Podscripts - S2 Ep 1 - Why Post-Apocalyptic Shows Aren't As Post-Apocalyptic As You Might Think
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Greetings and salutations and welcome to another edition of the Pop Culture Academy where we do all things pop culture with just a bit of an academic slant. I'm your host, MK Adkins and we're back for a second season to talk about music, television, film, video games, anything and everything having to do with popular culture. But to do it in a way that's, I don't know, maybe more in depth than what you're used to with other podcasts or websites. I guess the way I would put it is that we actually think popular culture is important enough that it needs to be studied. And that's sort of what we're trying to do here is study it.
So this week I thought maybe we could talk a little bit about post-apocalyptic stories. The whole sort of, what happens after the world ends kind of thing. And, you know, that seems especially apropos at the moment. But really, really the reason that I'm thinking about it is because I've been trying this last week to catch up on the most recent season of The Walking Dead. Yes, I know, that puts me a little behind but, you know, and I also have to admit that I am just now finishing season 2 of Killing Eve, even though the rest of the world is now in the middle of season 3. But, you know, I've talked about this on the show before and in blog posts - you just can't keep up with media anymore. And I mean in one way that's kind of a beautiful thing- that there's so much amazing work being done out there in music and television. But of course the downside is that you can't possibly keep up. My mantra these days has become, "I'm working on it". Right? Have you heard the new Lucinda Williams album yet? I'm working on it. Have you been watching those fantastic Leslie Jordan posts? Well, I'm working on it. And, well here's the thing - here's what's really scary about all of this. The way every channel now is thinking about creating their own stand alone pay service. What, we already have Disney and CBS and that's beside the fact that we have HBO and Showtime and Starz and Amazon and Netflix and Hulu and NBC is working on its own network. What happens when we have to pay a separate fee every month for all of these different networks? I mean, the whole idea of cutting the cord was about saving money, right? I'll get things on Netflix and Hulu and I won't have to pay a cable bill anymore. But is that going to ultimately wind up backfiring on us? If we have to pay $5-$10 a month for 20-30 services, what's that bill going to look like? And you're paying them all separately. It's crazy. You know, and it's fine if you only really like a couple of channels. But if you want to watch Walking Dead you're going to need the AMC network. And if you want to watch Barry, you're going to need the HBO network. And, you know, I want to catch the last season of Homeland and that's on Showtime. And Fleabag's on Amazon. On and on and on.
But then, maybe the more depressing thing is that we don't have the same kind of connection to each other anymore because we have all these choices now. Like we all watched that season finale, series finale, of M*A*S*H. And so we could all talk about it the next day. It was one of those, what they called, water cooler shows, water cooler moments. But these days we're all watching something different. My shows, your shows, my playlist, your playlist. We've got nothing in common. And then I was thinking well maybe that's what love will look like in the future. Right? Like, we have all the same shows in common, we have the same playlists in common, we are destined to be with each other. We are soul mates because our playlists match. You know, or the opposite. Like marriage is an agreement to love, honor and to watch the same lineup for the rest of your lives. And then I had this thought a couple of days ago - this must be like the greatest time ever in history to be an actor. I mean, if you can't find a job as an actor when there are literally hundreds of shows being made, how bad must you be?
