The moment Rick Grimes cut his way through the first crop of walkers to escape that abandoned hospital, I was hooked, and so was America. We're now two-and-a-half seasons into AMC's epic drama and the ratings are growing faster than rural Georgia's own zombie infestation. “The Walking Dead” reached its mid-season finale with an eye-gouging, and a lot of very convenient plotting. “Made to Suffer” was the title, and racked up an astonishing 10.5 million viewers and piled-on an additional 4.7 million for its encore showing. This makes this the highest rated show on basic cable ever. If you don't already have a cable subscription service, and want to watch Walking Dead to see what the hype is about, Cable.tv can be a helpful start to compare your options for channels in your area.
So what is it about “The Walking Dead” that captivates us? This certainly isn't the first show about zombies, and movies have tried time and time again at the genre with mild success, so what makes “Dead” so different? Like Michonne's katana through an undead skull, you can slice the reasons how you like, the truth is this— we came for the zombies, but we stayed for the humans:
The Social Contract
An academic theory that's no stranger to film, the social contract (or lack thereof) is a weighing issue in “The Walking Dead” and doubles down in season 3 with the introduction of The Governor and his isolated community of Woodbury. The social contract is that unwritten rule that we treat each other like human beings— the golden rule. But in a twist of irony, it's the human beings that tear at each other like the walkers that surround them. The degradation of the social contract is the heart of what makes the show so good. Remove the laws of the land, and everyone becomes vulnerable.
Then you have Woodbury. A caged dictatorship shrouded with the illusion of freedom and civilized life. At it's worst, it's our greatest fear from Big Brother. At it's best, it's the most ideal scenario for a post-apocalyptic world. But at both ends it forces everyone involved to give up a little piece of the social contract in exchange for survival.
Carl's Loss of Innocence
Like his sister Judith, Carl was born into a hell unsuitable for children. But unlike Judith's tragic birth in that prison basement, Carl was metaphorically reborn in the world of walkers. With a single gunshot through an undead Shane, Carl instantly matured more than a decade in front of his father's eyes. He had to. What was once just a kid under Lori's watch (forcing her to ask "Where's Carl" a hundred times, no less) is now a cold-blooded sharpshooter in a sheriff's hat.
Oh, and he had to shoot his own mom in the head to prevent her from turning into a zombie. What were you doing at 12?
A Breakdown in Sanity
Sanity breaks down in several ways, and in “The Walking Dead” we've seen three prime examples. Shane lost his sanity to violence. He saw a world that was just a little too civilized among the chaos (see the social contract above) and was willing to kill his best friend to return his group to the savagery. The Governor lost his sanity to false hope, keeping his chained daughter in a cage, and only letting her out for the occasional hair brushing. Rick lost his sanity to sorrow. He gave Lori the cold shoulder while fulfilling his role as the toughened leader and lost her before he had the chance to make amends. Luckily, it was a problem an imaginary phone call to his deceased wife couldn't fix.
What does this all have in common? The conflict we rarely see in real life, which is what TV is all about, right? Putting the improbable to life. The zombies are great and we sure love them, but it's all a vehicle for the big picture: when the world falls apart and everyone wants to eat you, how do you treat the ones that don't?