Tag Article List: The Walking Dead

AMC’s Infamous Criminal Partnerships: Suppressing the Female Antihero

Melissa Vosen Callens
North Dakota State University
Fargo, ND, USA


Using a feminist lens, the author argues that audiences have failed to embrace female characters on AMC as antiheroes, particularly when they are in romantic relationships with male antiheroes, for three primary reasons. First, female characters often challenge binary thinking, and thus, gender role stereotypes. Rather than exhibiting passive, yet nurturing characteristics, characteristics often associated with femininity and motherhood, female characters within the dataset frequently challenge their partners and exert their dominance. Second, writers often fail to fully develop female characters. The absence of their backstories (who they are and what they are thinking) makes it difficult for audiences to relate to and sympathize with these characters. Finally, within the dataset, female characters are rarely viewed as equals in the eyes of their male partners, and the audience takes cues from this treatment. When female characters are childless and/or respected by their male partners, they are more widely accepted as antiheroes. 

In this paper, the author examines some of the most famous criminal antihero partnerships in the top-rated AMC series over the last decade: Walter and Skyler White (Breaking Bad), Rick and Lori Grimes / Rick Grimes and Michonne (The Walking Dead), Don and Betty Draper (Mad Men), and Saul Goodman and Kim Wexler (Better Call Saul). Following this critique, the broader cultural implications of these representations are offered, particularly the disempowerment of women through motherhood.

Keywords: AMC, antihero, feminist criticism, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Walking Dead, Better Call Saul


Author Bio

Melissa Vosen Callens is currently an associate professor of practice in instructional design and communication at North Dakota State University, Fargo. Her areas of research and teaching interest include Popular Culture and Online Education. Her writing can be found in The Ultimate Walking Dead and Philosophy, English Journal, Communication Teacher, Hollywood Heroines: The Most Influential Women in Film History, and A Sense of Community: Essays on the Television Series and Its Fandom, among other publications.


Suggested Citation

Vosen Callens, M. (2019). AMC’s infamous criminal partnerships: Suppressing the female antihero. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 6(2). http://journaldialogue.org/issues/v6-issue-2/amcs-infamous-criminal-partnerships-suppressing-the-female-antihero/

Vosen Callens, Melissa. AMC’s Infamous Criminal Partnerships: Suppressing the Female Antihero. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, vol. 6, no. 2. Retreived from http://journaldialogue.org/issues/v6-issue-2/amcs-infamous-criminal-partnerships-suppressing-the-female-antihero/

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We All Have Jobs Here: Teaching and Learning with Multiple Intelligences in The Walking Dead

Elizabeth Gartley
South Portland, Maine, USA


A model can be useful when engaging secondary students in team-building by appreciating differing skills and identifying their own strengths. In this example, a model was provided that students to indulge in the transgression of popular culture and zombie media. Middle and high school students participated in a critical thinking and team-building unit which capitalized on student interest in zombie popular culture, particularly the AMC series The Walking Dead. Students engaged in cooperative activities with a “zombie apocalypse” theme. Activities included identifying roles for team members based on individual skill sets in order to strengthen to group as a whole. This approach allowed students to approach this unit as assembling a “zombie apocalypse team,” an idea borrowed from popular culture. The popular culture “zombie apocalypse team” shows that survival depends on building a cooperative team of individuals with disparate but complementary skills and approaches to problem solving. Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences can provide theoretical framework to examine how the group of survivors in The Walking Dead combine multiple intelligences, as represented by individual characters, to survive. This model can provide a more detailed context to allow students to their own strengths within a team.

Keywords: educational psychology, Howard Gardner, intelligence, Multiple Intelligences, psychology, The Walking Dead, pedagogy, team building, secondary education

Author Bio 

Elizabeth Gartley is a certified teacher librarian with a background in media studies. Her research interests include language and literacies in comics, critical media literacy and pedagogy, cross-cultural approaches to media studies.

LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/egartley/

Reference Citation

Gartley, E. (2018). We All Have Jobs Here: Teaching and Learning with Multiple Intelligences in The Walking Dead. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 5(3) http://journaldialogue.org/issues/v5-issue-3/we-all-have-jobs-here-teaching-and-learning-with-multiple-intelligences-in-the-walking-dead/ 

Gartley, Elizabeth. “We All Have Jobs Here: Teaching and Learning with Multiple Intelligences in The Walking Dead”. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 2018, vol. 5, no 3. http://journaldialogue.org/issues/v5-issue-3/we-all-have-jobs-here-teaching-and-learning-with-multiple-intelligences-in-the-walking-dead/

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The Roots of Authoritarianism in AMC’s The Walking Dead

Adam M. Crowley
Husson University
Bangor, Maine, USA



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. 


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.


Works Cited

Adorno, Theodore W., The Authoritarian Personality. Harpers, 1950.

Battlestar Galactica. SyFy, 2004 – 09.

Beauchamp, Zack. “‘The Walking Dead’ Open Thread: He’s a Terrible Monster.” ThinkProgress, thinkprogress.org/the-walking-dead-open-thread-he-s-a-terrible-monster-54b9cfdb2e69#.bmy3g4791. Accessed 1 July 2013.

Berg, Mollie. “Walking Dead serves as a metaphor for reality.” Daily Trojan, dailytrojan.com/2013/03/31/walking-dead-serves-as-metaphor-for-reality/. Accessed 1 July 2013.