But, all right, so anyway, the point of all this is I'm behind and I'm catching up on The Walking Dead. And I started thinking about that show as post-apocalyptic, right? It's about what happens to us after the world as we know it comes to an end. Which, like I said, I guess has taken on a new meaning lately. But I've always really loved post-apocalyptic stories. The Walking Dead. The Matrix. The Road Warrior. Make a list. And I was thinking a little bit about what these stories are. That is, why do we have stories like these and why do we like them so much? In some ways these are all versions of science fiction. So, what will the future look like? And so imagine my question is really more about science fiction in general or the science fiction that is sometimes called dystopian. Now, if you don't know that word it's the opposite of utopian. Thomas More invented that word for the perfect society which he describes in his book from the early 1500s. Only that - it's meant to be a good society. So it's kind of a bit boring. And eventually writers discover that instead of asking what would be a perfect society, it's far more entertaining to ask the question what would the world be like if it were really really terrible. I mean, that's just way more entertaining, right? Now of course, part of the reason we like these stories, science fiction stories, stories that think about the apocalypse, is because they're, you know, they're just cool. Right? H.G. Wells and Jules Verne figured out at about the same time that it's really cool to imagine what the future might be like. What sorts of gadgets we might have. What will our behaviors be like, how will they change. It's like a fun little mind experiment. And it gets more, more and more popular as the twentieth century goes on. So that now we even have these whole sort of large science fiction universes, right? The Star Wars universe. And the Doom universe. And the Ender universe. You know, I hear they are working on an addition to Battlestar Galactica at this very moment. But science fiction isn't just fun. It actually serves an important function for us. There's a historic basis to it all that goes back maybe 400, 500 years, or you know, back to Thomas More but more specifically to something called "social contract theory". Somewhere back there, writers like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, they start thinking about government, right? We've lived with government for however long and our society's lived with government and suddenly they are beginning to wonder. Most countries at that point are living under a monarchy and these different philosophers are starting to ask questions. You know, is that really the best way to do it? Having a king. And to figure out their answers-they all have a different answer-they do this thought experiment. They all sort of do this same thought experiment. It's a little like science fiction only it works in reverse. That is, they imagine the very beginning of human society. All right, so let's go back to the very earliest human beings. And the way they imagine it, all these human beings are living on their own. And, you know, they're having a really good time by themselves in the beginning. They're savages. They are out in the world. They've got no one to bother them and no one to tell them what to do. It's perfect freedom. Who wouldn't want that? Why would anyone give that up? Well, okay, so maybe I'm a savage who isn't so good at making spears. I'm deficient in making spears. And I really need a good spear if I'm going to catch the best sabertooth tiger or whatever. So I happen to find a guy who's pretty great at making spears. And I call him up and decide to make a trade. And, you know, I'm feeling lonely so maybe we start hanging out. I mean, I've been living in a cave by myself for all these years. I'm willing to give up my freedom, my total freedom, to get that spear or to get fire, have friends to hang out with or whatever it is that I want. For these social contract theorists that's the beginning of society, the beginning of government. And all these writers sort of asked the same question - well, if that's how society started, sort of trading our freedom for something in return, where should we be by now? What should the rules be? How should things run? Those kinds of questions. And, I mean that sounds a bit dry and dusty but don't forget that's where America comes from, right? Huge chunks of John Locke's work uses exactly this sort of social contract theory mythology. Huge chucks of John Locke's work show up in the Declaration of Independence.
So, all right, so fast forward to the 19th century. We've started to figure out now that the world didn't really start that way. That is, there weren't a whole lot of isolated people who just found each other. It's pretty imaginative to think about in that way but there aren't, you know, there aren't sort of a lot of cave men all living in their own cave like The Police's "Message in a Bottle", sending each other cryptic messages or whatever. It was always groups. Right? We always started in groups, whether it was family or, you know, whatever kind of group. Right from the start we were in groups. You know, Darwin's writing - we're starting to develop the science of anthropology. Our whole world view is changing and now social contract theory just seems a little silly now, frankly. But we're still asking that question. That is, what makes the perfect society? What's wrong with us now and how can we fix it? And one new strategy if we're talking about these questions is, instead of looking backwards, projecting forward. If we look to the future we can think about what we're doing now. What that might lead to. And in the end that gives you science fiction. Most science fiction is of the dystopian type, that is, it imagines what the future will be like if everything goes horribly wrong. If the world just completely goes to hell. We're not to, not quite to post-apocalyptic stories yet, right? Because no one is saying, no one in these stories is saying society has ended, just, you know, what would it be like if things were really bad? The opposite of a perfect utopia. A dystopia.
So you think a good science fiction show like Star Trek and let me - I'll stop here for a second and say that one of the things I'm working on is getting caught up enough to watch Discovery and Picard. I'm especially anxious to get to Picard because I've heard such great things about it and I'm really a huge Patrick Stewart fan. But, like I say, I'm working on it.
