Revolution Now? The Family Romances of Post-Apocalyptic Media

By Jonathan AlexanderDecember 10, 2012

Revolution Now? The Family Romances of Post-Apocalyptic Media

2012 WAS A GREAT YEAR for the post-apocalypse. Novels, anthologies, movies, television shows, and computer games detailing the collapse of civilization as we know it and the frantic scramble to survive in the aftermath of global apocalypse seem all the rage. This past year alone, we've seen the release and triumph of the movie adaptation of The Hunger Games, the increasing popularity of The Walking Dead, and the advent of J.J. Abrams’ television epic Revolution. Indeed, the culture industry has been in a kind of apocalyptic frenzy for a few years now, television networks in particular rushing full tilt into our bleak future, both to meet the interest spawned by Mayan prophecies and also capitalize on the sense of gloom that has settled on the nation since the economic crisis began — and doesn’t seem to be ending. The Mayans and their prophecies aside, we seem to have created enough reasons to feel our world is coming to an end, or at least wobbly on its axis. And the various post-apocalyptic media we seem to be clamoring for either (1) play out our culpability explicitly (as in 2011’s television show, Terra Nova, about a group of scientists and misfits escaping human-induced ecological catastrophe by time traveling into the “halcyon” Jurassic period) or (2) externalize the blame for apocalypse, offering us an opportunity to prove ourselves worthy of a second chance (as in the alien invasion saga Falling Skies).

Certainly, part of the dual delight of such shows is both masochistic and narcissistic. We turn our collective guilt about our exploitive relationship to the world (ecologically and economically) into survivalist stories about human ingenuity, bravery, and overcoming. But post-apocalyptic media, which has been around for quite some time, also allows us the opportunity to imagine what life would be like if we could largely wipe the slate clean and start over. The tradition offers a heady mix of both versions, healthy self-loathing on the one hand and our penchant for utopian dreaming on the other. Richard Jeffries’s 1885 After London disturbed Victorians with its grisly depiction of the world’s first truly global city sinking into barbarism and ruin, while H.G. Wells’ 1933 The Shape of Things to Come imagined a near utopia after extensive war and rebuilding. In nearly all cases, though, what gets interesting is what happens after whatever plot device is used to induce the apocalypse. After the zombies have risen, the aliens have landed, the infection has spread, the technology has failed, and the environment has lashed out, post-apocalyptic media are about how people rebuild — or fail to do so. And much of their success (or not) depends on the things they carry with them into the future, what they allow to survive with them — both physically and affectively — after the catastrophe has wiped that slate (nearly) clean.

In this brief essay, I can linger over just a few versions of current post-apocalyptic media, but the three I have chosen — Abrams’ Revolution, Lois Lowry’s Giver quartet, and AMC’s The Walking Dead — prompt us to think about how we might collectively re-imagine our world, as well as what potentially stands in the way of our doing so. Curiously, what seems to stump many of our heroes in the post-apocalypse is more often than not a surprise: family.

Take Abrams’ Revolution, one of the newest entries in the field, as an opening example. The apocalyptic moment comes when all human-made forms of electricity across the globe flicker off, suppressed by some fantastical form of technology possibly developed out of combined corporate and military greed (or so we are led to believe through a series of flashbacks part way through the first season). Since the lights went out, militias and armed bandits have taken over, dividing the country into different nations and republics, seemingly always on the verge of war. We discover that the leader of the Monroe Republic (formerly the US Northeast and Midwest) was a longtime friend of our hero, Miles Matheson, who had served as Monroe’s general in helping, at times brutally, to establish the new republic, which largely consists of impoverished suburbanites patroled and kept in check by rifle-toting psychopaths. In the opening episode, Miles has quit the militia and seems to be in hiding, tending bar in an out-of-the-way locale, when he’s approached by his young adult niece, whom he’d not yet met, to go on a mission to help her find her brother, who has been taken prisoner by Monroe and is being held as a hostage, we discover, to make sure his mother (whom everyone else thinks is dead) works with a series of amulets that might have the ability to restore the power. And we quickly discover that a Monroe with electrical power would be bad, because we see him deploy pretty ruthlessly the pre-industrial power he’s already managed to assemble. The strange post-apocalyptic politics, the seemingly magical amulets, and the family cobbling itself together create a multi-level narrative that is not without its charms, and lots of gun fights, as the niece and uncle assemble a group to help them rescue the brother in Philadelphia.