“David Morrissey on The Rise of the Governor.” Ign.com, www.ign.com/videos/2013/02/11/david-morrissey-on-the-rise-of-the-governor. Accessed 1 July 2013.

“Days Gone By.” The Walking Dead. AMC, 30 Oct. 2012.

Ellwood, Gregory. “‘The Walking Dead’s Andrew Lincoln reflects on Rick Grimes’ ‘complete breakdown’ in season three.” Hitflix.com, www.hitfix.com/news/the-walking-deads-andrew-lincoln-reflects-on-rick-grimes-complete-breakdown-in-season-three. Accessed 1 July 2013.

Folle, Vache. “Authoritarians are Zombies.” St George Blog, emergencybackupdog.blogspot.com/2006/11/authoritarians-are-zombies.html. Accessed 23 Oct. 2016.

Freud, Sigmund. “Beyond the Pleasure Principle.” Library of Social Science, http://s3.libraryofsocialscience.com/pdf/freud_beyond_the_pleasure_principle.pdf. Accessed 29 Dec. 2014.

—.“Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego.” Gutenberg, www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/35877?msg=welcome_stranger. Accessed 29 Dec. 2014.

“Guts.”The Walking Dead. AMC, 7 Nov. 2012.

Handlen, Zack. “Walk With Me.” Avclub, www.avclub.com/tvclub/the-walking-dead-walk-with-me-86747. Accessed 1 July 2013.

Hopwood, Ann. “Jung’s model of the psyche.” The Society of Analytical Psychology, www.thesap.org.uk/resources/articles-on-jungian-psychology-2/about-analysis-and-therapy/jungs-model-psyche/. Accessed 29 Dec. 2014.

“Hounded.” The Walking Dead. AMC, 18 Nov. 2012.

Jericho. CBS, 2006 – 08.

Kirkman, Robert. The Walking Dead: Rise of The Governor. St. Martin’s Press, 2011.

— . The Walking Dead: The Road to Woodbury. Thomas Dunne, 2013.

“Lawyers and Psychiatrists Answer the Tough Questions in The Walking Dead.” Wired.com, www.wired.com/2013/04/walking-dead-lawyer-doctor/. Accessed 1 July 2013.

Lost. ABC, 2004 – 10.

“The Lure of Authoritarianism in Apocalyptic Fiction: (Or, Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss).” Green Fissures in an Otherwise Pristine Robot, http://greenfissures.tumblr.com/post/20027151141/the-lure-of-authoritarianism-in-apocalyptic. Accessed 1 July 2013.

O’Neil, Phelim. “The Walking Dead: season three, episode three.” TheGuardian, www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/tvandradioblog/2012/nov/02/walking-dead-season-three-episode-three. Accessed 1 July 2013.

Reich, Wilhelm. The Mass Psychology of Fascism. Translated by Mary Boyd Higgins. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1970.

Schlozman, Steven. “The Moral Molasses of The Walking Dead.” Psychology Today, www.psychologytoday.com/blog/grand-rounds/201112/the-moral-molasses-the-walking-dead. Accessed 1 July. 2013.

Survivors. BBC, 2008 – 13.

“Tell it to The Frogs.” The Walking Dead. AMC, 14 Nov. 2010.

“TS-19.” The Walking Dead. AMC, 5 Dec. 2010.

V. ABC, 2009 – 11.

“Walk With Me.” The Walking Dead. AMC, 28 Oct. 2012.

The Walking Dead. AMC, 2010 – 16.

“When the Dead Come Knocking.” The Walking Dead. AMC, 25 Nov 2012.

“Wildfire.” The Walking Dead. AMC, 28 Nov. 2010.


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

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/.

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/

Girls, Guns, and Zombies: Five Dimensions of Teaching and Learning in The Walking Dead

Anthony Neely
The University of Texas at San Antonio
San Antonio, Texas, USA



Rooted in sociocultural theory, this article utilizes a conceptual framework derived from Alexander, Schallert, and Reynolds’ four topographical dimensions of learning: who of learning, what of learning, where of learning, and when of learning. Situated learning (Lave and Wenger) is presented as a fifth dimension to address how learning occurs in communities of practice absent of formal schooling. Content analysis (Elo and Kyngass) is used to analyze a teaching and learning event from an episode of The Walking Dead based on the five topographical dimensions of learning listed above. Findings provide insights for pedagogical application for grades 7-12 by addressing the potential benefits of contextualized and scaffolded situated learning activities, gender equity, and authentic high-stress high-risk tasks in secondary level curriculum design.


Popular Culture, Teaching Methods, Gender Equity, The Walking Dead, Socioculturalism, Situated Learning, Apocalyptic Media, Interdisciplinary Research, Communities of Practice, Contextualized Curriculum


The television series The Walking Dead (Darabont et al.) has become a phenomenon in American pop culture. Set in a post-apocalyptic Southeastern United States, the series follows a small group of survivors as they strive for existence on a zombie-infested planet. The zombies, referred to as Walkers, are relentless in their pursuit of human flesh, with the unfortunate soul who falls victim to their attack becoming a Walker himself. With characters living in a world devoid of any formal schooling and yet totally dependent on the development of skills for survival, The Walking Dead is ripe with examples of teaching and learning outside of the traditional classroom setting. In this article a teaching and learning event from The Walking Dead will be analyzed through a topographical interactive framework comprised of five dimensions of learning.