All right, but let's go back to the original, the original series. So I don't remember the name of it, but there's that one episode where half the people are black on the left side of their body and white on the right side of their body. And the other half of the people are black on the right side and white on the left. And you watch that show and you think, "wow. I mean how petty can you be?" I mean, right? What difference does it make, what difference could it possibly make which side of you is which? These guys, they seem to take it so seriously. And you know, what a messed up world that is. Now, I think you may sense where I'm going with it because that episode may be a little bit on the nose. But one of the things that should be immediately obvious is that that show, that episode is not about some distant planet in some distant future. It's not about the future. It's about the present. That episode comes out in 1969, 1970. Gee, what could Gene Roddenberry possibly be talking about? Well, maybe it could be race relations in America. It's a story set in the future but it's not about the future. It's supposed to teach us something about the now. I'm living in 1969 and I'm watching this episode and it's supposed to be telling me something about my world and my reality. And that's how most science fiction and really all dystopian stories work. I'm a writer. I notice something is wrong with the world today. Now, I can sit down and compose a strongly worded essay about it, and some writers do. Some of our greatest works of literature are essays like this. Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience". And Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech. But there's another way to do it too. It turns out that fiction, stories, have this, I don't know, this unique power over us. It isn't that we just - it isn't that we just like them, there actually seems to be something in our brain that connects to them on a very fundamental, a very deep level. Neurologists have actually done studies to show that when a person reads a story or a novel their brains light up as though whatever they are reading about is actually happening to them. Now, stop for a minute and think about what that means. It means that when we read Harry Potter you don't just read about Harry Potter, you become Harry Potter. When he faces down Voldemort, you face down Voldemort. Which is why you get so damn excited when he succeeds. So if you want it, you know if you're a good writer, think of what you can do with that kind of power. You want your reader to know, let's say you want your reader to know what kind of a prejudice a gay person in America faces in the 1960s. You write a story where the reader becomes a gay person in America in the 1960s and he actually experiences it. And all stories do that. But science fiction does something else too, that's helpful for talking about social problems. It takes us somewhere else, to another place, another time and it turns out that sometimes it can be really hard to talk about today's problems. You know, we don't want to confront them. It makes us uncomfortable. But if we remove them to another place and time it becomes easier.
So, let's say you're a writer in the 1980s and you think there's a problem with organized religions, especially certain kinds of christianity. You think, for instance, that they rely too much on superstition and they're close minded. And here's the big one, right, you really don't like the way they treat women. All that sort of obey-your-husband business. Now, you could write an essay, lay out your argument for what's wrong with religion. But how many religious people will read it? And how many of the ones who read it will actually change their minds? My guess would be somewhere close to zero. But, if you aren't actually talking about the now, if you're only imagining the future, a future, say where hmm I don't know, religion has taken over and women aren't allowed to read or write. And some women are turned into sex slaves and these women are called, oh, I don't know, handmaids. Well now you've got something completely different. You go into the story not realizing what it's all about because it's science fiction. We just think, oh it's not about now. It's about the future. And you get involved with the characters, you get involved with the struggles and you finish it and a week or two later you're watching something on the news and suddenly it hits you, oh wait. That wasn't about the future, that's about what's going on right now. And that's what science fiction is all about. Talking about our problems but moving them to the future so they are easier to talk about.
So, I mean, last season I talked about Battlestar Galactica. That show is absolutely about the post 9-11 world. The conflict that we faced right after 9-11 between our values which at that particular moment were all about freedom and our desire for safety and security and how those two things couldn't sort of co-exist together. We had to give up a little freedom to get safety and security and how much are we going to give up? And there are certainly other shows that take on that subject, the sort of 9-11 world more directly. I mean, Homeland for instance is set in the here and now. But Battlestar, by taking us to a completely other civilization in another part of the universe gave us a little bit of distance. And so we can get upset over what's happening on that show, you know, we can say, look how they are torturing Baltar. No one, even Baltar, should have to endure that kind of torture. And then only later do we realize, hey, that's what we're doing right now in black sites all over the world. We're doing that kind of torture. This show is about us. And we're angry at us.
