WARNING: This post contains SPOILERS for the third episode of the third season of The Walking Dead.
I love the post-apocalyptic genre; I really do. It's fun, for whatever morbid reasons, to imagine yourself as one of the few survivors or a global catastrophe, wandering the wastelands and foraging for food, shelter and entertainment in the ruins of a fallen civilization.
But there's one aspect of the genre that I just don't buy, and that's the trope that requires the rise of bloodthirsty barbarian savages to serve as antagonists.
I understand why writers use this trope. The remorseless brigand makes a wonderful adversary, a perfect villain. Taking slaves, ruling by fear and gunning down the innocent and naive makes the post-apocalyptic brigand villain fearsome and loathsome - the kind of bad guy we can't wait to see receive his just desserts.
My problem is one of believability. In a true apocalypse, healthy human beings will be the most valuable resource. With so much talent and expertise wiped out, every survivor becomes a potential treasure trove of knowledge and skills. Rebuilding civilization would require a massive cooperative effort, one best accomplished not with threats and violence, but a clear understanding of mutual needs and goals.
That's why I find it so hard to take the latest episode of The Walking Dead seriously. While well-produced, suspenseful and gripping, this episode embraces the brigand villain trope in such a way as to seriously strain verisimilitude. The Governor, introduced in this episode, runs a small walled enclave of survivors of the show's zombie apocalypse. He learns that a squad of soldiers is stationed nearby, and he tracks them down, ambushes them and steals their weapons and supplies.
On the surface, this seems like a reasonable thing for an evil dictator to do. Presumably absorbing the soldiers into his community would undermine his own authority.
But as a long term survival strategy, the Governor's approach is nonsensical. First, by mowing down the soldiers, he's removed at least a dozen trained, capable people who could have helped defend the governor's town and provided military training to the surviving civilians. These soldiers presumably also know more about repairing, maintaining and operating their specialized equipment than the Governor and his stooges. Sure, they may have fancy HumVees and M-16s for now, but how long before it breaks down?
Finally, this episode establishes that at least one element of the US military has survived the apocalypse. If one squadron survived, presumably there are others, and if any one group has the resources and know-how to rebuild lines of communication and support after a global disaster, it would be the military. Isn't it possible that at some point the Governor's massacre of US troops will be discovered by other surviving units - and punished?
I enjoyed this episode, but the Governor's rule can't last long if he doesn't start making better choices.