Prior to addressing the conceptual framework on which this article is built, it is critical to discuss what learning is in order to contextualize how learning occurs within a society absent of formal schooling. It is
difficult to define learning due to the existence of a broad spectrum of theoretical explanations for the concept. While many learning theories share overlapping elements, there are also numerous irreconcilable
differences among these frameworks. Thus, rather than attempting to produce a universal definition for
learning, Alexander, Schallert, and Reynolds provide nine principles to describe the concept as derived from commonalities among salient learning theories.

The first principle the authors propose is that learning is change. From learning how to crawl to analyzing complex mathematical theories, humans are constantly changing, adapting, and evolving. This change not only influences individuals but also the entire system in which they exist. Next, the authors contend that learning is inevitable, essential, and ubiquitous. To state it simply, to live is to learn. Whether one learns not to touch a hot stove or how to quickly analyze traffic patterns on the highway, humans are kept alive by their ability to recognize and decipher environmental stimuli. The inevitability of learning does not, however, suggest that learning is irresistible. Consider the alcoholic who receives multiple infractions for driving under the influence. Despite his awareness that driving under the influence of alcohol may result in negative outcomes (e.g., court dues, imprisonment, loss of license), he continues to drive while intoxicated. The previous example segues into Alexander, Schallert, and Reynolds’ proposition that some learning may be disadvantageous. Although learning is generally viewed as a positive endeavor, in certain contexts the object of learning may not be beneficial (e.g., the experience of overdosing on drugs).

Next, the authors propose that learning can either be tacit and incidental or conscious and intentional. For example, there are contexts in which learning occurs without conscious awareness (e.g., recognizing that stubbing a toe hurts), while in other contexts learning is an intentional and active pursuit (e.g., learning to fly fish). The sixth principle in the model proposes that learning is framed by our humanness. The authors contend that the biological features of our bodies (e.g., senses, cognition, psychological attributes) make learning central to the human experience.

Alexander, Schallert, and Reynolds present learning as both a process and a product. As such, learning is an active event that also has some type of output. Consider the student who goes through the process of learning to play the guitar. In addition to her procedural efforts (e.g., practicing scales, researching chord variations, developing hand dexterity), she will be able to produce a product as evidence that learning has
occurred (e.g., the ability to play a song). The eighth principle presented by the authors is that learning is
experienced in diverse ways, depending on the time and context in which it occurs. What and how one learns can be shaped by social, cognitive, and biological factors throughout his or her life (e.g., age, level of maturity, life experience, sociocultural environment). Finally, Alexander, Schallert, and Reynolds contend that learning is interactional. Learning does not occur in a vacuum, but rather as a scenario in which “learners are
influenced by, and at the same time push back, take from, change, control, and create the environment in which learning is situated” (180).

The authors’ last principle allows the act of learning to be anchored within a sociocultural framework. Socioculturalism, a theoretical framework of learning and development based on the work of Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, proposes that higher level mental functioning finds its origins in the shared experiences of society. Vygotsky contends that only after a concept exists outside of the individual
(i.e. externalized) can it exist within the individual (i.e. internalized). One way in which this process (externalization √ internalization) can be illustrated is as a continuous spiral referred to as the Vygotsky Space (Gavalek and Raphael; Harre). The Vygotsky Space uses two overlaying dimensions, public √ private activity and social √ individual activity, to represent the externalization √ internalization process. When observed as a series of quadrants, these dimensions show that the construction of knowledge originates within the sociocultural context, is then transformed by individuals within society, and is ultimately reintroduced to society for the cycle to begin again. As described above, the foundation of Vygotsky’s theory is that learning cannot be decontextualized from one’s sociocultural surroundings because learning does not occur in isolation.Socioculturalism proposes that social interaction influences development because novice learners are dependent on the assistance of more knowledgeable others for sociocognitive progression. Vygotsky supports this stance in his writings on the zone of proximal development. The zone of proximal development refers to the distance between one’s ability to complete a task on her own (i.e. actual development) and her ability to complete a task with the assistance of a more knowledgeable other (i.e. potential development). As learners are continually challenged to work with others beyond their own current level of development, Vygotsky suggests that their zone of proximal development will continually shift so that “What a child can do with assistance today, she will be able to do by herself tomorrow” (87).

Drawing from the literature of Alexander, Schallert, and Reynolds this article is built on a topographical interactive model of learning that seeks out common ground among multiple salient learning theories. The model proposes four dimensions of learning (i.e. who of learning, what of learning, where of learning, and when of learning) that are in constant interaction and provide context for describing a teaching and learning event.

