These are politically chaotic times, but looking at the current crop of TV drama, viewers might agree the signs have been there for a while. Writers have long been obsessing over the end of the world, pumping out apocalyptic visions that eager audiences have been lapping up. Think dark alternative histories, catastrophic disasters – natural and political – plagues, vampires and zombies. Lots of zombies.
Amazon brought us The Man in the High Castle (2015-ongoing), the BBC gave us SS-GB (2017), Channel 4 served up the Handmaid’s Tale (2017-ongoing), Netflix produced Containment (2016), a remake of Belgian drama Cordon, and last but certainly not least, there is Fox’s Walking Dead (2010-ongoing). All are spectacular, horrifying, gripping visions detailing the collapse of the world as we know it.
It’s not about the zombies
The Walking Dead series has been among the most popular and returned for a ninth season on October 8. If its sister show Fear the Walking Dead is taken into account, this represents an astonishing 13 series depicting the collapse of civilisation. That’s a lot of end-of-the-world drama, but as Jungian psychologist Marie-Louise von Franz noted:
People who are emotionally gripped by a story or an idea repeat it endlessly and cannot stop talking about it or telling and retelling it… It is a means of [releasing] a strong emotional impact.
Drama matters because it sketches out in the imagination a sense of what is possible. It’s never about the zombies. In the popular imagination lurks the possibility of nuclear annihilation, pandemics, misogyny and repression, religious fundamentalism, extreme nationalism and environmental collapse. Humanity has moved from being at the mercy of nature to having the power to destroy it. No wonder our speculative drama is so dark.
Apocalypse narratives in themselves are nothing new. Popularly they are associated with excessive visions of destruction and death, but the word “apocalypse” is derived from the Greek word apokalypsis (the opening word, in fact, of Revelation 1:1), which simply means “uncovering” or, as the book itself is called: Revelation. Apocalypse literature is about revealing what has been hidden.
The biblical Book of Revelation is only one of a number of texts reaching back into pre-Christian times, coinciding with periods of great political and cultural upheaval, which continue to be written well into the medieval period. There are Coptic, Syriac and even Islamic versions of apocalypse all arising in times of crisis and change.
Most of these writings contain a degree of pessimism and a concern with the end of history and cosmic cataclysm, but they are really there to encourage the oppressed. Apocalypse scholar John J Collins points out that most apocalyptic writing entails a challenge to view the world in a radically different way. It is a revolutionary imagination designed to generate visions not of what is, but of what might be. The real focus of apocalypse literature isn’t about the spectacle of collapse, but about what comes after.
Modern media, particularly television and film, occupy a role in our society analogous to religious narratives, art and drama in the pre-modern period… as a source of theatre for the collective imagination.ADVERTISEMENT
But writers of our contemporary apocalypse narratives seem to be suffering from a failure of that imagination. They are adept at the first part of traditional apocalypse narratives detailing what is wrong, with accompanying visions of the old world being swept away, but what about the second part? What comes next? What else?
If we accept that they are reflecting a concern with the end of the world as we know it, what should there be in its place? Isn’t it time we had some stories that show hints as to how we overcome, resist or even avoid such things? An occasional chink of light, or possibility of hope for an outcome that doesn’t feature survivors endlessly killing each other over dwindling resources would be welcome.
The Walking Dead dramas have been moving in that direction. The season four finale of spin-off show Fear the Walking Dead saw the survivors set off on a mission to help other people and foster a sense of community – a marked change of direction from the “survival at any cost” narrative up until that point.
Halfway through season eight of The Walking Dead, a character called Georgie was introduced, who gave the Hilltop survivors community a book called A Key to the Future, which explained how to build medieval technology (such as windmills and aqueducts) to help the community become more self sufficient. Again, quite a shift from battling over the leftovers of civilisation that had marked the series up until that point.
Season 8 focused on a storyline of emancipation, where various communities banded together to break free from The Saviours, a group who demanded tithes of supplies with threats and extreme violence. The first episode of the ninth season of The Walking Dead was called A New Beginning, with trailers suggesting the new series will explore how or if those remaining can find a way to live together peacefully.
Or perhaps not. Audiences for this undead franchise have been falling (though still high in comparison to rival shows), so maybe viewers are still more interested in violence and high-octane action than any notions of lasting peace and working together. Audiences may revel in visions of “burning it all down”, but eventually thoughts must turn to what comes next. Let’s hope the writers are ready to embrace a true revolution of the imagination.
Jon Stewart’s journey from satirist to political advocate is no laughing matter
When Jon Stewart quit the Daily Show, the satirical news and comedy show he hosted for 16 years until August 2015, he explained to his replacement, Trevor Noah, that he was tired – and angry at the state of politics and political discourse in the US. As Noah reported:
He said ‘I’m leaving because I’m tired.’ And he said, ‘I’m tired of being angry.’ And he said, ’I’m angry all the time. I don’t find any of this funny. I do not know how to make it funny right now, and I don’t think the host of the show, I don’t think the show deserves a host who does not feel that it is funny.‘
Record plunge in manufacturing for New York region: NY Fed
Manufacturing activity in New York State took a record dive this month and fell into contraction, suddenly reversing recent gains, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York reported Monday.
The surprising drop was another worrying sign for the US manufacturing sector, a day ahead of the start of a Federal Reserve meeting that comes as markets clamor for signs the central bank will cut interest rates soon to preserve economic growth.
Manufacturing has been a weak spot for the American economy this year as global demand slows and President Donald Trump pursues a multi-front trade war with some of America's largest trading partners.
Egypt’s ousted President Mohammed Morsi collapses and dies in court, state TV says
Mohammed Morsi, the former Egyptian president who was ousted by the military in 2013, has died after collapsing in court, state TV said on Monday.
Egypt's public broadcaster said the 67-year-old former president was attending a session in his trial on espionage charges when he blacked out and then died. His body was taken to a hospital, it said.
Morsi, who hailed from Egypt's largest Islamist group, the now outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, was elected president in 2012 in the country's first free elections following the ouster the year before of longtime leader Hosni Mubarak.