I’ve been thinking a lot recently about RVs, especially in connection with my current next project. The broad context of that project has to do with post-apocalyptic television shows. I’m interested in how such shows create new worlds out of the rubble of the old. Often, travel plays a key role, the movement of the characters pushing the boundaries of the imagined landscape, always increasing its size and scope.
The Walking Dead offers an obvious example, the title a reference not only to the “walkers,” but to the band of survivors as well. As Rick says during the recent “Them” episode (5.9), “We are the real walking dead.” At various moments they have found refuge in one spot or another – the quarry, the CDC, Herschel’s farm, the prison – but in the end there has been, and it seems unlikely there ever will be any real safe haven: restless movement defines these characters’ lives. In this context, Dale’s RV – at least for a time – works as an ideal symbol. On the one hand, it ties in so well with the necessary movement, but at the same time it holds out a sort of hope in these early seasons, an vain belief that everything will turn out ok in the end, that the whole nightmare is nothing more than a passing difficulty, a vacation gone awry that might be weathered in a temporary home on wheels. The vehicle’s increasingly bedraggled state only reminds us, though, that the longer the situation continues the less likely any hope of returning to normalcy remains. The RV works as a liminal space, one that reminds us of home even as it reminds us that home is far away.
When I decided to revisit another post-apocalyptic series, NBC ‘s Revolution, I was surprised to discover that the first episode also incorporates an RV. Just before their father is murdered and Danny is taken captive by the Monroe Militia, Danny and Charlie explore an overturned RV they discover while hunting in the woods. In many ways the symbolism in this case works similarly to that in The Walking Dead. This series, like that one, involves restless movement, first as Charlie chases after her brother, and later as the rebels must flee Monroe. Indeed, one of the things that may have doomed the second season was how stationary the characters became (Charlie and Miles search, early on, for the others, but the A plot line sticks with Miles and Rachel, who fight the “Patriots” from the town of Willoughby through a good percentage of the season). In some ways this RV is less a symbol of hope than Dale’s: fifteen years after the blackout it lies on its side, overgrown with vegetation. The road beneath it seems to have disappeared entirely. Even so, it sparks something in Charlie, a restlessness that will define her character over the entire series. She discovers a postcard while in the RV, a picture of Wrigley Field, and we find out she has an entire collection of such postcards. Later in the episode, when she finally arrives at an overgrown Wrigley Field, we realize travel represents hope in this ruined landscape.
Breaking Bad, Walking Dead’s sometimes AMC companion series also features an RV in the early seasons. And while Breaking Bad isn’t post-apocalyptic in the strictest sense, there is a sort of PA aura that hangs over the New Mexico border town (an aura Cormac McCarthy has mined in a good deal of his work as well). So many times we see the mobile meth lab isolated in the desert, surrounded by a vast wasteland. Nowhere is that landscape more post apocalyptic than in “4 Days Out” (2.9) during which Walt and Jesse are stranded in this space, slowly dying of thirst, their modern technology useless. So too we find nightmarish, unbelievable images – a drug informant’s head on the back of a tortoise; the scrap metal yard where Walt and Jesse meet Tuco; the jetliner that falls from the sky. Here again, the RV serves as a liminal object, though in a different way. It is a secret world, one hidden from others, a “Recreational,” vehicle turned to very different, more sinister uses, yet, despite all that, still maintaining some of its connections to vacation, freedom, recreation, and nostalgia.
A number of other instances crossed my path while I was researching these three – the school bus lost in the first episodes of Jericho, Wynn Duffy’s home on wheels in Justified – but for some reason I was drawn to a pre-9/11 example, from before the days when post-apocalyptic shows began to pop up with such regularity: Dr. Gonzo’s RV, which for the most part remained parked in the San Francisco Memorial Hospital on Trapper John, M.D. This particular RV always reminded us that both Trapper and Gonzo had served in M.A.S.H. units (Trapper in Korea, Gonzo in Vietnam) and that being mobile was a leftover mark of what they had endured. In a way that mobility did represent escape in the end, when Gonzo finally left the series in search of a new life, after suffering a debilitating stroke. Throughout most of the series, however, it seemed to work in ways very different from shows like Walking Dead, Gonzo desperately hanging on to the “The Titanic,” a symbol for his fear of commitment. The real hope always lay in the possibility of permanence rather than movement.
And that’s what I argue defines today’s golden age of television – restless movement rather than stasis. In the end, it’s all about the RV.
MK Adkins has a Ph.D in English that he occasionally uses to think about literature, but more often uses to think about television, music and film. Adkins is the author of two popular culture books as well as numerous articles and reviews. Until recently, he worked as a college professor but made the decision to devote himself full-time to writing and podcasting in January 2019.
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