I am currently in the midst of two dystopian TV series: The Walking Dead (TWD) and The Handmaid’s Tale (THT). Both are located in a future setting, where life as we know it is but a distant memory, and the future exists as a thin hope oscillating between obliteration and being at the threshold of the shades. I am rather far into TWD, and have just started the screen rendition of Atwood’s tale. Both are utterly fascinating, not only for their differences, but their similarities.
Both deal with a contagion: in the TWD it is a death that will not die; and in THT it is the inability in to give birth. Other comparisons are apt. TWD is punctuated with violence. There is violence in THT, but it is measured, and horrific in its calculation. While watching TWD, you can anticipate a zombie around every corner, every crook, every shadow – surprising, but not. In THT, violence is really more insidious, terrifying in its being cloaked in the guise of religion, and the supposed good. In THT, women are at the very centre of the plot, inviting the viewer to think about how women have been, and are marginalized and given a tightly scripted role in the narrative of life. I shut off the television, and breathe a sigh of relief knowing that my daughters do not have to live in that world, but then I remember that the real world that they live in is rife with patriarchy and parochialism, and I know that the gains that have been made for women are ever at risk of being eroded. The women in the TWD are profoundly strong – but differently. They slaughter zombies and enemies with the same ferocity as the men and are found to be leaders of some communities. Women in THT are ever needing to make their way by speaking two languages, as it were: that of patriarchy and that of the circles in which they move at a level invisible to men.
Religion plays a big role in each: in the TWD there are believers who struggle with their faith, and admittedly agnostic characters who have a kind of tenacity that seems super-human. Religion in THT is the antagonist it seems (at this point), with images of ruined mainline churches setting the backdrop against which a state-sponsored dystopian religion reigns, supporting the patriarchy, which quotes scripture in support of the rape of handmaids, and the torture of deviants.
I am finding it so very informative to watch these two shows together. Both of them serve as a kind of lens for looking at the present. In TWD a kind of oscillation of utter chaos and brief but tenuous calm advances the plotline. I am too early into THT to weigh in on this, but I can say that its use of flashbacks is haunting, since they take me to my present time – and my own geography since much of THT is shot in Cambridge and Toronto, both close to where I live. Both series are externally supported by the regular and disorienting clips concerning climate change in my various news feeds. Of course, these dystopian tales have their provenance in apocalyptic literature – found in the bible and elsewhere. In the bible, this genre serves to tell those in utter chaos that God will bring about a just end. The hand of God is not so clear in these dystopian tales.
Both, in their own way, raise important theological queries: from the THT, I am constantly invited to ponder how religion can be a tool for hegemonic purposes. In TWD, religion takes on such a chameleon character – now seen in a tenuous hold on faith, now seen in people who betray their religion for survival, and now seen in hard existential questions about the purpose of life – played against an apocalyptic back drop that here and there peppers the viewer with biblical phrases. If I was a pastor who preached regularly, I would be watching both shows with a note pad at hand. As it is, I am ever watching, wondering how these fundamental questions of life, caught on screen might inform my classrooms, my church, my world.