The first dimension, who of learning, explores the agents involved in a teaching and learning event. This dimension contends that learning is directly influenced by the biological, cognitive, experiential
(e.g., individual and cultural), and affective (e.g. motivational and emotional) characteristics of participants (Alexander, Schallert, and Reynolds 184). The who of learning is critical to understanding learning because, as Lakoff and Johnson argue, the learning process is highly influenced by the learner involved. The second dimension explores what is being learned. Within this dimension the authors propose an interweaving of the types and levels of learning that occur during a teaching and learning event. These may range from unconsciously acquired habits and tacit knowledge (e.g., recognizing that dropping a bowling ball on your foot is painful) to intentionally pursued higher order knowledge and skills (e.g., an aspiring carpenter learning to cut dovetail joints). The third dimension addresses the ecological context in which learning occurs. While some aspects of the ecological context are concrete and easily recognizable (e.g., physical setting and tools used to mediate learning), others require greater investigation due to their abstractness (e.g., historical and cultural context). Alexander, Schallert, and Reynolds place the when of learning as their fourth dimension. By understanding the interrelatedness of timing, duration, and cultural shifts that occur during a teaching and learning event, one can provide critical insights into the context of the event itself. In other words, skills and knowledge that are seemingly irrelevant today may be critical to one’s very survival in the future. For example, the ability to start a fire using only sticks and grass may be considered an inconsequential skill until one is unexpectedly shipwrecked on an island.

Although Alexander, Schallert, and Reynolds do not include a dimension to address the how of learning, it is important to discuss because it describes the process by which learning occurs. In this article, Lave and Wenger’s situated learning framework explains the how of learning. In Lave and Wenger’s model, a novice advances knowledge through varying levels of participation with more knowledgeable others in a community of practice as opposed to learning through decontextualized means (e.g., direct lecture or reading a textbook). Situated learning can manifest itself in two ways: participation and apprenticeship.

In participation the novice learns through situatedness within a community of practice. For example a person who grows up in a farming community, although not a farmer himself, may gain knowledge regarding the norms and practices of farming that far exceed an individual who lives in an urban environment. Thus, participation can be viewed as learning by proximity. The second classification of situated learning is apprenticeship. In this article, apprenticeship is defined as a dyadic relationship between a more knowledgeable other and a novice for the purpose of sharing wisdom and promoting skill development through active co-participation (Lave and Wenger). This framework suggests that the optimal avenue by which one
(e.g., a novice plumber) learns a skill (e.g., replacing a rusted pipe) is not through decontextualized instruction on the topic (e.g., classroom lecture), but rather through active participation with one who is more experienced with said skill (e.g., assisting a master plumber with such a repair).

Situated learning is provided as the fifth dimension of learning in this article for two reasons. First, this framework aligns itself with socioculturalism in that it focuses on the learner having membership in a community of practice as opposed to existing in a vacuum (Lave and Wenger). Through participation in a community of practice, the learner develops an identity of membership by which she is socialized to the jargon, norms, and skills associated with the community. This development of identity within a community of practice is critical to situated learning because learning “implies becoming a different person with respect to the possibilities enabled by these systems of relations” (Lave and Wenger 53). Second, situated learning is a contextually appropriate framework for analyzing The Walking Dead. The Walking Dead takes place in a world absent of formal schooling. As a result, the characters in the show are co-dependent for survival and help each other develop essential skills through active participation in communities of practice.

Through content analysis, a research method in which various forms of media are organized into concepts or categories for the purpose of deriving new insights and inferences about a given phenomenon (Cole; Elo and Kyngas; Krippendorf), this study explores a teaching and learning event in Season 2: Episode 6 of The Walking Dead. The teaching and learning event being analyzed is situated within an ongoing storyline regarding a worldwide outbreak of unknown origins that has turned the majority of humans into Walkers. Human survivors discover early in the series that the only way to stop a Walker is to destroy its brain. Although there are a variety of tools that can complete this task (e.g., ax, sledgehammer, hunting knife), risk of death makes the possession of and skill set to effectively use a firearm a valuable commodity. In this post-apocalyptic setting, a gun not only represents increased likelihood of survival but also is symbolic of power within the social hierarchy.

After several mishaps with firearms occur on the survivors’ farm, the two primary community leaders, Rick and Shane, declare that any individual who has not been formally trained to use a firearm must surrender their weapon until formal training has been completed. As a result, very few individuals in the community are permitted to possess a firearm. For community member Andrea, the ability to once again wield her revolver has two levels of importance. First, it is an opportunity to break the gender roles that have been constructed in the community (i.e. men are community protectors and women maintain domestic responsibilities). Second, the gun serves as an artifact linking Andrea to happier times before her sister Amy was killed by Walkers.

The teaching and learning event being examined in this article focuses on the training Andrea undergoes in order to reclaim the right to possess her weapon. Andrea’s training occurs in four stages:
(1) small group instruction at a makeshift firing range, (2) private instruction with Shane in the woods,
(3) cooperative action on a search and rescue mission with Shane, and (4) supported action on the search and rescue mission.

Having addressed the context of the episode, findings will now be presented as they emerged during analysis of the teaching and learning event. The constant comparative method of coding (Corbin and Strauss; Boeije) was followed during analysis to seek out emerging elements from the teaching and learning event as related to the five topographical dimensions listed above (i.e. who of learning, what of learning, where of learning, when of learning, how of learning).

Dimension 1 — Who of Learning, addresses all who are affected by the teaching and learning event in this episode (i.e. learner, teacher, and community at large). Designated as the primary learner, Andrea is portrayed as an attractive young woman who was a successful lawyer prior to the outbreak. Intelligent and headstrong, Andrea is initially an asset to the community, showing leadership skills and the ability to think on her feet. After the loss of her sister Amy to a Walker attack, Andrea becomes introverted and severely depressed to the degree that many perceive her as suicidal. This perception is one of the catalysts that lead to Shane and Rick’s decree that only those who have been formally trained may possess a firearm. Although the firearm is presented as the predominant tool for survival in the earliest episodes of The Walking Dead, possession of this tool does not appear to be as significant to Andrea until she is no longer permitted to wield one. Initially opposed to the decree, Andrea eventually accepts the mandate and agrees to undergo formal training, having been forced to use a screwdriver to protect herself during a Walker attack.

