Anthony Edwards and Poppy Liu in Tales of the Living Dead (Photo: Curtis Bonds Baker/AMC)
Spoilers ahead for episode 4 of Tales of the Living Dead.
Zombies are always a metaphor for something. Hordes of formerly undead tend to be a great substitute for collective behaviors, from rampant consumerism to unchecked rage at the way we film everything in our lives. And naturally, this symbolism is almost always dark. It’s hard to imagine flesh-eating monsters representing anything beautiful in humanity.
Until this Sunday, at least. With the episode “Amy/Dr. Everett,” AMC’s anthology series Tales of the Living Dead arguably delivered the finest zombie tale on television.
That’s not to say it’s rated G. Like every other installment in the series, which features standalone stories about characters both new and familiar to the Walking Dead universe, this one is filled with gore. But the first things we see are images of nature. The animals frolic in the woods as Dr. Everett (Anthony Edwards) narrates a film he’s making about the remarkable recovery of the environment after humans have been essentially wiped out by zombies. (Or mortis, as the doctor calls them.) In his story, walkers are now apex predators who have reduced humans to prey, and the world is a better place for it.
This is fascinating philosophical territory. Do these brain-sucking beasts symbolize the best of us? Is the suggestion that the world is better off if we are reduced to our basic instincts of hunting and feeding?
But not so fast. If the good doctor really believed that, he would run away and let his neck be eaten away. The fact that he obsessively follows a pod of walkers instead, tagging and following them like a marine biologist would a pod of dolphins, complicates the metaphor.
The same goes for Amy (Poppy Liu), who crashes into the doctor’s observation area and nearly kills one of her favorite specimens as she tries to save herself. After he saves her, they are locked in a debate over the best way forward. Should they hang back and celebrate the absence of humanity, or should they try to find more people? The rest of the episode is driven by this tension – the value of looking at the world versus the value of belonging to it.
Depending on how you tilt your head, walkers symbolize both sides.
For one thing, we find out that Dr. Everett learned to love zombies after one of his best friends turned. Perhaps the walkers represent all the so-called monsters we could enjoy if we just stood still and paid attention to them.
On the other hand, we are reminded that in Walking Dead world, zombies travel in larger and larger packs, teaming up until they eventually form huge swarms. It’s not that different, really, from the community of survivors that Amy is so desperate to join. Perhaps the wandering hordes of walkers also embody our deep need to be part of something.
From this point of view, it’s not really sad when, at the end of the episode, Amy becomes a zombie herself. No matter how painful her final human moments may have been, there’s no denying that she’s now part of an even greater community. More. she is part of the new species that Dr. Everett cares about so much.
Both symbols are valid at the same time: at this point in the episode, the walkers embody both the improbable beauty of a world we fear and the call of a tribe. This tension is evident in the episode’s final image, when Dr. Everett looks zombie-Amy directly in the eye. There’s danger and sadness, but there’s also a feeling that both of them have reached a purer version of themselves. He will always watch and she will always move with the pack.
Is it all of us? Are we all Everett and Amy at the same time, observing some worlds and belonging to others? Is the point somewhere in the middle of these two extremes?
The episode does not tell us what to think. It does, however, include a voice-over by Dr. Everett, who narrates Emily Dickinson’s poem “Nature is what we see” over her latest footage. “Our Wisdom is so helpless”, he quotes, “To its simplicity.”
In other words, we can’t outsmart the world. He will do what he wants no matter what we think. And somehow, whatever we crave, it will let us belong.
New episodes of Tales of the Living Dead premieres Sundays at 9:00 p.m. ET on AMC through September 18.
Mark Blankenship is the editor of Primetimer. Tweet it at @IAmBlankenship.