Over its four previous seasons The Walking Dead has managed to sustain a strong stock of fascinating characters - those, at least, who weren't turned into zombie mulch or otherwise prematurely expired. The soft-spoken, gimlet-eyed Rick Grimes, the unofficial leader of the group, provides a tormented study in the pitfalls of power; his need to protect those around him forever tittering on the brink of homicidal ruthlessness. The tentative, sweet romance cultivated between Glen and Maggie cuts across the panorama of darkness and loss of a world ravaged by zombies. And then there is Daryl the woodsman, the hunter, the perpetual outsider, stalking the fringes of the group - austere, restless and watchful.
But the last couple of series have seen some new faces enter the fray. Tyrese and his sister Sasha were recent converts to Grimes and his group, alongside the happy-go-lucky Bob - who receives a not so happy-go-lucky death; one which mixes cannibalism with assisted suicide. But the most fascinating character to emerge and enter the melting pot - is surely the oily, soft-spoken almost gelatinous priest Father Gabriel, someone whose slinky religious piety covers an untold, dark event, and as series five progresses the fevered, whispered homilies the priest delivers seem to wreak of a heightened sense of sinisterness and hypocrisy. As Gabriel becomes increasingly fervent and unhinged, you wonder why the writers haven't mined this seam earlier, playing more fully on the religious aspect. One would imagine that the end of the world heralded by a zombie apocalypse would manage to get any surviving tea party members and their ilk thumping bibles with genuine enthusiasm.
Writing the course of events for yet another dark and damaged trudge across the zombie wasteland, however, was never going to be easy. Series five had to be more ambitious, for of late the plot line was more and more moving in the same direction. Past episodes had seen Rick and his band of survivors discover a small community which seems to offer sanctuary - Woodbury, and then later, Terminus - but the idyllic sheen of these places quickly wears away, and they are revealed in their full murderous/cannibalistic dimensions. In the later part of series five, the group encounter a character called Aaron who offers to take them to yet another place of safety, a small gated community called Alexandria. Unsurprisingly the group smell a rat, but here the story works against our expectations; in actual fact the majority of the residents in Alexandria are kind people, and provide the outsiders with a warm and real welcome.
At this point things take a radical turn. Members of Rick's group - ostensibly the good guys of the piece - begin to hold secret meetings, they steal weapons from their hosts - and when this is discovered by one of Alexandria's children - Carol, a member of Rick's group, threatens to have the child killed. The newcomers seem unable to shake off a sense of traumatized paranoia; their existence on the outside as a perpetual state of war refuses to relinquish them. 'He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster' reads one of Nietzsche's more gloomy aphorisms, and the writers of The Walking Dead seem determined to follow up on this. In the penultimate episode Rick, after a violent confrontation, draws his gun on some of the astonished observers, threatening and berating his hosts for their 'weakness'.
Perhaps what makes this plot development so edgy and so compelling is the way it resonates with our own social and political realities. The analogy between a devastated word where marauding, ravenous monsters wander around uncontained - and a world in which the social safety net has been ripped away, and the people abandoned to the neoliberal forces of unregulated market competition; such an analogy - in the midst of global economic crisis - feels increasingly persuasive. Indeed Time magazine went as far as to describe the zombie as 'the official monster of the recession'. But the crisis has also put on the agenda the question of what to do in the aftermath? How can you begin to rebuild on the remnants of a shattered world?
Phenomena like the Arab Spring, and the Occupy Wall Street movements provide attempts to answer such questions; the demands and hopes of creating new forms of socio-political organisation. But these endeavours to build again, to pose alternatives, have also been beset with problems. At the time of writing, the political momentum and energy of the Occupy movements has pretty much been dispersed - only when it was converted into a political form with a more traditional and centralised structure - like the Podemos party in Spain, for instance - has its force managed to sustain.
In the case of the Arab Spring, on the other hand, the danger has come from the opposite direction; here the new forces which were raised in the aftermath, came to be too centralised, too powerful - they began to resemble the very things they purported to fight against. Consider the short lived Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, for example, where the then president Mohammed Morsi passed a decree which gave himself sweeping powers and saw him labelled as 'Egypt's new pharaoh'.
And it this paradox - the need to create new forms of social organisation which don't return you to the patterns and forms of oppression you are fighting against; this is the conundrum which is lodged at the heart of the drama in The Walking Dead. It is, of course, a problematic which is present in much dystopian literature since Orwell, and his famous animal fable whose devastating conclusion saw pigs morph into people. The finale of the fifth season of The Walking Dead concluded with Rick and his group seeming to have asserted their authority over the people of Alexandria. Who knows where that new found power will now lead?