Somewhat cocky and self-assured at the beginning of the teaching and learning event (i.e. small group instruction at a firing range), Andrea displays advanced proficiency by successfully shooting targets more difficult than those assigned to her. As a result, Andrea is extended the opportunity to move beyond group instruction into a dyadic apprenticeship under Shane’s guidance.

However, it becomes evident during her first lesson with Shane (i.e. private instruction in the woods)
that when placed in a more contextually realistic scenario (e.g., moving target, heightened stress levels), Andrea is not as skilled a marksman as she previously believed. Frustrated by her inability to master the skill of shooting a moving target (i.e. a log suspended by rope from a tree), Andrea is easily flustered by criticisms from Shane. Although she portrays herself as outspoken and independent, it is evident that Andrea is psychologically scarred by the loss of her sister. The mere utterance of Amy’s name during private instruction with Shane causes Andrea to cease participation in this phase of the teaching and learning event.

Despite her conflict with Shane over the use of her deceased sister as an instructional tool, Andrea shows that she is dedicated to advancing her firearm skills by agreeing to assist Shane on a search and rescue mission to find a missing child. This mission is Andrea’s first opportunity to assume the role of community protector since arriving at the survivors’ farm.

The instructor during this teaching and learning event is Shane. A former sheriff’s deputy, he serves as the proverbial alpha male and first community leader. The appearance of Rick, who was long assumed to be dead, leads to multiple internal and external conflicts for Shane. To understand Shane’s mental state during this teaching and learning event, it is imperative to examine his trajectory throughout the series. Prior to the outbreak, Rick and Shane were partners and best friends. During an altercation with a fugitive criminal, Rick is shot and falls into a coma, resulting in long-term hospitalization. Optimistic his friend will make a full recovery, Shane stays at Rick’s bedside until Walkers overtake the facility. Assuming that Rick’s unconscious body will be consumed by Walkers, Shane flees the hospital to collect Rick’s wife and son and to seek safety. In the months that follow, Shane and Rick’s wife Lori develop an intimate relationship. When Rick miraculously appears at the settlement, Lori returns to her husband, leaving Shane both heartbroken and jealous.

While publicly Shane helps maintain the community and follows Rick’s leadership, in private his persona becomes much more neurotic. Although Shane contemplates leaving the community to fend for himself, he ultimately stays due to his love for Lori. As a result of this emotional turmoil, Shane becomes increasingly combative, which is evident in his lessons with Andrea. During the teaching and learning event, Shane displays both sides of his personality by being hypercritical of Andrea and yet aware of socioemotional boundaries (e.g. “I crossed the line when I brought Amy into it. So yes. It’s an apology” (Darabont et al.)). While Shane is experienced, exhibits a high degree of leadership, and is adequately skilled to survive when Walkers attack, he is, like Andrea, emotionally unstable, which adds an interesting dynamic to their apprenticeship.

The third who to be considered in this teaching and learning event is the community at large. The majority of the community is neither formally trained survivalists nor experienced combatants. They are average men, women, and children with no spectacular attributes, aside from the fact that they are still alive. For this reason, former sheriff’s deputies Shane and Rick are well credentialed to serve as the more knowledgeable others who provide firearm training. Knowing that such training can improve chances for survival, a large proportion of the community participates in the initial training session at a makeshift firing range on the farm.

The second topographical dimension, What of Learning, addresses Andrea’s intended learning objectives in the episode. Actively participating in increasingly contextualized settings (e.g., firing range, woods, suburban neighborhood invaded by Walkers), Andrea seeks to develop her intended skill set within an apprenticeship model. At its most basic and overt level, this teaching and learning event focuses on Andrea expanding her skills with a firearm. There is also a deeper level of abstract learning that occurs within the episode.

By acquiring a new skill set, Andrea is revising her identity within the community. Throughout the series, Andrea expresses a desire to circumvent the community’s socially constructed gender roles (i.e. men are community protectors and women maintain domestic duties). Andrea views the possession of a firearm as a gateway to transcending her prescribed role in the community. Rather than washing clothes or preparing food, the possession of a firearm allows its owner multiple options including the ability to leave the farm on supply gathering missions, participate in Walker hunting expeditions, and serve as a night watch. Thus, success in this endeavor may not only provide Andrea with a new identity in the community but could also serve as a catalyst for sociopolitical shifts in power for all females on the farm.

Within the psychosocial realm, Andrea is also learning how to accept the death of her sister Amy. Since the loss of her sister to a Walker attack, Andrea has fallen into a manic, often suicidal, state. Andrea resists talking about this element of her psyche and temporarily abandons instruction with Shane due to his use of Amy’s death as a motivational tactic (e.g., “You’re too damn emotional. You need to shut it down. Take all that guilt, that fear, that being pissed off…That’s the Walker that got Amy. Now you shoot that son of a bitch! You shoot him!” (Darabont et al.)).

