Apocalyptic TV and climate change: Don’t worry, be glum, part 2
Post-apocalyptic Dreaming in ‘Station 11’

From disaster to dystopia to post-apocalypse

It is worth recalling that the genre that culminates in the present in post-apocalyptic television began in literature as one describing Utopia with Thomas More setting its prototype in the book by the same name and its “presiding theorist” being Ernst Bloch, whose three-volume archeology of The Principle of Hope was written in the darkest days of World War II.

Such a text in which “political institutions, social norms, economic systems, and ways of life are superior” to the present could serve to call attention to the injustices and oppressions of that present. With Bloch comes the idea that “imagination is forward-directed, a call to action.”

Thus, as Fredric Jameson says, “The waning of the utopian idea is a fundamental historical and political symptom.” The particular parallel trajectory regarding climate change parallels changes in this genre.

Ernst Bloch’s ‘The Principle of Hope”

In the 1970s, as fossil fuel companies were commissioning, then suppressing studies that showed that their continued drilling could cause planetary destruction, came the disaster films, limited but horrible images of natural or human-constructed devastation, including Earthquake, The Poseidon Adventure dealing with a tsunami, and The Towering Inferno, apocalypse (but in a single building) and with lots of stars, mostly A- and some B-list.

As the consciousness of this potential devastation began to grow, public opinion went through first a questioning and then a period of greenwashing, where it appeared technical solutions within global capitalism could work. In this era, roughly the 1990s to the early 2000s, the apocalyptic impulse tended to decrease, with the fear allayed, and with occasional dystopic series where the world, à la 9/11, is threatened, but where those fleeing the earth in Battlestar Galactica still retain the image of an abundant earth to which to return.

However, with the dawning in the last decade of the full weight of climate catastrophe, the rapid acceleration of these crises over even the last year, and the tendency toward throwing up one’s hands and deciding there is nothing to be done but submit passively, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic series, many of which simply see the end as inevitable, have increased in tempo as the apocalyptic imaginary has also penetrated other genres.

Thus, in these series, there are several “endings” of the world where the series is concerned with the adaptive strategies of those who survive with little left to them but their own resourcefulness (The Leftovers, Jericho, The Rain, War of the Worlds, Silo). Capitalism, and its part in global war, climate destruction, and a relentlessly unequal economy, is barely cited as culpable in this situation. The genre itself is a combination of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, with the latter now coming to dominate. The post-apocalyptic imagination is also projected into the past—in AT&T/HBO’s Game of Thrones and House of the Dragon which languishes in a primitive dog-eat-dog world that could be read as “post-neoliberal” where all the boundaries and protections of the state have been overturned—and into the near future, as the splitting of an employee’s consciousness between work and leisure in Apple’s Severance in effect denies the real-world struggle of Apple workers to organize in a series that is not green- but work-washing.

In these series, what was once an archeology of hope has transmuted into an archeology of despair, with the affect mobilized being a later stage of what Jameson identifies as the chief post-modern emotion, irony, in the form of Elvis Costello’s “I used to be disgusted but now I try to be amused” where “what hurts” is transformed into “what smirks.” Being above the fray and superior to it short-circuits the stage of activism, but increasingly the smirk, the attitude du jour still of many academics, cannot conceal the hurt.

An exception to these late-stage post-apocalyptic series is The Swarm, instead an apocalyptic series which takes place in the “near” present as the ocean is mobilizing its defense—that is, at the onset rather than after the apocalypse. This series can be read as a call to action before the oceans are destroyed from the heart of what still remains of European Social Democracy since it was financed by public television stations in France, Italy, Austria, and Switzerland as well as private streamers in Scandinavia and Japan.

These series are replete with sentiments echoing this resignation from the timid claim, in The Last of Us, disavowing collective action, that as long as “there is one person worth saving” it is possible to live a fulfilling life, to Station 11’s reckoning by the actress who survives a holocaust and finds a memoir of the time before that: “I don’t care that the world was ending because it was the world.” These views are endorsed in the press: The New York Times lead television reviewer James Poniewozik described the latter series glibly as “the most uplifting show about life at the end of the world you are likely to see.” The critic praises Station 11 as a series that celebrates humanity’s drive to create, with this neo-liberal mumbo jumbo about the indomitability of the human spirit concealing the fact that creation here is refashioned as a device not to save humanity but to divert it. Poniewozik concludes that this show is for you “if you want catharsis and a surprising laugh,” with the implication being that if you’re concerned with actually changing the world or forestalling the disaster this is not a show for you.

Apocalyptic alternatives: The Walking Dead and its critique of the neoliberal order

“If we…strip away the abundance and expansionism of the liberal capitalist order, we find waiting beneath the disguise of peaceful competition and meritocratic incentive the cruelty and repression to which modern liberalism has become oblivious.”

Oddly, this statement could be the tagline for Season 11, the final season, of The Walking Dead. In it, the survivors take on their most deceptive opponent, The Commonwealth, a seemingly utopian community blessed with abundance and locked behind sturdy gates that walls its residents off from both the zombies and the viciousness of the bands that contend with them. The kingdom is ruled over by Pamela Milton and her family. The dynasty is headed by this blonde aging leader, with a physical similarity to Hilary Clinton, whose words proclaim that she only wants what is best for her people. Above ground, the mood is calm and tranquil, but below ground are the prisons for those who resist the Commonwealth’s abundance. Pamela tells an underling, “Not that it isn’t, but it can’t feel like a police state,” in perhaps a nod to the patrolling in the contemporary U.S. of Black and Hispanic neighborhoods.

