In the final episode of The Walking Dead’s six-episode first season, “TS-19”, we are treated to an uncommonly academic look at the science behind the undead. It was a fairly severe departure from the comic series. To date, the show hasn’t come anywhere near as close to a scientific exploration of “zombie-dom,” as that early scene, which remains an interesting little detour from the source material.
Dr. Edwin Jenner (Noah Emmerich), the sole remaining scientist at the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta shows the survivors an MRI video of a brain experiencing death and then zombie reanimation. While alive, the patient’s brain is filled with bright colors, as neurons fire throughout all the lobes. Then at time of death, the brain goes “dark” before zombie reanimation begins and the brain stem, the most primitive part of the brain, “lights up” again. Even if you have not seen The Walking Dead, you may be familiar with the image of the MRI from the many times it’s been hilariously misattributed on the internet.
The implication is that undeath is not just a supernatural occurrence. It’s also a condition marked by the natural death of all parts of the human brain, except for the brain stem, which offers a scientific explanation for the phenomenon. The brain stem doesn’t have any need for higher functions. It doesn’t care about art, science, or love. It just wants to move the body from point A to point B…and to eat. All in search of some indistinct, primitive notion of survival.
The Walking Dead’s spinoff, Fear the Walking Dead, which debuts its second season April 10, takes place in the same universe and undoubtedly its walkers operate under the same brain stem rules. Fear the Walking Dead season one was largely uneven, at times cliche and at times interesting, but its most interesting artistic decision and most worthwhile character relies on our knowledge of the dull lights in that brain stem.
Fear the Walking Dead at its cold, zombified heart is a show about addiction, as one of its brightest characters, Nick Clark (played by Frank Dillane), is a hopeless heroin addict. And as we watch Nick stumble around from place to place, lying, cheating, stealing, walking, doing anything in pursuit of the next fix, it’s hard not to think of that primitive brain stem lighting up in search of the next bit of stimulation.
First, let me be clear about my own internal biases or lack thereof. I am lucky enough to not be an opiate addict or know of anyone within my close inner-circle who suffers from addiction. What I know of addiction is what I’ve learned in psychology classes and seen in movie’s and on A&E’s Intervention. By those, admittedly shallow, definitions, however, I believe Nick is a gold star television depiction of heroin addiction.
Fear the Walking Dead is a show about addiction in that it ties the behavior associated with drug addiction to that of the concept of “undeath.” But even beyond that literary device, it’s also just an unflinchingly realistic portrayal of the horrors of drug addiction. Fear the Walking Dead takes the platonic ideal of a terrifying scenario, a zombie apocalypse, and says, “You think that’s bad, bro? Try getting off opiates.”
The very first thing Fear the Walking Dead allows the viewer to see is Nick coming-to* in an abandoned church operating as a de facto drug den. He’s just coming off of a high and is the first character of the entire series to experience the reality of the encroaching zombie apocalypse. His friend Gloria, who has presumably overdosed in her sleep and then re-awakened as a brain stem-active zombie, consumes Nick’s other two friends, sending Nick scattering away into the street where he is struck by a car.
*Drug addicts on television shows never wake up. They only “come to.”
Fear the Walking Dead’s insistence upon opening its story with Nick is telling. It’s clear that the perspective of this opiate-addicted character is important to the series and will continue to be so. Hell, Nick’s prominence actually predates the premiere of the show itself. Some of the earliest promotional material for the show featured the emaciated Nick, running down the L.A. street in terror with his equally raggedy shirt and hair trailing behind him. Nick was the only aesthetic element of the show that was even offered before a lengthier trailer debuted. I remember even briefly mistaking the early look at Nick to be a walker. Wait, these things aren’t supposed to run, right? This isn’t Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead. Heavens, that’s a person?
Nick spends the majority of the premiere in the hospital before convincing a nurse to undo one of his handcuffs and escaping. He doesn’t escape because he’s afraid of the old man in the gurney next to him dying and turning into a monster. Nick escapes because he needs more drugs. He reconnects with his dealer and allows himself to be taken to a remote location before he realizes that his dealer intends to kill him. Nick defends himself and kills the dealer first.
It’s fascinating that, at this point, Nick is the only character to have experienced the reality of the walking dead, but his own reality dictates that he still needs more heroin above all else. Sure, he’s disturbed by what he’s seen, even if it might have been a hallucination, but his addicted brain won’t allow him to pursue either the existence of the undead or his own potential insanity.
After episode one, in which its unquestionably proven that some sort of supernatural reckoning or at the very least pandemic is at hand, very little changes for Nick in the day to day. Nothing changes the reality that Nick physically needs more opiates to survive, lest he suffer through a fatal withdrawal. This fact sends his mother, Madison, to the school to fetch some pills from a locker, fighting off a zombie in the process, while Nick suffers a seizure at home.
Fear the Walking Dead is kind of like those new anti-smoking campaigns where teens are trying to do fun things, like practice drumming in their band, but a little personification of nicotine keeps pulling them away. Nick should be confronting the reality of a potential apocalypse, but his old friend addiction makes sure that’s all he can really focus on.
Once the U.S. Army comes to the rescue and establishes a safe zone around the Clarks’ community, Nick seems to be in much better shape. He spends his days lounging around in the pool and even turning down some of the pills his mother got for him to detox. In reality, Nick is actually spending his nights stealing the intravenous opiates from a dying woman. This is one of the most powerful moments in season one. As a main character, Nick is ostensibly someone we should care about and root for. And here he is stealing pain-medication from a dying woman in agony.
We’re used to characters in the Walking Dead universe doing monstrous things, but this is something else entirely. This is a character acting selfishly, not to survive, but rather to maintain his debilitating drug addiction. Due to the extreme nature of its setting and its concept, Fear the Walking Dead is capable of making some fairly extreme points to its audience. I’m not sure it’s possible to make a more extreme point about the helplessness and monstrosity of drug addiction than this.
Through the first half of its first season, Fear the Walking Dead uses Nick’s addiction as both a brutally realistic examination of addiction and an extended metaphor as to what really constitutes “the walking dead.” The final two episodes, however, add another aspect to Nick’s addiction, rounding it out as a Swiss Army Knife of plot points for the show. It treats heroin addiction as an advantage.
Nick is in a cage in federal custody, as the Army’s marching orders appear to be to quarantine anyone who is sick. Nick, understandably, has a 101.1 fever due to his ongoing withdrawals. In captivity, he meets a slick man in a suit named Strand. Strand presents himself as a “closer” or really just a survivor who believes the “only way to be a survivor in a mad world is to embrace the madness.”
Strand comes to trust Nick not in spite of his being a drug addict but because of it.
“I look at you and I see someone who knows the meaning of necessity,” Strand tells Nick.
“Well, I’m an addict,” he replies.
“No, you’re a heroin addict. That’s the gold standard. Don’t sell yourself short.”
As it turns out, Strand was right to place his faith on Nick. He and Strand escape together with an assist from the Clark and Manawa families. As the crew decompresses in Strand’s beautiful seaside estate, Nick tells his mom what he’s come to learn from the whole experience.
“That’s the thing. I never knew where I was going. I’ve been living this for a long time and now everyone is catching up with me.”
That’s why Fear the Walking Dead is fundamentally a show about drug addiction. It portrays real-life zombies with metaphorical zombies side by side. It then offers a sobering look at both—how miserable and dire the lives of those with drug addictions are and, in the same breath, why those lives are worth saving.