Dimension 3 — Where of Learning, examines the physical and sociopolitical environment in which the teaching and learning event occurs. The setting of this episode is a community of survivors living on a farm outside of Atlanta, Georgia. The survivors have temporarily settled at the farm after experiencing numerous Walker attacks in other temporary settlements. Hopeful they will find a larger community unaffected by the outbreak, the survivors are semi-nomadic, settling in areas considered safe for habitation. The farm offers community members a sense of life as it was before the outbreak due to its various amenities such as clean drinking water and private bedrooms. At the farm, survivors live communally, sharing food, supplies, and various responsibilities.

In addition to the setting of the teaching and learning event, it is also important to examine its timing and duration; thus, the When of Learning is designated as the fourth topographical dimension. Although the characters involved in this episode bring a lifetime of experiences to the teaching and learning event, the event itself occurs within the span of a single day. This is displayed through several pieces of evidence within the episode. First, at the firing range Rick arranges for Andrea to receive personal instruction from Shane after the conclusion of the day’s group lesson. Next, after Andrea becomes angry and abandons her private lesson, Shane finds her walking down the road and invites her to join him as backup on a mission to locate a missing child. The teaching and learning event concludes as the two narrowly escape a Walker attack.

On a broader scale, this teaching and learning event occurs within the context of a post-apocalyptic world. Prior to the outbreak, the skill set being learned (i.e. mastery with a firearm) was critical only for those whose career put them in harm’s way. After the outbreak however, it is essential for survival in a Walker-infested world. For Andrea this event occurs at a psychosocial crossroads between wanting to end her life and desiring to transform her identity within the community.

Having explored the context in which the teaching and learning event is situated, focus will now shift to analyzing the pedagogical approach Shane utilizes to guide Andrea’s development in this episode. Dimension 5 — How of Learning, emerges in a series of four scaffolded stages during the teaching and learning event: (1) small group instruction, (2) private instruction, (3) cooperative action, and (4) supported action.

In the first stage of learning, small group instruction, Andrea is an active participant in a community of practice at a makeshift gun range. Taking aim at bottles and old road signs, participants receive constant feedback from more knowledgeable others (i.e. Rick and Shane) regarding their technique and marksmanship. Of the four instructional stages in the episode, Stage 1 is the least contextualized, exhibits the lowest level of stress on participants, and is the most risk adverse. Although the firing range is a situated learning activity (e.g. participants are shooting firearms instead of reading a book about shooting firearms), the targets are stationary and nonthreatening. Hence, this phase of instruction does not accurately simulate the context of a Walker attack. The no stress-no risk environment of Stage 1 births in Andrea a false sense of self-confidence regarding her ability to use a gun.

During this stage, Andrea receives direct feedback from community leaders Rick and Shane. At first Shane believes Andrea has missed her assigned target (i.e. a glass bottle). Upon closer inspection he realizes that she was not shooting at the bottle, but rather had placed three bullets through the O in a No Trespassing sign. Impressed by Andrea’s apparent proficiency at the firing range, Rick proposes that she receive advanced training from Shane. With her acceptance, Andrea becomes an apprentice under Shane’s guidance. No other participants in the episode, male or female, are extended an invitation to enter an apprenticeship.

The second stage of Andrea’s learning occurs via dyadic private instruction with Shane in a wooded area on the farm. As Shane seeks to further situate the training within the context of a Walker attack, he increases the difficulty of the task by requiring Andrea to shoot a moving target (i.e. a log suspended from a tree). This task proves to be beyond Andrea’s current ability level and leads to numerous complaints from the learner. In response to Andrea’s grumblings, Shane takes on an aggressive drill sergeant-like tone and interlaces instruction with statements explaining that the task is designed to simulate real life combat (e.g., “Now you stand here. You point your weapon. Point it like you point your finger. Do not think about it. I’m talking about muscle memory girl. Muscle memory!…You think a Walker is gonna’ hold still for you?” (Darabont et al.)).

Although this pedagogical strategy does not appear to progress Andrea’s shooting ability (i.e. she is still unable to hit the moving target), Shane continues his tactics by employing gender negative criticisms (e.g. “God you shoot like a damn girl…You’re too damn emotional” (Darabont et al.)). At this point, Andrea not only challenges Shane’s methods but also his abilities as the more knowledgeable other (e.g., “Stop badgering me…Right, and you’re so calm?” (Darabont et al.)). Shane responds to Andrea’s critique by effortlessly shooting the log and expressing his ability to separate emotion from task completion (e.g., “See? I can be pissed off, I can be whistling Dixie, and I always hit the target.” (Darabont et al.)).

After reaffirming his role as the more knowledgeable other, Shane orders Andrea to try again. Shane continues his harsh tone and places Andrea under heightened levels of stress until she ceases the lesson due to his mentioning of Amy’s death (e.g., “That’s the Walker that got Amy. Now you shoot that son of a bitch! You shoot him!” (Darabont et al.)).

Although there is no risk involved in this stage of instruction, the stress level is significantly higher than that of Stage 1, which results in Andrea’s choice to abandon the lesson prior to successful task completion.

After their altercation at the end of Stage 2, Shane finds Andrea walking down the road alone and seeks to make amends by explaining that his pedagogical method in the previous stage of instruction was both strategic and intentional (e.g., “Hey look. I’m just trying to get you rattled. Alright? Just giving you an idea of what it’s like when the shit starts to fly.” (Darabont et al.)).

