Various dystopias have been used as a lens through which to view oppression – one only has to read or watch The Handmaid’s Tale to see this is action. In fact, in viewing oppression, we often view the alternatives, even the solutions to oppressive systems – in dystopic futures we see the freedoms we can’t yet imagine. In AMC’s The Walking Dead, we see both. Freedom to break the mould, but not yet the freedom to exceed it.
The Walking Dead undoubtedly has some of the best characters going when it comes to women. Take the character Carol Peletier, for example. We are introduced to her in episode three of the first season in 2010 as a meek, battered housewife and mother of Sophia at the survival camp in Atlanta. Following the death of her husband, Carol destroys his corpse in the episode “Wildfire” with a pickaxe, venting the inner rage she had toward him and his years of violent abuse. Despite losing her daughter, she becomes more and more confident and is one of the only characters to openly question Rick’s leadership. She becomes more self-sufficient, encouraging the rest of the group to do same. In the season four premiere, “30 Days Without an Accident,” we see Carol secretly teaching the children of the prison how to use knives to defend themselves and not to have sympathy for the Walkers. It is a clear contrast to the Barbra’s of previous zombie narratives, and, indeed, a contrast even to more recent ones – in the films 28 Days Later and World War Z, women feature only as sidekicks.
Most importantly, especially considering her position as a woman on the show, Carol is responsible for making many of the tough decisions that determine the fate of not just herself, but the group. In the episode “Isolation,” when disease starts spreading in the prison, Carol kills two people in their sleep and burns their bodies in the belief it will stop the infection from spreading. Rick soon uncovers the truth and in the episode “Indifference,” he banishes her, forcing her to leave everyone she cares about. In this time we see her go guerrilla style, reappearing unexpectedly in the season four episode “Inmates” to save the children Lizzie, Mika, and Judith from a pair of Walkers in a forest. In one of the most shocking episodes, Carol is forced once again to do what no one else can stomach. For the greater good, Lizzie is told to “look at the flowers” while Carol executes her after discovering she has killed her sister, Mika, and almost killed Judith in her confusion over the nature of Walkers. Eventually, in the season five premiere, “No Sanctuary,” Carol is reunited with Daryl, Rick, and the others and later, Rick tells her he owes her everything. Carol tells him, “You said I could survive. You were right.”
Her character’s arc has been described as a “hero’s journey” by executive producer Scott M. Gimple, given that she has made many difficult decisions in order to survive and endured great struggles. The episode “Consumed” focuses on Carol’s struggle and guilt over her past demons, saying she can’t stand to watch the people she loves die. Despite this, she is called upon time and again by the group, for whom she is indispensable, to help defend them, and does so often by parodying her former meek self. Take the episode “Remember” — when, upon being interviewed by the town leader of Alexandria, Carol crafts a facade of being an inexperienced apocalyptic survivor who acted as a mother to the group. This act is soon dropped in the episode “JSS” when she dons another disguise, this time as one of the Wolves, successfully killing many of them. Despite her effectiveness as a fighter, she never ceases to question the morality of her actions or those of others and comes into conflict with Morgan’s pacifist ideology which puts the group at risk. In season seven, after taking her own step back from killing, she then goes to Ezekiel, the leader of the Kingdom, claiming that it’s time to fight, and in “The First Day of the Rest of Your Life,” Carol arrives at Alexandria to help fight off the Saviours. She remains one of the last original survivors overall, as well as the series’ longest-living female character as of season seven, and the only female character to have appeared in every season.
The women of The Walking Dead are the strongest and most progressive we have seen in any dystopic narrative. But the same basic plots are stronger and this is where the problem lies. Rick’s group imitates a highly Western and politically idealized society, which, incidentally, means it is also highly patriarchal, as is almost every other surviving group we see. It is still Rick versus The Governor, Rick versus the Wolves, Rick versus Negan. Despite the prominent positions of characters such as Maggie, Michonne, and Carol, the most prominent conflicts we see are, in the grand scheme of things, little more than dick-measuring contests which escalate in the deaths of almost all involved. On watching the season eight premiere, I was disappointed to realize that the only female groups had been, in my opinion, wasted opportunities, storylines ended before they’d barely been developed. There were so many potential plots and characters left by the wayside while Rick and Negan’s rivalry was capitalized on.
The all-female camp Oceanside is featured but not focused on. Nothing comes of what I thought was the most exciting episode of season seven, when they are discovered. It is a thriving, self-sufficient matriarchy, the kind of place where I imagine Carol would be right at home. But, it seems there’s only just enough room for a matriarch, let alone a whole matriarchy. The group is all but forgotten about in favour of the Scavengers. We are introduced to them and their leader Jadis in episode nine of season seven. Their leader is an authoritative and powerful woman, and this gave me hope – a group comprised solely of women and a group led by a woman in one season! This enthusiasm, as with my reaction to Oceanside, was short lived. In episode 16, only seven episodes after we are introduced to them, they are revealed to be double-dealing, and are thus immediately vilified – another wasted opportunity to create some kind of future, even a zombie infested one, in which women hold any large degree of positive political power.
It appears that even the most seemingly progressive, and certainly most popular, dystopic series has, in reality, a way to go before its plots can catch up with its impressive characters. Though the women of The Walking Dead may well be its future, within its current confines, they are futureless. The arguably much less popular show iZombie, which premiered in 2015, on the other hand disrupts this pattern — it’s main character is a woman who becomes a zombie, but, aware of her change, seeks to solve her own problems despite being already dead. In many way she is the ultimate futureless female, whose challenge it is to reverse, rather than preserve, her circumstances. The Walking Dead universe is broad, hegemonic, and patriarchal – iZombie’s universe is smaller and largely domestic, devoid of wider power struggles and it is unsurprising that Olivia, of her small female world, has so much more power over her circumstances than the women of The Walking Dead.
Still, with Carol Peletier leading the charge on The Walking Dead, there is hope that the future could still be female.