Don’t let the title fool you, this is a very long analysis, so I put it under a Read More. In this analysis I briefly consider the television show BBC’s In the Flesh through the following themes:
– Religion (Christian Imagery)
– Oppression and Stigma
– Mental Illness
Serious trigger warnings for self harm, suicide, mental illness, homophobia
In the Flesh and Disability
From a Critical Disability Studies perspective, In the Flesh is an ideal allegory. The Social Model of Disability “identifies systemic barriers, negative attitudes and exclusion by society (purposely or inadvertently) that mean society is the main contributory factor in disabling people”*. Under this belief, the problem is not the individual’s impairment, but the society’s reaction to and resulting marginalization of individuals with said impairment. Partially Deceased Syndrome (PDS) sufferers deviate from the norm (the social norm in this case being the Living), and as a result, have to deal with Disability as the Social Model defines it. The PDS sufferers in Roarton have to deal with much in terms of social disability. For example, there is pressure from the Living community on the PDS sufferers to change their natural appearance, covering up with makeup and eye contact lenses.
Another big concept of Critical Disability Studies is human variation. The idea of human variation is that there is no “average” person, that all human beings differ in their bodies and/or minds, and that what is called “disability” or “impairment” is simply the diversity of the human species. The Undead Liberation Army (ULA) seizes this belief by questioning: “What are we being cured of?”. The ULA believes that being Undead (the reclaimed term for PDS sufferers) is not a disease to be cured, but simply a different (and in their minds, superior) state of being.
For a more specific example of how In the Flesh tackles the idea of Disability, one can look at the AIDs crisis. Like with the AIDs crisis, in In the Flesh, the Living fear the PDS sufferers similarly to how in the 80’s heterosexuals feared the LGBTQ+ community. Many want quarantine and segregation. Like with AIDs, there are large amounts of false information and rumours regarding the syndrome (ie. in the case of the show, some incorrectly believe they can catch the syndrome by being bitten). The connection between PDS and AIDs is further solidified by the identification of Kiernan as a bisexual** man, who would have been greatly feared in the AIDs crisis due to bisexual men’s perceived promiscuity and predilection to spread the disease to multiple genders.
In the Flesh and Religious Imagery
There is so much religious (namely, Christian) imagery and allegory in In the Flesh that it will be impossible to analyze it all in this short analysis.
For the analysis, I will focus on one character: Simon Monroe. Like the many biblical martyrs, Simon sacrifices himself for the “good of the world” (ie his body provides invaluable information in the treatment of PDS). Simon is also referred to in the show by ULA members as a disciple. To strengthen the concept of Simon as a disciple, consider his name. Simon the Zealot was one of the biblical 12 Apostles. The Zealots were a political movement in the 1st century consisting of Jewish people rebelling against the Roman Empire. Like Simon the Zealot, Simon Monroe is part of a radical rebellion against the powers-that-be in his story: the Living.
Like many biblical apostles and other figures, Simon experiences hallucinations in which a prophet speaks to him. The first time he begins to understand his hallucinations is when he has an encounter with another Undead, who displays his pierced side, possibly referencing Doubting Thomas (Thomas the Apostle), who did not believe in the rising of Jesus from the dead until he touched Jesus’ side wounds. Simon spends the entire second season struggling to have faith in the prophet, who ultimately leads him astray, demonstrating that religious extremism is dangerous, regardless of how righteous the intentions. There are many more Christian themes in the show such as rising from the dead (Lazarus/Jesus), religious bigotry (Vicar Oddie and the Parish Council), and the interpretation of the Book of Revelations.
In the Flesh and Mental Illness
Mental illness plays a large role in In the Flesh. The main protagonist, Kiernan Walker, died because he killed himself. Although it is not clear if this is because of a preexisting mental condition or a trauma-induced (homophobia, rejection, death of loved one, etc) depression, Kiernan Walker opens the door to allow analysis of mental illness in In the Flesh. Although I’ve already briefly discussed Disability in the show, Mental Illness (and especially trauma) plays a particular role in the stories of the people of Roarton. First, there is the comparison between mental illness and PDS. PDS sufferers have to be medicated daily to control their symptoms. If they miss a dose, there is the fear they will lash out and become “rabid”. Because of this, there is a fear of people with PDS, as there is a real-life fear of people with mental illnesses as violent and dangerous. Kiernan also deals with the stigma surrounding suicide he now has to face, one of the significant consequences of his “second life”. I will go further into this subject in the analysis of Oppression and Stigma.