I’d been following along week to week with mild interest until things just got weird in one of the most recently aired episodes (“Nobody’s Fault But Mind,” 11/26/12), in which our band arrives in Philly, confronts Monroe, rescues the brother (and mother — surprise, she’s alive!), and is on its way to escaping. What’s weird is the long series of flashbacks that explains the earlier friendship between Matheson and Monroe, including a few touching homosocial scenes of their vows to remain lifelong friends as well as the cementing of that bond when Matheson saves Monroe from an earlier suicide attempt. It’s a lot of brotherly love and drama, culminating in a face off in which Matheson tells Monroe that they can no longer be friends because Monroe is going too far (e.g., killing too many people in the pursuit of power), and that Monroe now “means nothing” to his supposedly lifelong friend. None of that face off is necessarily the weird part. What is weird is how this once deep friendship is set against the context of Matheson agreeing to risk his life with a niece he’s never met to save a nephew he’s never met, only to discover the existence of a sister-in-law who has essentially given Monroe a way to turn on the power again, combined with your creeping realization as a viewer that none of these family members necessarily like one another. In that context, Monroe’s pleading with Matheson to come back into the fold with all forgiven seems, well, the only bit of genuine family feeling we have yet been exposed to. Now granted, Monroe has become a psychopath and must be stopped. But the counterbalancing force for Matheson — the avuncular family tie — just seems extraordinarily weak. Perhaps we’ll find out more later about why Matheson is so invested in family he’s never met or is otherwise estranged from, but for now the assertion of family ties is psychologically unconvincing. It appeals to our most simplistic sympathies.

But more than that, it’s also a kind of retreat, standing in the way of re-imagining sociality. In contrast to his avuncular ties, the relationship between Monroe and Matheson is depicted as having some weight, some real heft given to it through numerous allusions in past episodes. When the full depth of their mutual feeling is finally revealed in flashbacks, with the two of them as kids sitting on the bank of a river pledging brotherhood and drawing a stylized “M” on their arms together (which becomes the “M” on the flag of Monroe’s republic), I couldn’t help but wonder why Matheson doesn’t use this feeling in an attempt to temper Monroe’s madness. He could rejoin Monroe and help the tortured soul get the help he needs, or at least neutralize him from the inside. Instead, their intense homosociality turns into mild homophobia as Matheson “disowns” Monroe and asserts the primacy of his family ties over the bond of male-male friendship; in the process, Monroe just seems stuck, never having grown up out of his boyhood love of Miles to take care of a “real” family (even if it’s full of people you’re only just now meeting).

Of course, the plot I propose might narratively kill the show. Or perhaps not. What it would do is force the writers to imagine a different kind of sociality, a different set of relationships and exchanges of affection that don’t play to the easy sympathies of family ties. In the process, Revolution would be truly revolutionary, depicting people moving beyond the family unit in the pursuit of a saner world. As is, Matheson’s rebuff of Monroe will only fuel Monroe’s pathology, with more death and destruction — now on a larger scale — promised in future episodes. Such conservatism in the show — for that’s what it is, a desire to conserve even the weakest of family ties in the face of catastrophic change — parallels the other major subplot, a set of characters bent on rebuilding the US. As such, Revolution in this case forwards nostalgia as the appropriate antidote to apocalypse, and nothing really revolutionary seems anywhere near to affecting this plot.

