Superdad Chris Shulgan wonders why it takes the end of the world to bring out the good fathers on TV.
Warning: This contains spoilers.
At first I couldn’t figure out what hooked me on The Walking Dead, the AMC Original Series that just aired the sixth and final episode of its first season. It isn’t the sort of show I’d usually watch. The violence, for one thing—it’s so over the top. Enough already with the pickaxe-to-the-eye killing blow. There’s some occasionally sloppy plotting, too. For example, if you somehow obtained a hacksaw while you were handcuffed to a heating duct, wouldn’t you use the saw to cut the handcuff rather than your own wrist?
Despite that, the show has me hooked. And it hooked me at a specific moment. Several weeks ago, when I first downloaded the first episode from iTunes, I found the show’s first few minutes a bit flat. The pilot’s Tarantino-esque opening features police officers Rick Grimes (played by Andrew Lincoln) and Shane Walsh discussing the trouble with women, as it pertains to their individual relationships. There’s a shootout, which sees Grimes wounded, and then he wakes up from what must have been quite a long stint in a hospital. There’s nobody around.
It’s on the walk around the ward, which becomes a longer walk toward his home, that things begin to get interesting. What’s with the zombies in the padlocked hospital ward? The rows of body bags in the hospital parking lot?
And then, the moment it hooked me: Grimes is in his house, going through the bedrooms and bathrooms that once hosted the shouts of his wife and his son, when you see how wrecked he is to be separated from his family. He really misses them.
As a father myself, I sympathized with the guy. And from that moment on, the show, for me, became about a guy trying to reunite with his family. And protect them. And not just that. As The Walking Dead develops, the show turns out to be full of fathers. In fact, has there ever been a television show that depicted more fathers acting like fathers—good fathers, engaged fathers, fathers who stand up for their families—than The Walking Dead?
Sympathetic father characters remain comparatively rare on mainstream television. Cable and network shows give us plenty of patriarchs as buffoons—Homer Simpson types. And then you get the jerks, the Don Drapers who are too messed up to manage acting like examples for their kids.
The Walking Dead is different. Witness the father-son highlights that have happened throughout the show’s first season:
Episode 1: The respect that exists between the father-son duo who are the first non-zombie people Rick Grimes meets after regaining consciousness—and how well and subtly illustrated that respect is. Just as they’re about to eat their first meal with Rick, the son reminds the father to say “the blessing.” The father nods. He accepts his son’s correction, then says grace.
Episode 3: The moment Rick Grimes reunites with his son, Carl. I’ve replayed this moment several times, and it still has the power to summon a lump to my throat. Rick sees his wife and son at the same time. The boy sprints just as Rick sinks to his knees to accept the boy in his arms. It’s the way Rick actually falls over that gets me. The way he’s so lost in his boy’s embrace that he momentarily loses his balance. Yeah, I could see that. If I were in the same situation, I’d buckle, too.
Episode 4: Carl Grimes catching frogs with Rick’s former partner, Shane Walsh. It’s a light moment that should be happening with Rick: two men in a quarry pond splashing water and attempting to catch amphibians for some deep-fried frog legs. But Rick has left his family to return to Atlanta, and Shane steps in as a surrogate father, raising the possibility that Shane may be a better or at least more reliable family protector than Rick.
The reason Rick goes back, supposedly, is to retrieve a bag of guns and an important walkie-talkie. But I don’t care how many guns are in the bag, in that situation, after the end of the world, once I’m back with my son and wife, there wouldn’t be anything that would be able to separate us. “I hate that you’re doing this, man,” says Shane to Rick. “I think it’s reckless and foolish.” He’s right. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that the show depicts two grown men arguing straight-faced about the correct course one should take to fulfill a familial responsibility. And hey, how often does that happen?
Such benevolent depictions of paternal relations become all the more striking when you consider that another of pop culture’s seminal fathers, the unnamed protagonist created by novelist Cormac McCarthy in The Road, depicted in the 2009 movie by Viggo Mortensen, also happened to reside in an apocalyptic America.
Few other creations in pop culture feature such tender moments between father and son. In that, The Walking Dead and The Road stick out. Which prompts the question: Why? Why do we have to wait until the apocalypse for television and Hollywood to feature positive depictions of fathers?
Because when it comes to survival, there are Things Men Must Do. In The Walking Dead’s fourth episode, a solo Rick Grimes holds a pump-action shotgun at an apparent gang leader’s forehead. He runs out of Atlanta’s suburban sprawl to arrive in the nick of time to save his family from a zombie attack. During standoffs, he points firearms at fellow survivors, shouting things like “We don’t kill living people.” In other words, we know Rick Grimes is a man. In fact, the show tells us so over and over again: “That man is tough as nails,” says a survivor named Jim to Carl Grimes. “Ain’t noting that’ll stop him from getting back here. I promise you that.”
In The Walking Dead, civilization’s end has created an environment where Rick Grimes is able to prove, day in and day out, that he is a real man, tough as nails. And perhaps his beyond-doubt status as a hyper-masculine male makes it simultaneously safe for the show to depict his sensitive side, and makes it OK to show him crying over the reunification of his son, or wrestling with his responsibilities as a father and husband.
It’s tougher to prove you’re a real man when civilization hasn’t ended. And perhaps that reflects some positive and negative signs of the status of engaged fathers in our society. It’s great that a father like Rick Grimes is being depicted positively. But it would be a whole lot better if we had more fully realized father characters in situations where the world hasn’t ended.
—Photo via TheStar.com