Friday, July 14, 2017

Does Fear The Walking Dead Have A Race Problem?

Image result for fear the walking dead

We have spoken about race in the Walking Dead world, many many times. Oh so many times. And yet, it keeps serving us up problems that just demand commentary and with the mid-season finale of Fear the Walking Dead we simply have to talk about this again.

When Fear the Walking Dead first begun, there seemed to be a lot of potential for it to have a racially diverse cast - it began in Los Angeles and quickly moved to Mexico: in those circumstances it would be more than slightly ridiculous to have a cast dominated by non-latino White people. This doesn’t mean The Walking Dead ever had an excuse for not being racially diverse - being set in Atlanta and Washington DC, both “minority majority” cities makes a white-dominant cast more than a little dubious - but to move the story to Mexico and still have a non-latino white American dominant cast? That’s an even bigger stretch.

Unfortunately, like so many of these shows, the original potential for racial diversity rapidly began to fizzle out. We already spoke about the early deaths of POC on this show, but since then, it has only gotten worse.

While Madison, Alicia and Nick - the white protagonists - have weathered the storm, we’ve seen the deaths of Travis, Chris and Travis’s first wife, Elizabeth (seriously, this show has surgically extracted the POC from this mixed-race family). Outside of that core family, we’ve seen the early loss of Griselda, Ofelia’s mother and we’ve moved from POC settlement to settlement leaving carnage in their wake. From Daniel burning down Celia Flores’s compound, to the destruction of Alejandro’s settlement, even to the loss of the gang that attacked that settlement: we’ve seen these camps be destroyed one after another. Even when one manages to survive - like the hotel - we quickly get somewhat dubious reasons why it has to be abandoned.

Instead, it’s an overwhelmingly white ranch that remains the base of operations.

But death is not the contribution to Minority Decay - focus is clearly another. Madison, Alicia and Nick have managed to be reunited and stay together - even when they are apart, it’s unusual for an episode to happen where they’re not referred to - and we certainly won’t see a long chain of episodes where they do not appear.

When season 3 started, we actually thought Daniel and Ofelia were dead and Strand had been all but written out. All of them had been banished to the plot box - Ofelia for so long I didn’t even recognise her when she reappeared. Even now, Strand and Daniel are separated from the main cast, reduced to cameos if that- and Ofelia only got to step out of the plot box because Luciana stepped into it. Two female latina characters is simply too much, one has to be banished to the plot box.

We move from this minority decay to season 3s big-bad, a Native American tribe attacking the poor rugged white pioneers.

There was never a chance of this being done well, so I think the writers didn’t even try.

From the moment Qaletaqa Walker appeared we were treated to endless “savage” brutality intermingled with a heavy dose of woo-woo and superstition. Qaletaqa is literally scalping people (something white colonists did to Native Americans to collect bounties during the genocide), burning people alive, employing biological warfare and otherwise taking the fight to an extreme level all the while the ranchers call them “savages” and “barbarians”. This is the story told by so many 1950s westerns - savage “injuns” attacking poor innocent white pioneers - that we finally stopped portraying when even Hollywood realised how disgusting it was (we moved to white people saving those poor Native Americans so we didn’t exactly move far).

When not brutally slaughtering people, Qaletaqa is something of a mess of stereotypes more than personality - a mix of “noble savage” (freeing Madison despite her being his main opposition because she’s “more of a man” than Jeremiah; speaking of the “first people” and sacred artefacts) mixed in with a strong dose of woo-woo (he even quoted prophecy to Madison and his horse sensed Ofelia’s “spirit”. Really?). This was… lacking in terms of any kind of humanising portrayal or development and certainly not balancing the brutality and torture.

What is extremely sad about this is there was a potential for a storyline here - Indigenous people losing their land to colonisation now having a chance to reclaim it once the oppressive powers of the colonist government fall could be a storyline. Exploring how the courts are biased against Native Americans and land was taken in highly corrupt and dubious legal thefts is a storyline to explore. Qaletaqa being both suspicious and unwilling to accept the judgements of these courts would also be a reasonable plot point to develop. Native Americans herded into reservations and facing extreme levels of poverty now seeing new opportunities in the apocalypse? That’s a plot point. These are all things that could have been explored extremely well: they could have shown a whole interesting twist to the breakdown of society: those who society has oppressed having the chance to rise up. Rather than turning Qaletaqa and his people into Fear the Walking Dead’s less evil Governor or Negan, they could have had an entirely original, nuanced storyline here.

Which would also have developed with Ofelia’s and Luciana’s stories - desperate, dying of thirst, Ofelia is brushed off and rejected by Jeremiah - and his all white ranch. Luciana is clearly driven off but Nick, Madison and Alicia are encouraged to stay - maintaining the racial homogeneousness of the ranch, regarding the presence and arrival of Latinos as an invasive force (despite the land once being Mexico and despite it being Native American originally) these are intertwining plot lines that could have spoken volumes about racism, colonisation, immigration and how little borders mean in the apocalypse.

There was potential here. None of it was realised and all of it was backed by some really on-the-nose tropes which felt intentional: the scalping, using disease to kill, Madison being willing to lie about the death of white people to justify “retaliation”, Madison stealing Qaletaqa’s cultural artefacts. These are some major racist issues that were just casually invoked and discarded.

The calling out and “just death” of Jeremiah, with Madison judging him, does not fix any of this. This wasn’t justice, this was scapegoating

Don’t get me wrong, Jeremiah was obviously racist, murderous and evil. There’s no argument there. But that was his role here - to be the very blatant bad guy, the man who who murdered Qaletaqa’s family, the racist who drove out Luciana and left Ofelia to die of thirst: he is Madison’s shield

He is the one we’re supposed to point to and say “this is the bad one” and, by inference, everyone else is in the clear. It’s Jeremiah’s fault, everyone else - even Troy - is good or redeemable.

Never mind it was Madison who lied about the murder of the Trimbles - that wasn’t on Jeremiah, that was all her. She blamed them to protect and control Troy for her own advancement and access to power. She’d rather see Troy escape consequence - and see open war with the Native Americans - than give up her chance to power. It was Madison who stole Qaletaqa’s heritage, knowing what they meant to him. It was Madison who broke the true and hostage exchange which was being used to negotiate peace.

What did Qaletaqa actually gain at the end of this? Did he get his land back? Did his people get sustained access to water? The war against the Ranch wasn’t just about his father’s killer, it was about resources and land and theft but suddenly of that matters because Jeremiah is dead?

And can we really put the sins of the ranch just down to Jeremiah? Look at where this all-white settlement is - you can’t tell me this racial hegemony has been maintained just because of Jeremiah? Especially since this is based on a survivalist group, a movement which has strong right wing and racist ties: Jeremiah’s death is used to shield and scapegoat for the entire ranch despite it being highly dubious to think he acted in isolation. (Especially given how hands off he was - a leadership style that allowed Madison to so quickly climb the ladder).

In all, Jeremiah’s death is lazy. Lazy, quick easy resolution to this whole conflict - dump all the crimes, all the sins, all the deaths and bigotry and injustice on one man and cast him out. Even better, have Madison both stand in judgement of him and be the one who brings him down: because what easier way to establish your good and true protagonist than have them destroy a monster? Even if she was quite happy to ride that monster when it was convenient to her.