Such post-apocalyptic backwards glancing isn’t uncommon in recent manifestations of the genre. We can see a similar playing out of nostalgia and family in Lois Lowry’s Giver quartet, whose final volume, Son, was released earlier this year. The Giver was originally published in 1993 to great acclaim, winning a Newbery Medal in 1994 and becoming a staple of many middle- and high-school reading curricula. Many of my current undergraduate students say it’s one of their favorite books, and most have at least heard of it. I don’t think it a stretch to suggest that Lowry’s books, especially the first, have not insignificantly shaped some of the current generation’s consciousness about the post-apocalyptic — its horrors, delights, and possibilities. So the publication of Son this year, and reissue of the entire quartet by Houghton Mifflin in beautiful hardcover editions, is a big event in post-apocalyptic media.

And you can see why the books, particularly The Giver, are so popular. The first slender, elegantly written book concerns itself with a dystopian society in which a boy on the verge of manhood, Jonas, is selected to be the community’s Giver. In Lowry’s post-apocalyptic world, this community has embraced Sameness as a way to ensure happiness, ceding most feeling of unpleasant, chaotic, or disruptive thoughts and feelings to one individual, a Giver, who remembers the past and feels on behalf of the community. Givers are kept around in case painful memories are necessary to help in decision making, while everyone around them saunters on, blissfully ignorant of the emotionally thick complexities of life. While seemingly utopic, this arrangement has its distinct drawbacks in that anyone who disrupts Sameness, such as a child who doesn’t fit in or an infant who cries too much, is euthanized for the greater good. You can see the pubescent and adolescent appeal: Jonas must bear intensely troubling emotions while ignorant adults make drastic and dire decisions all around him — which must be how most teens experience puberty. The Giver famously ends with Jonas fleeing the community, with an infant slated for elimination in tow. We don’t know what will become of him, but the possibilities for recreating a healthier social order, in which people learn to deal with their emotions productively, seems the promise latent in the future — the promise of growing up after the apocalyptic disturbances of pubescence.

And indeed, in the following volumes, Gathering Blue and Messenger, we meet many different characters and hear of numerous kinds of communities struggling to survive in Lowry’s post-apocalyptic future. The proliferation of different visions of post-apocalyptic survival promises different explorations of renewed or reinvented sociality. But while often creative, Lowry’s imagining of such sociality follows pretty conventional lines. Almost all the communities she describes are rather agrarian or populated with folks reduced to hunting and gathering survival tactics, and most are pretty barbarous, with totalitarian rule the norm. Even the original novel’s Sameness, despite its technological trappings, seems barbaric, especially given the high incidence of infanticide. One exception remains the Village, alluded to at the end of Gathering Blue and described at length in Messenger, in which individuals seem to live in relative collective harmony, their doors open to those fleeing far less fortunate and understanding communities. Lowry spends much time deliciously describing the simple meals folks make and share with one another, signaling content and community. And much of Messenger concerns the relationship of a young man, Matt, and his housemate, an older blind man named Seer who serves as his surrogate father. Granted, dramatic conflict abounds: the Village is surrounded by a forest that seems to have developed a mind and will of its own; various characters have to learn to deal with their emerging psychic-like powers; and a stranger entices some community members with what seems to be a form of consumerism that is clearly very very bad. But this anti-consumerist plot, combined with the “found” family of Matt and Seer, suggests a desire to think sociality outside or beyond the family-focused consumer capitalism of our pre-apocalyptic world. Or so it seems.

By the time we get to Son, we realize a somewhat different story has been afoot all along. In yet another introduction of characters and different communities, we meet Claire, who had been a birthmother in the Sameness community of The Giver, where she was assigned the task of giving birth to infants that were then raised communally until being assigned to appropriate “parents” until they were old enough to be assigned their own tasks and (with the exception of the Giver him- or herself) live and work communally. This highly alternate form of sociality, we know, is itself very very bad, because it involves the killing of babies that don’t quite fit in. But just to make the point clear, Son is largely taken up with re-uniting Claire, who herself flees Sameness, with her son, who just happens to be the boy that Jonas took from the community all those many years and pages ago. Like Revolution, Son runs the risk of seeming just another version of the same story about family primacy — in this case, a pulling back from a potentially robust consideration of communal living offered in the example of the Village in order to reassert family bonds. In the process, the value of alternative socialities, such as the potentially rich relationship between Matt and Seer, seems cast as second best. Instead, the family is paramount, particularly the bond between mother and child, and all of the gesturing toward alternate forms of sociality seems curtailed, rendered so much background noise.

