibalization. Interestingly, he is no longer screaming for his democratically-inclined fellow survivors, as he has given up all hope in the possibility that the band will come to his aid. Rather, he is screeching for the ultimate form of authoritarian intervention: divine intervention. However – and remarkably – almost as soon as he begins to express these uncontrolled feelings of hopelessness and despair (which he says he has never expressed before) he violently rejects them and recommits himself to a so-far failed plan to obtain some nearby tools with his belt. In the context of its utterance, Merle’s prayer stands as a rather fascinating rhetorical device. With his brutal dismissal of his panic-inspired pleas for clemency, Merle effectively argues for a particular form of self-actualization, one in which he literally survives by dominating his immediate environment through the expression of rugged individualism. This is the essence of anti-intraception as it is described in The Authoritarian Personality: unstable emotion is rejected by an ego struggling to maintain a sense of control over the environment, regardless of the potential sacrifices. While the act is psychological, it has a literal impact on the scoundrel. He emerges from the struggle a man literally diminished by his turn inward from the rest of the world and its possibilities: he is divested of his own right hand.

The behavioral trends that Merle demonstrates on the rooftop can be associated with later developments that confirm Adorno’s theories about the significance of anti-intraception to individuals who are vulnerable to fascist states. For example, when we next meet Merle in season three, he has become a henchman for the Governor’s paramilitary force. In conversation with Andrea, he explains that he joined with the Governor because the Governor found him when he was wounded and took care of him. Insofar as Merle’s wound is a practical example of his anti-intraception, a direct correlation can be made between Merle’s reaction to trauma and his association with a fascist organization. Over the course of a number of episodes, Merle demonstrates his service to the Governor’s petty empire with a series of actions that have extraordinary anti-intraceptive implications, all of which drive him deeper into the brutal and ultimately self-destructing organization of the Governor’s political machine. For example, in “When the Dead Come Knocking,” an enraged Merle is informed by the recently incarcerated Glenn that Rick and the others returned to the rooftop to save him, a notion that affirms Rick’s initial (and rejected) call for democratic unity. Merle’s reaction is telling: he dismisses the possibility that Glenn is correct and insists that his understanding of the events and abandonment is accurate and then uses this rationale to justify Glenn’s torture and attempted murder. He cannot do the opposite because to do so would be to experience emotions that would put him out of control of his present situation: i.e., he would have to accept the notion that his drastic self-mutilation was committed in error and that, rather than being the master of his own fate, he has been a weak-minded pawn to circumstance.

A similarly violent reaction emerges in “Hounded.” In that episode, Merle is sent to kill the recently released Michonne with several other Woodbury thugs. When his belief that Michonne will be easy prey falls victim to Michonne’s razor-sharp sword, Merle fabricates a lie about her being destroyed by the Walkers in the woods. The deception is brought about by his fear that he will lose control of the hunt and become the hunted if he continues further in the pursuit. When Merle’s claim is rejected by a fellow guardsman, Neil, Merle kills Neil and later lays the blame for the murder on Michonne. Upon returning to Woodbury, Merle recounts his concocted story to the Governor. The significance of these events lies in their implications for Merle’s relationship with the Governor: rather than face the possibility of losing control, Merle affirms and brutally defends an extremely weak assessment of the hunt, one that guards his own emotional shortcomings at the expense of his political savvy. He foists the fantasy on the very authoritarian personality that has provided him with a sense of security since he escaped from the rooftop – a fatal flaw that leads to the character’s eventual undoing.

As season three comes to its close, Michonne returns to Woodbury and wounds the Governor. As a consequence, the fascist dictator turns on Merle and eventually orchestrates his death. With Merle’s developmental arc, the series illustrates an extended scenario in which an anti-intraceptive personality moves away from democratic possibility and into a self-destructive authoritarian state.  The example is valuable because it shows a particular developmental cycle, one that comes with evident implications for the involved character’s personality and for the show’s broader commentary on democracy and fascist attitudes. While it is not the case that the behavioral concerns that define Merle’s journey are necessarily relevant to all the characters in the series who battle with democratic notions of unity, they do establish a conceptual foundation for adjudicating the anti-intraceptive actions of other major characters. For example, in season one’s concluding episodes, “Wildfire” and “TS-19,” the suicidal Jenner’s much shorter arc presents an example of the relationship between anti-intraception and authoritarianism in the Walker-ruined world. As is the case with Merle, this journey leads Jenner to a position of inescapable confinement, brought about by his reductive approach to reality.