The Walking Dead survivors find though that beneath this utopian veneer of a new world lurks the same old class distinctions as two of the survivors are sent to a labor camp being told that their “work will benefit those better than you.” Pamela’s son, a little Hunter Biden or Eric Trump, betrays the truth of the place: “The reality is the poor stay poor so the rich can do whatever we want.” All of which reminds us of Clinton’s characterization of certain segments of the working class as “deplorables” in the 2016 election.

Season 11 of ‘The Walking Dead”

The “foreign policy” of the Commonwealth is one of dominance not benevolence, as its security forces attempt to turn the other camps outside their purview into outposts or labor camps operating for the good of the Commonwealth, Here we are reminded of Clinton’s destruction of Libya, the oil-rich African country with the most developed health care system and the highest literacy, and then boasting about it. Anecdote: the weekend before the bombs started to fall, the Financial Times ran a detailed map of where oil was drilled, processed, and shipped in Libya to remind NATO to bomb schools and hospitals but take care to leave the oil routes alone. Ten days before NATO took over what had been more sporadic bombing the FT ran a story warning that the Libyan leader Gaddafi was threatening to nationalize the oil.

Finally, Milton reveals her true self as she exiles her people outside the gates of the Commonwealth, as the zombies approach, to save a small cohort of her and her associates. The final shot of her, after her rule is overturned, in prison, is a shot which compares her—though she still has an aura of reasonableness—to the imprisoning of the most vicious monster the survivors had faced, Negan, after his more openly brutal order was defeated.

Communal alternatives in The Last of Us

More problematic is another zombie apocalypse, that of The Last of Us, adapted from the game with its showrunner Craig Mazin having visualized the real apocalypse of Chernobyl. The series, after it quickly jumps 20 years beyond the onset of the virus, or fungus, posits first in the North in Boston Fedra, a broken-down police state, after a mycologist has proposed as a solution, since there is no vaccine, to “bomb everyone in the city.” Joel (The Mandalorian’s Pedro Pascal) and the teenage Ellie (Game of Thrones’s Bella Ramsey) then go on a cross-country tour to find a group of scientists since Ellie, who survived a bite, may hold the cure.

On the tour, they encounter in St. Louis populist fascists who hunt their African-American guide who does explain to them that their viciousness is the product of the police state government’s “torturing and killing people for 20 years,” in an admission that the brutality of these Trump-like survivors is partly a factor of their being brutalized by a system that for the last 50 years in the U.S. has continually attacked their wages and lifestyle.

Finally, Joel and Ellie find an alternative in Wyoming in a collective where leaders are democratically elected and ownership is shared. It is here that they are offered hope, a chance, as Joel’s brother says, to “figure out what they want to do with their lives.” But this actual utopia is simply a resting spot they might hope to return to because they must press on to get Ellie to a hospital where she can be examined, which proves again to be part of the nightmare of modern science, where curing and killing are synonymous.

‘Snowpiercer’ and the return of the utopian impulse

“It will then turn out that the world has long dreamt of that of which it had only to have a clear idea to possess it really.”— Karl Marx, 1843

The most class-conscious apocalyptic series, and ultimately the most hopeful, is Bong Joon-ho’s adaptation of his film of the same name. The most class-conscious director working in film and television today, he is currently adapting his Academy Award-winning film Parasite for television. In Snowpiercer, the train the survivors of a nuclear winter cling to circles the earth. As they describe it, it’s “a fortress to class” with the “tailies” at the back in cramped quarters, called “unticketed passengers” to stress their illegitimacy, while the ultra-rich in the front of the train enjoy fine dining. “The Revolution,” with the tailies led by stalwart leader Andre Layton, prevails in season 1 but is beaten back in Season 2 by the return of the train’s “engineer-entrepreneur” founder Mr. Wilford, a Richard Branson/Jeff Bezos/Elon Musk type whose contempt for equality drips from every corner of his mouth onto his fur coat.

Snowpiercer’s offloading the capitalist

Season 3 ends in a truly startling moment. Mr. Wilford has lost control of the train and is imprisoned but attempts to regain power when the train’s original leader Melanie Cavill and Layton disagree on how to proceed over the possibility that there may be a spot on the earth warm enough to sustain life.

The traditional method of control, divide and conquer, does not prevail, though, as Cavill and Layton agree to disagree on what path to follow but come together to oppose the capitalist retaking the train. He is offloaded with enough supplies to survive but has lost his place in this now more equal class structure. The two factions then come to a mutual agreement where each takes a principled stand which sees them dividing the train. The point is clear though. With the capitalist gone, they are then able to hash out a compromise that has each doing what they think is best for the train and for what is left of humanity as a whole.

The final lesson of Snowpiercer is that if the world is shorn of its capitalist billionaires, its various and diverse peoples will find compromises that can yet save humanity. So, working from the presupposition that the world has ended, this series posits a way forward that begins with the overthrow of the controlling leader who puts his own interests ahead of everyone else on the train and the planet.

The reward for this bold proclamation? Warner Bros., or now Warner Bros./Discovery, still ruled by the very conservative Texas company AT&T, refused to air the final season—shot and ready to go—on TNT. The company preferred a tax write-off to airing a show whose season is about how groups cooperate to learn how to retake the planet. It’s a grim scenario, but we are in a grim place right now.

Part 1 of this survey article can be read here.

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Dennis Broe
Dennis Broe

Dennis Broe, a film, television and art critic, is also the author of the Harry Palmer LA Mysteries, the latest volume of which, The House That Buff Built, is about the real estate industry, dispossession, and appropriation in the shaping of “modern” Los Angeles.