I might sound harsh in my reading of The Giver quartet, and that’s somewhat unfortunate, because these are elegantly written and complex books, full of surprises and creativity. In the world of young adult fiction, they are aesthetic highpoints and deserve to be read and discussed. And granted, the gesture to family makes some amount of sense. In a world gone crazy, you want to be able to rely on folks, and the folks you will probably most be able to rely on are the folks you probably rely on now — your “folks,” your people, your relatives. This isn’t surprising. But after finishing Son and watching Revolution, I began to realize that the simple family sympathy we were asked to feel for Miles Matheson and his (otherwise unmotivated) decisions is hardly unique to that television show. Numerous other examples of the return to the value of family in the face of post-apocalyptic chaos abound, and I leave it to you to ferret them out, perhaps as a drinking game. What I argue is at stake in the reassertion of the primacy of the family, with its supposed biological imperative, is a failure to imagine alternative forms of sociality. In the process, different kinds of connections, intimacies, and possibilities for social organization seem put on hold, denied, or left unexplored. Such might help move the existing nostalgia-driven plot forward, as in Revolution, or lead to an emotionally wrenching conclusion to nearly 1,000 pages of reading, as in Son, but it also leaves relatively untouched one of the latent potentials of post-apocalyptic media — the real re-imagination of how we live. Put crudely, for much of this stuff, when the shit hits the fan, blood is thicker than water.

Unless you’re a zombie.

And then the blood flows like water everywhere, gushing from zombie bites and decaying bodies torn and falling apart. Such flowing gore strongly characterizes AMC’s The Walking Dead, a grisly show based on a comic serial by Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore, and Charlie Adlard, that often morosely but compellingly plays up one of the most popular post-apocalyptic figures, the zombie. Now in its third season, which just started this fall, The Walking Dead is immensely popular but also one of the most unrelenting manifestations of post-apocalyptic media. The characters’ lives are desperate, constantly hounded by the zombies that have taken over the world through some strange infection we are only slowly learning about. We see abandoned cities and communities, populated only by the walking dead, and our small band of heroes, periodically and unsparingly picked off one by one, seem utterly alone in the world, rarely encountering others, who quickly die through suicide, zombie attack, or self-defense-driven murder. Folks here just don’t have time to imagine alternative sociality, though they try at one point during the second season, in which the mixed-raced and mixed-class band of refugees find a seemingly idyllic farmhouse (complete with patriarch, much needed medicines, and ample food and water). But their dreams of settling here for any appreciable amount of time are soon dashed, and they take to flight yet again.

For all of the fright and flight, however, The Walking Dead is hardly without its family-centered drama. But unlike Son and Revolution, families in this show are constantly being torn apart, almost as though we are being invited to watch for our enjoyment, again and again, the intense pain of losing loved ones. And when family members aren’t dying, most of the characters exist, such as it is, in a welter of dysfunction because of their inability to manage changing family ties and relations in the post-apocalypse. The central family plot focuses on a strange love triangle, centered on the two male leads (through season two) and a pregnant wife whose father has yet to be determined. The rival lover to the wife’s husband is killed off at the end of season two, which is no surprise since he represented (like Monroe in Revolution) a kind of psychotic sociality in which death is the appropriate answer to anyone who challenges him. But the unknown paternity of the unborn child lingers in the mind, signaling trouble for the family ahead. Melodramatic? You bet. And it’s sometimes surprising to realize that, gruesome zombie background aside, The Walking Dead teeters on the verge of seeming like a dripping-rotten-flesh version of Melrose Place. But of all the post-apocalyptic media I’ve seen recently, The Walking Dead’s concern with family — which is quite explicit — is also potentially ambivalent. And that might just open up possibilities for rethinking social arrangements.

