by Max Sparber in

As any skilled zombie hunter will tell you, the first and hardest task is to identify the zombie. They all seem approximately similar, or at least they do now, ever since George Romero lensed “Night of the Living Dead” in 1968. All have sallow skin, lurch when they move, crave human flesh, and are dispatched by a coup de grace that destroys the brain.

But, aside from the visual spectacle of postmortem cannibalism and spontaneous head trauma, these details are the least important things about zombies. One must, instead, determine if this is the sort of zombie that precipitates a social collapse, wherein men are more dangerous than monsters, as with all of Romero’s films and “28 Days Later.” Or perhaps the zombie is a disease vector, as in “World War Z.” Are they symbols of mindless consumerism, as in “Dawn of the Dead”? Are they just a purposeless version of us, as in “Warm Bodies”?

Zombies are powerful monsters, but they are especially useful metaphors.

This question is a particularly hard one when addressing the zombies of “The Walking Dead,” because they are alarmingly protean. They are whatever the story needs them to be when it needs them to be that. Sometimes the world teems with them, and sometimes only one or two appear per episode, when the apocalypse seems almost as an afterthought. Sometimes they quickly overpower even a large crowd, sometimes a single person can fight off an entire zombie horde.

But, then, this is a show that doesn’t seem to have much interest in zombies. Last season the show introduced a fellow who somehow had been press-ganged by circumstances into acting as a scientist, Milton. He ran a few rudimentary tests, learned nothing, and then turned into a zombie, which didn’t help his experiments. There is a character this season, Eugene, who claims to know the cause of the outbreak, but he hasn’t been forthcoming, instead ambling about like a southern-fried version of Rain Man. We haven’t learned much about the undead, except that they are attracted to sound and fire, and that it is possible to hide yourself from them by covering yourself with their entrails, or by using mutilated and jawless zombies as camouflage. These facts are made us of or ignored, depending on how much jeopardy the plot demands of its characters.

In “The Walking Dead,” zombies are machines of story momentum, and little else. They are not metaphor. They are a writing aid. And this isn’t much of a surprise, as this is a show that is strangely bereft of metaphor. It is as though the first casualty of the apocalypse is subtext. Characters say precisely what they are thinking at the moment it occurs to them, and they even vocalize the theme of each episode, as though defending a college thesis rather than fighting for survival in what author Carrie Ryan dubbed a "forest of hands and teeth."

But so be it. In my experience, if a piece of art seems disinterested in something, it is because it is more interested in something else. And this is a show that has taken extraordinary efforts to chart the development of its characters, especially in the past season, which has been showrun by Scott Gimple. Under his watch, “The Walking Dead” has enjoyed some especially fine writing, subtext or no. It’s become a lot less talky and progressed at a breakneck pace, occasionally taking unexpected detours.

And the worldbuilding is growing sharper. Even though the show is not interested in zombies, it is interested in people, and it is especially interested in the tactics people use to survive, the moral compromises that result from those tactics, and, especially in this past half season, how people live with those compromises and what it turns them into.

In fact, the past half season has been like the longest, strangest band photo ever made. Everybody dresses in grungy outfits, looking like one sort of 60s musical combo or another. There was Maggie and her crew, in ponchos and thrift-shop jeans, looking like an acid rock band. There was Daryl and a group of murderous rednecks called “The Claimers,” who not only looked like an outlaw country band (the leader even had a Day of the Dead cowboy shirt!), but had the name of one. And there was the paramilitary outfit that Glenn joined, which, honestly, looked like every single cover band in every dive bar I have ever been to.

They all posed by railroad tracks, which is what bands do, and looked soulful, which is what bands do, and killed zombies, which is what bands do, or at least what the band Guitar Wolf does. And they spent the season singing their songs, and they were songs of regret, of missing someone who is away, of the pleasures of alcohol, of forging simple rules to help you get by, and then of breaking those rules. It was a great album, even if it was necessarily a compilation album.

The season seemed as though it was preparing to end on an unexpectedly ambiguous note, with the characters reunited but trapped in a dire circumstance, expertly manipulated into becoming the prey of an gang of Conor Oberst lookalikes.. But then, with the last line of dialogue, it turned hopeful. And it was justified.

Because as bleak as things may have been at the moment, at least it got the band back together.

Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a historian, playwright, and critic. Follow him on Twitter or email him with your arts events at maxsparber@gmail.com.