Despite her failure to show mastery of the intended skill in the previous stage, Shane does not suggest that the two return to the woods or shooting range for further training. Instead, he extends an invitation for Andrea to join him on a mission to search for a missing child, thereby moving into a third stage of instruction based on highly contextualized cooperative action. Shane takes on a new pedagogical approach by ceasing the aggressive tone and placing Andrea in a high-risk situation in which her ability to hit a moving target
(i.e. a Walker) could determine whether she and Shane survive the mission.

After a short duration of exploring the neighborhood where the missing child is assumed to be, Andrea and Shane are attacked by a herd of Walkers. Shane acknowledges that the two must work cooperatively in order to successfully reach their vehicle (e.g., “You cover that street. I’ll clear the car.” (Darabont et al.)). Although Shane has taken on the more difficult task by assigning himself an area with a greater number of Walkers, the two are ultimately co-dependent for a successful escape.

Quickly clearing his designated area, Shane notices that Andrea is still unable to shoot her targets in the head, the skill he was attempting to teach her in Stage 2. Shane provides Andrea with backup, allowing her to practice shooting at Walkers. This stage is high stress, as both Andrea and Shane’s lives are endangered; however, Andrea’s risk is fairly low due to Shane’s active support.

The third stage of the teaching and learning event segues directly into Stage 4, supported action, when Andrea’s pistol jams with Walkers quickly approaching. Initially, Shane provides coverage and supportive guidance (e.g., “Focus now. Clear the jam. Focus” (Darabont et al.)); however, as Andrea becomes more frantic and panicked, Shane lowers his gun as a sign that he is allowing her to engage in a sink or swim moment. Although he offers words of encouragement, Shane allows a Walker to get just outside of arm’s length from Andrea without raising his gun to stifle its progression. At this point, Shane transitions from being an active co-participant to supportive observer in the teaching and learning event. It is worth noting that Shane places Andrea in this high-stress high-risk situated learning environment after she has failed to successfully hit a moving target during the previous two stages. Andrea, aware of Shane’s instructional decision, questions his method while continuing to attempt the task (e.g., “Are you kidding me?” (Darabont et al.)). At the climax of the scene, Andrea successfully clears the jam and shoots a Walker moments before it attacks her. In this stage, Andrea’s inability to execute the skill would have meant certain death, making it the most high-stress and high-risk of all four stages of instruction. After eliminating her most immediate threat and successfully completing the task, the stress associated with the learning event rapidly dissipates, as shown by a regained air of confidence.

The teaching and learning event in this episode of The Walking Dead provides multiple insights for improving curricular and pedagogical design in formal classroom settings. First, this teaching and learning event shows that contextualized active participation in a community of practice is critical to learner development. If Andrea had simply read a book about shooting a firearm or attended a lecture on clearing a jammed gun, she may not have survived the Walker attack during the mission with Shane. As shown in this episode, contextually appropriate experiential knowledge can allow learners the opportunity to reach their potential development more rapidly than decontextualized instruction. Thus, in classroom instruction it is critical that teachers forego decontextualized drill-and-kill style assignments and instead provide students the opportunity to be active participants in situated learning activities.

Second, the analysis shows that it is possible to scaffold knowledge within a situated learning activity. Actively participating in the act of shooting during each stage, Andrea moves through four scaffolded stages of instruction in the episode. Throughout the teaching and learning event, Andrea transitions from a controlled group setting that emphasizes basic skills with a firearm to personalized instruction meant to refine those skills. Andrea then assists Shane in a cooperative activity that requires her to display mastery and task completion in an authentic context. Likewise, classroom teachers can work with students on scaffolded learning activities. As students gain experience and master lower level skills, the teacher can allow students to assume greater autonomy in future endeavors. By way of illustration, a computer science instructor can facilitate a situated learning activity with a class of novice programmers in three scaffolded stages. During the first stage, the teacher could utilize a computer-mediated activity to help students learn a programming language (e.g., Java, C++, Python). After the students have shown proficiency with the programming language, the teacher and students could cooperatively write code for a program that was designed by the instructor. Finally, the teacher could challenge students to design and write their own programs, providing assistance as the more knowledgeable other when needed.

Third, the teaching and learning event displays the empowerment and motivation associated with gender equity in the learning environment. From the pilot episode to this one containing the teaching and learning event, Andrea becomes increasingly depressed and neurotic, resulting in the destruction of numerous interpersonal relationships. Despite her psychosocial troubles, an interest in becoming a community protector motivates Andrea’s pursuit of formal training with a firearm. Regardless of her aspirations, there are sociocultural norms that have to be overcome for Andrea to transcend the community’s socially constructed gender roles. As Andrea receives training and assists Shane on a mission, she is able to take steps toward obtaining the identity of community protector. The receipt of appropriate credentials (i.e. formal training with a firearm) allows Andrea’s role in the community to transform where she is no longer expected to participate in tasks she considers demeaning and menial (e.g., preparing meals and washing clothes). As a result,
Andrea experiences a renewed sense of purpose via a meaningful contribution to the community.

This example is important to classroom teachers in two ways. First, while socially constructed roles may be prevalent in society, gender marginalization does not have to extend into the classroom. By promoting equity in the learning environment, students of all demographics can have the opportunity to experience empowerment and motivation that otherwise may not be available in other social contexts. For example, teachers can enrich social studies curriculum, which traditionally emphasizes the contributions of dominant populations (e.g., wealthy, whites, heterosexuals, males), by intentionally incorporating content that gives prominence to the pivotal roles played by historically underrepresented populations (e.g., females, people of color, LBGTQ). By doing so, teachers not only disrupt dominant narratives that undermine the salience of these populations but also encourage diverse students to embrace their heritages and identities.