The imaginative stakes are high. Critics have already identified the appeal of zombies as redolent of anxieties around consumer and financial capitalism, perhaps even ecological disaster. Zombies are drones, consuming everything in their path, indifferent to life and its maintenance in their drive to spread their rot over the whole planet. They easily metaphorize all kinds of greed, but also play up the desperateness of our failure to imagine creative ways out of greed; they are post life, seemingly beyond history, or signaling its end — or at least the end of our ability to think beyond corporate, financial, even personal greed. As such, zombies are also what we fear we are becoming or might already be, enslaved to the habits of greed out of which we cannot imagine ourselves. My colleague, journalist Amy Wilentz, traces part of the evolution of imagery about zombies to Haitian slave times and Duvalier’s dictatorship. In “A Zombie is a Slave Forever,” Wilentz pointedly writes that the “zombie is devoid of consciousness and therefore unable to critique the system that has entrapped him. He’s labor without grievance. He works free and never goes on strike. You don’t have to feed him much.” If zombies figure the failure of our capacity to imagine social life beyond greed, the inability of the characters in The Walking Dead to find any respite from them seems inevitable, and the death of so many families seems simply par for the course. But the persistence of melodramatic family romance just as strongly suggests we are not quite ready to let go of our families, even if the walking dead give them such a hard time. The challenge for The Walking Dead will be to see if the writers can play this ambivalence about families into a profitable re-imagining of sociality. The inter-racial and inter-class mingling in the group gestures toward some interesting possibilities, but will it be enough? Further episodes will tell.

Of course, not all re-imagining of sociality need be focused on reinventing the family. And with my critique, as negative as I sound, I don't mean to trash completely the value of family or the importance of families to social cohesion. Rather, I argue that the reversion to family as the primary and privileged social relation in the works discussed here is an unfortunate shortcut, even a cop-out. Family is easy; it’s the least common social denominator through which mass media pop culture can assure itself of viewer identification. As such, it also allows the purveyors of pop culture the chance to avoid the hard work of re-imagining social units. So it’s less the family per se that irritates me, but the blocking of creativity in the calculus of simple mass appeal. The retreat to the family seems a nostalgic turn away from thinking about how we might organize our lives and intimacies, both which each other and with the planet, in more just and sustainable ways.

Nonetheless, I remain hopeful that post-apocalyptic media, as a form of science fiction, is an appropriate — perhaps the appropriate genre through which to undertake such imagining. SF emerged as a genre in the nineteenth century when intellectuals and the public were really beginning to discover through science how old our world is, and how vast the cosmos might be. Those temporal and spatial shifts prompted, in part, the creation of fantastical works committed both to understanding how much bigger our world is as well as make explicit how we might participate (for good and for ill) in our evolution with it. Put simply, SF is a genre born out of the invention of history, particularly as the malleability of history through scientific and social engineering becomes imaginable.

The call to such imagination is fierce right now. Both ecologically and economically, our current systems and ways of life seem untenable in the long term, with apocalyptic-sounding turning points approaching fast. Our news media are rife with rhetorics of fiscal cliffs and superstorms and catastrophic climate change. We feel individually helpless against such changes, surely. And our consumer fetish for post-apocalyptic media plays on our heady emotions about such issues. But what we imagine — and fail to imagine — about the future through our popular media might also give us a clue to thinking about what we might need to rethink now, what stumbling blocks we are, consciously or not, putting in the way to envisioning and creating a better world.


LARB Contributor

Jonathan Alexander is the author, co-author, or co-editor of 22 books, including the Creep trilogy, which consists of Creep: A Life, A Theory, An Apology (finalist for a Lambda Literary Award, 2017); Bullied: The Story of an Abuse (2021); and Dear Queer Self: An Experiment in Memoir (2022). Other recent books include the memoir Stroke Book: The Diary of a Blindspot (2021) and the scholarly work Writing and Desire: Queer Ways of Composing (2023). Alexander is Chancellor’s Professor of English at the University of California, Irvine. 


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