Duality and Dissolution in the Post-Apocalypse: Nietzsche's Cycle of Morality in AMC's The Walking Dead
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Throughout his body of work, especially in Beyond Good and Evil (1886), On the Genealogy of Morality (1887), and Twilight of the Idols (1889), German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche details Western civilization’s slow movement towards nihilism. Nietzsche explains that this nihilism is the result of a so-called “slave morality,” a system of inhibitive values that suppress egoistic desires for the sake of the collective. Democracy, Christian charity, and even mass consumerism are all indicative of slave morality. But because this value system relies on absolute morals supported by a “true world” (God, a heavenly afterlife, etc.), the collapse of these systems will result in mass disillusionment. This disillusionment, however, will allow for the strongest of society, previously repressed by guilt and social obligation, to create new values. These new values will find their animating principle in the sensual desires of the ego. They will resemble “master morality,” which predated slave morality and was defined by the outward expression of what Nietzsche calls the “will to power.” The implication of this ongoing dialectical interplay between master morality and slave morality is that the two systems of values will regulate each other based on the changing needs and demands of human society. AMC’s The Walking Dead (2010- ), through its long-term depiction of post-apocalyptic life, demonstrates this cycle of morality in action. The characters are robbed of their old values in a world dominated by a life-denying “herd” of zombies. As the series progresses, the characters overcome their reliance upon pre-apocalyptic values and embrace egoistic self-sufficiency. Once their efforts move past survival into civilization-construction, however, they must re-learn how to moderate themselves for the sake of sustaining communities. The Walking Dead’s thematically fluid narrative therefore reflects not only the complementary nature of Nietzsche’s cycle of morality, but also Western history’s troubled relationship with metaphysical ideas it alternates between rejecting and embracing. Although an examination of The Walking Dead through a Nietzschean lens cannot wholly resolve this conundrum, such an analysis can provide insight into the changing power dynamics of society and illuminate ways of mitigating the trauma of shifts between value systems.