Second, like many students, Andrea suffers from severe psychosocial scarring that results in social isolation and decreased motivation. After being offered the opportunity to participate in an activity relative to her interests and goals, Andrea is able to work through her emotional issues and experience a renewed sense of community membership. This finding displays the importance of allowing students to have a voice in curricular decisions. Instead of assigning students tasks that do not align with their interests, which may result in decreased motivation and psychosocial health, teachers could utilize strategies that increase their knowledge of students’ personal goals and affinities (e.g., interest inventories). By helping teachers craft curriculum that corresponds with students’ passions and aspirations, the information gained from these activities can increase the meaningfulness of classroom instruction.

Finally, this episode shows that concurrently increasing stress and risk levels may be beneficial to student development. In the four stages of Dimension 5 — How of Learning, Andrea reacts to context as a catalyst for her development. During the three initial stages, as Andrea faces no stress or risk or unbalanced levels of stress and risk, she is unable to move beyond her actual development level with a firearm. In the final stage however, Shane places Andrea in a high-stress high-risk scenario where survival is determined by the ability to exhibit skill mastery. Although Shane could help Andrea fend off the Walkers, he lowers his weapon symbolizing that Andrea is responsible for completing the task, making both the risk and stress levels of the activity high. When Andrea is placed into this concurrently high-risk high-stress environment, she not only successfully completes her given task (i.e. shooting a Walker in the head) but also replicates task completion by slaying numerous other Walkers in the vicinity.

While many primary and secondary level education programs seek to decrease the risk and stress associated with learning, this episode provides a case in which development does not occur until risk and stress are concurrently high. From this example it can be said that learning outcomes devoid of stress and risk may fail to motivate students’ advancement beyond current development levels. Likewise, when there is an imbalance of stress and risk, students may rebel, act out in class, or fail to successfully complete assigned tasks. However, if a student is challenged to complete a task beyond her current development level and is informed of consequences attached to failure, she may be motivated to successfully complete the task. For instance, a student who aspires to become a published poet, but does not write consistently, might propose an assignment to her teacher requiring submission of an original poem each day prior to recess. The two may negotiate a consequence that requires the student to write during recess, rather than play with friends, on days in which she fails to complete her task. By incorporating stress (i.e. submission deadline) and risk (i.e. loss of play time) the student may be compelled to incorporate writing into her daily routine, a critical habit for any aspiring author.

It is worth noting that the author of this essay does not consider the term high-risk to be synonymous with high-stakes (e.g., state mandated standardized exams that are used as quantitative measures of student learning) for two reasons. First, high-risk assessments are relative to individual goals established and voluntarily pursued by the learner. Second, high-risk assessments are authentic in that they are contextually bound by an individual learner’s aspirations. To correspond with a student’s goals, consequences should be mutually negotiated by the student and teacher to encourage dyadic ownership of tasks and learning outcomes (Anderson). Inversely, high-stakes activities utilize decontextualized, often quantitative, means to measure a population’s competency regarding topics chosen by legislators and administrative officials (Giroux and Schmidt). Differing from high-risk learning endeavors, high-stakes activities mandate the participation of a broad student population and offer learners no voice in what or how content will be assessed.

Although some critics dismiss popular media as a mere cultural novelty that stifles the intellectual progression of today’s youth (Bauerlein), it has proven to be an invaluable tool for exploring best practices in teaching and learning. Gleaning insights from an episode of The Walking Dead, this article contributes to extant literature on the use of apocalyptic media as an instrument for analyzing instructional practice. Ripe with examples of teaching and learning in communities of practice, The Walking Dead is a valuable resource for examining the construction of knowledge in a society absent of formal schooling. As a result, future research may identify and analyze skills pursued by other characters in the series or perform longitudinal studies of characters’ development throughout the series at large. Additionally, researchers may choose to explore teaching and learning in various popular television series, films, video games, and other media through the five topographical dimensions of learning presented in this article. Regardless of the direction taken in future studies, the continuation of research on teaching and learning in popular culture is essential to the evolution and proliferation of the field.


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Author Bio:

Anthony Neely is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Interdisciplinary Learning and Teaching at The University of Texas at San Antonio. His research explores youth and popular culture as instructional tools, affective teacher-student relationships, and reverse mentoring in secondary level classrooms. Prior to pursuing his doctorate, Anthony earned a Master’s degree in Educational Theory and Practice at Arkansas State University and a Bachelor’s degree in Secondary Education at Tennessee Technological University.

Social Media:

Academia: https://utsa.academia.edu/AnthonyNeely

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Twitter: @anthonydneely


Reference Citation:

Neely, Anthony. “Girls, Guns, and Zombies: Five Dimensions of Teaching and Learning in The Walking Dead. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 2.1 (2014). Web and Print.

Neely, A. (2014). Girls, guns, and zombies: Five dimensions of teaching and learning in The Walking DeadDialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 2(1). http://journaldialogue.org/issues/issue-2/girls-guns-and-zombies-five-dimensions-of-teaching-and-learning-in-the-walking-dead/