So, a dystopian story takes something negative in our own current time, moves it forward and shows how bad it can become. Obviously the Handmaid's Tale is a good example. Margaret Atwood sees something in our religious tendency in America that scares her and she says what if that tendency actually won out? What if this particular sort of religion won? What would life be like? And she imagines that future - a world where it's all gone completely wrong. And by doing that she warns us, be careful about religion, particularly religions that don't give women equal rights because here's what that world would be like. But you don't just have to worry about it in the future, she's telling us it's a problem right now. And the Handmaid's Tale is a good early example but these novels actually go back to early in the 20th century. Huxley's Brave New World, which you may have read in high school, imagines what it would be like if life was all about entertainment. He believes if we keep investing in entertainment and that becomes more and more important to us, we'll all be empty-headed and meaning will be completely gone, completely lost from the world. Now, of course, that's not my take on things but, you know, he gives us this great dystopian novel that's all about what might happen. 1984, another good example. You know, Orwell wants his reader to realize that he's not talking about 1984 he's actually talking about his world. 1984 isn't 1984. It's 1948 when Orwell was writing. He just reverses the numbers to give us distance so we're not so close to it. But again he's saying what happens if a place like the Soviet Union should actually win out? Right? What would that world look like? And it's scary. And we don't want it. And so then we look for ways to keep it from happening. And that's what all these novels and stories are trying to accomplish.
All right, but we started with The Walking Dead and post-apocalyptic stories so let's get back to that. Post-apocalyptic stories are yet another sub-genre within science fiction and dystopian stories. Of course, as the name implies, post-apocalyptic works imagine the world after a cataclysm. And everything is essentially destroyed, wiped out. Society as we know it has ceased to exist. And now these stories return us to that idea of social contract theory, right? Because remember social contract theory imagines life before civilization and post-apocalyptic works do the same thing in reverse. They imagine life after civilization. If we have to start the world completely over, what will be the best way to do it? And from start to finish that's what The Walking Dead has been about. Now, it's gotten really popular over the years to dismiss The Walking Dead. And, uh, it's not what it used to be. And, you know, I know it's not the show that it was in the first couple of seasons. From my point of view, I think the problem has to do with the producers' willingness to use cheap stunts. Right? A couple of seasons ago the gang stretches piano wire between two cars driving on opposite sides of the interstate and they are just decapitating a whole herd of walkers at one time. And, you know, yeah it's clever I suppose. And it's funny. But I'm not really sure it should be funny, if you know what I mean. And then they set up Glenn's fake death, I think in that same season. You know, and there's no point to that other than sheer stock value. But one reason, one reason a lot of people got frustrated with the show early on, like by season 2 some people were giving up on it, is because - it was generally felt there weren't enough zombies, right? Not enough zombie's chasing people around. A lot of people hated that they were just stuck on Hershel's farm. And they didn't go anywhere. But see that was the point. This show and the original comic book and definitely Fear the Walking Dead they were never meant to be as much about killing zombies as they were about imagining the world resetting itself. I mean, suppose for a minute that everything we associate with civilization was suddenly gone. No government, no religion. No laws. No given values. Everything is absolutely, completely new. How would we react? And what would we become? And it's a chance to start over with a clean slate to create the ideal government. The ideal world. The ideal civilization. Only it turns out it's not so easy. There have to be a lot of false starts. A lot of mistakes. Each of those mistakes tells us something about our own world. But it's also a way of thinking, right? How should this work? And I mean if you don't think the show was about social values from the start, consider the very first episode. We're in Atlanta. We're on top of a building and everything's tense because, you know, we're surrounded by walkers and there's T-Dog, right? Who's confronting Merle about his racism. And you think, if there's ever a situation where someone would just drop the whole racist mentality, the zombie apocalypse would be that moment. Right? You're running from walkers, you're terrified, you need every single ally you can get but nope, not happening. Racism turns out to be too entrenched and Merle can't let it go. I mean that's an important social point. And then in that same episode there's Carol who is being victimized by an abusive husband. That show is about social issues. But then as the show goes on it starts looking at these sort of different sorts of societies. We look at an agrarian society, Hershels' farm, right? There's this kind of populist thing going on with The Governor. We think about prison communities. There are people who have tried to ride the whole thing out like that group that's, a group that's set themselves up in the hospital. And we've got Negan and the idea of total dictatorship and rule by force. We saw the junk yard