Jenner, his sense of self and purpose destroyed by the death of his wife and the destruction of the international scientific community, explains to Rick and the other survivors that their impending and inevitable immolation in the now-defunct CDC will create “an end to sorrow, grief, regret.” Unlike Rick’s flirtation with suicide in “Days Gone By,” here the rationale for the individual’s absolute control of the moment at the expense of literally everything is not the grasping fingers of the dead but rather the act of reflection itself, which is too painful for Jenner to withstand. He seeks to destroy himself rather than contemplate the “subjective, imaginative, [or] tender-minded” possibilities for the future offered by Rick and the others. As the concept is theorized by Adorno, anti-intraception does not necessarily compel an individual to suicide, so it is noteworthy for the series that Jenner’s rationale for self-destruction has anti-intraceptive overtones. This relationship becomes even more fascinating when one considers that Jenner is using the rationale for more than just his own death but for the death of all of the people who assume that they have been saved by his merciful solicitude.

When Jenner’s actions are considered in their entirety, it is possible to argue that from the first he is demonstrating what Adorno identifies as a primary authoritarian trait: the trait of dominance-submission. For Adorno, dominance-submission is defined by actions that the authoritarian undertakes to ameliorate the essential needs of others before he or she demands their allegiance to his or her will (314, 344-46). This essential relationship is evident from the first, as Jenner provides access to the CDC in the very same moment that he tells Rick and the survivors that once the doors of the CDC close “they do not re-open.” Later, at the height of his suicide crisis, he reminds them of this fact with an intensity that seems to indicate that the observation is an inalienable law. The concept of dominance-submission can also account for Jenner’s peculiar hospitality: he offers food and water, shelter, warm showers, alcohol, and the basic amenities that the survivors need to feel safe before he presents them with the inescapable suicide pact. This behavioral pattern can also be used to account for one of the more bizarre events that occurs during this period. Jenner fully and rightfully believes that there is no way to escape from the CDC, yet he lets Rick and the others scramble toward the exit in the final minutes of the self-destruction countdown. He has no way to know that they have a grenade that they can use to escape, so his actions cannot be viewed as merciful: rather, here he is continuing the pattern of catering to the needs of his guests – their desire to pursue freedom –  while at the same time he is sure that they will have no choice but to remain submissive to his plan for self-destruction. At the moment of his death, he does turn to Jacki and observe flatly that the survivors made it out of the CDC: “They got out.” However, given his actions to date, it is reasonable to assume that any joy he may associate with those words comes from his knowledge that he is soon to die and that he is not dying alone, thanks to his program for dominance-submission.

While Merle and Jenner are certainly distinct characters, it is interesting to note that Merle’s misadventure on the rooftop also begins with the issue of dominance and submission, though not with the process of amelioration that defines Jenner’s actions. For example, when Merle turns a gun on Glenn, Andrea, and the others, he does so with the demand that he be recognized as the power in control of the situation, a fantasy that Rick shatters. However, at the CDC, Rick cannot react in a similar way, as he is already dominated by Jenner’s will and plan. This distinction is informative of the lawman’s developing struggles with the limits of democratic thought and possibility, which in this instance are all but helpless in the face of an authoritarian personality demonstrating anti-intraceptive attitudes. This becomes a major concern in the series’s third season and is the struggle at the heart of Rick’s dispute with the Governor.

The significance of such developments and attitudes to an understanding of the Governor’s psychological motivations lies in their descriptive – not predictive – capacities. They remind the viewer that just as the Governor might choose to regard a collection of heads to “steel himself” for the horrors of the Walker-ruined world, the viewer might consider the head of the Governor at the very same time – as part of his or her own process for coming to grips with all that has passed and all that will pass for The Walking Dead’s authoritarian personalities. Whether these attitudes will continue to manifest in future seasons is, of course, impossible to determine. However, their significance to the series to date speaks to the narrative’s extended investment in these essential attitudes.

 

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Author Bio

Adam M. Crowley is an Associate Professor of English at Husson University in Bangor, Maine.  His areas of interest include Frankfurt School-style social criticism and narratology. He has produced scholarship on narrative structures in contemporary video games, concerning works as diverse as Resident Evil, Tomb Raider, and Bioshock Infinite.

Twitter: @AdamMCrowley 

Reference Citation

MLA
Crowley, Adam. “The Roots of Authoritarianism in AMC’s The Walking Dead,” Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, vol. 3, no. 2, 2016, http://journaldialogue.org/issues/the-roots-of-authoritarianism-in-amcs-the-walking-dead/.

APA
Crowley, A. (2016). The roots of authoritarianism in AMC’s The Walking DeadDialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 3(2). http://journaldialogue.org/issues/the-roots-of-authoritarianism-in-amcs-the-walking-dead/