Thursday, 28 March 2013

Fleshing Out

OK, fine.  Sometimes I don't see the wood for the trees. Admittedly, those trees might have zombies hiding behind them, so you can understand my choice of focus.  Even so, how did I miss this?

(In The Flesh spoilers below the fold.)

In all my fretting over the use of zombies a a metaphor for mental illness evidenced by the first episode of In The Flesh, I completely missed what the first episode hinted at, right up until the second one screamed it to the heavens.  Kieren isn't just suicidally depressed, he's gay.

The moment that registers, a whole bunch of things click into place.  This isn't about zombies as a metaphor for how society treats the mentally ill, it's about how the way society treats the mentally ill works so well as a metaphor for how they treat homosexuality, there's a none trivial group of people who think it's the same thing.  This is about the conflation of three totally different things, where one of them happens to be being a zombie.

This is why the critical moment in episode two comes when one of the HVF is bitten by a zombie and... nothing happens. No infection, no sudden death followed by a rising from the grave.  One the most superficial level this is just another way of distinguishing In The Flesh from the ocean of competing zombie narratives.  But if any such story was to do away with the idea of infectious shambling corpses, of course it's this one.  Because mental illness isn't catching, and gayness isn't communicable, but it's amazing - and immensely depressing - to get people to absorb that fact.

It also brings a new level of pathos to the story of Rick.  From the trailer's last week it looked like this episode would be about Rick returning home and his father - who murdered a man's wife just a few days earlier because her heart wasn't  beating any more - turning on a sixpence and accepting his zombified son in an outburst of hideous, rank hypocrisy.  What we get instead is something more interesting; a man who can neither accept his son is undead or is gay.  And, more to the point, a man who's son cannot accept either truth himself.  It's a stunning display not of hypocrisy but of the human mind's staggering ability to lie to itself so completely that the evidence of one's eyes - to say nothing of logic itself - is utterly overwhelmed.

So Rick is the prisoner of a "traditional" Northern upbringing: no whining, no puffs, thanks very much.  But is Kieren's family life really all that much better?  If his parents keep putting food in front of him and insist he pretends to eat it, what are the chances they've truly accepted his sexual orientation?  They hid the fact that his first love has returned from Afghanistan, for fuck's sake.  A refusal to engage with the true identity of your children doesn't look any better because your support is built on a lie rather than absent entirely.  A son who's gay, and who killed himself, and all the Walkers want to talk about is how tasty their dinner is.

So, fine.  There are an awful lot of people for whom homosexuality is to be attacked without, and utterly denied within.  Similar truths exist regarding mental illness.  And yes, people like Michele Bachmann will tell you there's actually no difference between the two in any case, or at least she will if she's not ranting about pet manicures or being grilled over ethics violations.  That's definitely something you can run with, and In The Flesh is making a decent fist of it.  But there's still a central problem here, which is that the show has to consider the idea of treatment.

Under the logic of the first episode (or my interpretation of it, at least), the central problem with the series is that PDS sufferers can without warning become resistant to their medication, and immediately regress to the level of mindless killers.  Indeed, the first episode suggested an injection of the medication can actually immediately bring about that change.  At the time, I was harshly critical of this idea, because it suggested that people with mental health issues can be a threat to their communities even if they're taking their prescribed medication.  That struck me as a terrible suggestion, and one that worked against the perceived sympathies of the show.

Now, however, things get even more confused, because if we swivel to the PDS as homosexuality metaphor, this so-called "treatment" is a lie, a villainous con wrecking lives for the sake of persuading bigots and fools that the human experience really should be as small and uniform as they want to make it.  It's no wonder this "treatment" can't keep working indefinitely; it's not a corrective to some flaw in the "patient", it's an attempt to overwrite someone's basic make up.  It's only a matter of time before what's been repressed erupts.  Sooner or later, Kieren will once more become a man-eater, and I don't care how weak a pun that is.

Where does this leave us, though?  It feels as though the two main metaphors the show is using, despite having many parallels, are actually working against each other.  It seems desperately unlikely that we'll get to the end of the final episode on Sunday without someone reverting back to their flesh-chomping antics, but what will that mean?  That we need more tolerance?

 Or that we need more sanitoriums?

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