civilization and that, now we've got the civilizations of those who have decided to become walkers themselves. And then of course all on the way we've got Rick and others who're kind of offering a commentary on all these different societies. And who are - you know, Rick's thinking back and forth, what if we tried this, what if we tried that. Then we have Morgan's insistence on saving humans, that's the way we should go. Carl becomes an influence. There are all these different possibilities and that, that's what the show is about. And there are other examples, right? Revolution was another great show, you know, at least it was great for a season or so. I don't know if you saw it. It was on NBC a few years ago. The concept was a good one. The electricity all over the world goes out and that's pretty apocalyptic. Turns out we need electricity really badly. Things just sort of grind to a halt without it. People wind up living in all sorts of communities trying to survive and again, you get this whole system of possible communities. How should civilization work? And there's one that involves a militia that's meant to protect people and of course that gets out of hand, as militias always do, and becomes a dictatorship. There's a guy who has decided that he's just going to live with his dogs because animals are better than people. There's a, you know, a place that's completely run by children. There are wild west sort of spaces. It runs the whole gambit. And one of the things, one of the things that actually went wrong with the show is that it stopped going to these different societies. In the second season they just all sort of stay put for way too long in one place. Now, all of this is very reminiscent of a certain kind of book that we grew up with, right? We remember Gulliver's Travels, for instance. And Gulliver travels through all of these different societies. And if you read Huck Finn in high school or college. Huck and Jim see all sorts of different societies as they travel. They go to the wild west and they go live with a family that sort of like the Hatfields and McCoys, a very family-based society that hates the other family. And they're looking for that one place where blacks and whites can both be free. And more recent novels you get Day of the Triffids which is one of the first post-apocalyptic novels out there. If you're looking to sort of look at the history of these kinds of stories, Day of the Triffids is a good place to start. Plants come to life in that and start killing us. And then, you know, one of my personal favorites in the 1980s there's a novel called Alas, Babylon. Great novel about what happens in the days after nuclear war. And there's Cormac McCarthy's The Road and, I think Walking Dead actually borrows a whole lot from The Road. There's The Matrix, of course, and you know we talked about this before. The Matrix isn't about the future. Right? It's easy to sit down and see that and say, oh, we need to make sure the computers don't take over. Nope. It's about the present. It's about how the computers have already taken over our lives. And, you know, that's what science fiction is. Science fiction gives us the distance, takes us to the future so that we can think about things now.
But then, and I'll end with this - there's this new kind of strain of post-apocalyptic stories lately that I'm very curious about. Books and shows and movies that have this apocalyptic sort of vibe but that aren't actually apocalyptic. Right? They seem to be trying to say, hey, you know what? Maybe the apocalypse already happened and we're just too dim to notice. Cormac McCarthy actually writes a lot of these. I mentioned The Road but other novels of his aren't apocalyptic like that one is but they seem like it. I mean, the world in No Country For Old Men hasn't ended. But he puts his characters in these huge empty spaces all by themselves, like the world has ended. And there's just nothing there. Right? He does the same thing in his Border Trilogy, for instance. Those novels All the Pretty Horses and those novels. And there's a similar thing in a show like Breaking Bad. The way Walt and Jesse head out into the desert to cook meth, right? This empty space; this dead empty space. It's very post-apocalyptic. There's that season, the second season, where they're stuck in the desert at Tuco's house in the beginning and there's this amazing camera work that turns Tuco's yard which is out in the desert - it's got all these scattered kids toys, broken scattered kids toys, it turns it into it's own kind of wasteland. And there's this really interesting thing about this show and I've written about it before - the RV. All of these post-apocalyptic shows that I mention for whatever reason, I haven't quite figured out, they must be talking to one another, they all include an RV. It's like some sort of symbol of trying to find a home while you're moving or making the best of a home wherever you are. And Breaking Bad has an RV. You know, plus, you know and this is completely out there, there's that whole theory that Walt and Jesse actually start the apocalypse that happens in The Walking Dead. So, you know, there you go. It's definitive. Breaking Bad is definitely post-apocalyptic.
All right, but so, I'll leave it there for now. But I do hope you'll be back for more of the second season. We have new episodes out every other Friday on all sorts of pop culture issues. In the meantime, you can catch blog posts and check out our weekly music playlist. All of that on popcultureacademy.com. And of course, follow us on Twitter and Facebook.
This podcast is a production of the Pop Culture Academy which is solely responsible for its content. Special thanks to Katie Adkins and to J. Lundquist.
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