As mentioned before, there are many allusions to trauma-induced mental illnesses, such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This is apparent not only in the PDS sufferers, but also in characters such as Jem Walker. Jem Walker is a perfect example of someone who may have PTSD in the show. During The Rising, Jem assumed her role as a soldier, and as a result experienced many traumatic events. Like many real-life soldiers, she did not escape her time “at war” unaffected. She experiences horrifying flashbacks and hallucinations. She has trouble sleeping, often waking soaked in sweat. As she ignores her mental problems, they continually grow more severe, resulting in poor decisions that end up furthering her spiral downward.
In the Flesh and Oppression/Stigma
Above all, In the Flesh is a story about oppression and stigma. The show explores the many facets of oppression and prejudice and how they can tear a community apart. In the most basic application of this theory, it is clear that PDS sufferers stand in as the marginalized group and the Living as the oppressors, most particularly in this case, Parish Council. In the Flesh illustrates oppression in many of its forms; from ignorant stereotypes, police brutality, and harassment to religious bigotry, mob mentality, and murder. The show is not uncritical to the marginalized, however; it also demonstrates the dangers of extremism in any belief system, oppressor or otherwise. While we are more sympathetic to the ULA than we are to the HVF (Human Volunteer Force) or Norfolk (the PDS treatment center), we are still wary of their behavior and want to see our protagonist find his own path rather than fall prey to either group. In the next few paragraphs, I will highlight some of the major instances where the theme of oppression is present.
Although I’m sure there would still be many problems had Kiernan died of cancer or a car accident, his death being what it was (suicide) leads to some particular issues in the story regarding stigma. Suicide is arguably the most stigmatized death imaginable. In many religious systems of belief, suicide is even considered the ultimate sin, throwing away God’s “gift” of life. In a religious and close-minded community like Roarton, Kiernan’s suicide not only lowered public opinion of him, but also affected and isolated his family. Despite the popular angle of shaming suicidal people and forcing them to consider how “selfish” they are, In the Flesh draws a different conclusion. It recognizes his pain and never paints him as “the selfish son” for “abandoning” his family, yet it still acknowledges the particular pain and fallout suicide brings to a family or community.
Kiernan’s father, Steve Walker, tells Kiernan he is “one of the good ones” in regards to his status as a PDS sufferer and member of a marginalized group. This attitude is very common when addressing marginalized peoples. Instead of recognizing that Kiernan is wholly himself and not any different than the rest of the PDS sufferers (in terms of The Rising), Steve refuses to relinquish his prejudiced and oppressive attitude towards PDS sufferers and attempts to place his son on a pedestal that does not reflect reality.
In perhaps the most heart-wrenching arc of the show, we see bigotry result in the murder of a young man. Homophobia is likely the most obvious oppression shown in In the Flesh. Rick Macy, PDS sufferer, war veteran, and initial love interest of Kiernan Walker returns to Roarton to his father, a HVF leader and killer of “Rotters”, Bill Macy. Shockingly, Bill accepts Rick into his home as a son, despite his status as a “Rotter”. It soon becomes apparent, however, that Bill is in deep denial over his son’s condition, and places all of his anger on Kiernan. Kiernan reveals he was unpopular in the town even before he came back as a PDS sufferer (suggesting homophobia may have played a role in his suicide) and that he was banned from the Macy’s home due to Bill’s suspicion of a relationship between the two boys.
When forced to face the facts, Bill murders his son, devastating Kiernan over the death of his best mate and crush for a second time (the first being the primary reason for his suicide). Finally able to move on with his (second) life, Kiernan meets Simon, who becomes the primary love interest in the show. Kiernan and Simon’s relationship demonstrates Kiernan’s growing self confidence in himself.
I feel hesitant to draw connections between In the Flesh and race since there are few people of color in the show (and metaphoric representation is not good representation), but the reactions to the heterogenous relationships amongst PDS and Living people strike similar chords to real-life reactions against interracial couples. An example of this can be seen between Amy Dyer and Phillip Wilson.
The show, however, does not end on a bitter note. In fact, one could argue that it has quite a sunny and hopeful message. Many characters in the show display immense development and illustrate that people are able to overcome prejudice. The primary example for this argument would be Phillip Wilson, who once served on the board of the Parish Council but in the end becomes a strong supporter of PDS rights.
If you read this entire diatribe, congratulations, and I hope you enjoyed it. I hope to go into further detail of each issue I briefly touched upon in this post at some point.
gifs not mine, credit to the following. If you want your gif removed, please let me know.
– minkissu (ULA) – nalle (simon) – pacinglee (cross) – ginevera17 (PDS) – Sagrios (mixtape) – gifintheflesh (cut wrist) – lukeblooberry (jem) – pocketsizedmilkovich (phillip1) – gifintheflesh (phillip2) – Adoringitf (harm) – Kiernanswallker (makeup) – Lokispants (sue) – Nikirari (rotters) – captbritain (we are the same)
“Brief Critical Analysis of Themes on In the Flesh,” ©The Graveyard Girl, originally posted on September 28, 2014