Let’s take a break from Nazis, and have some fun with sentient zombies during these last few days before Halloween! In the Flesh is a BBC/BBCAmerica show from 2013-14 that was cancelled after 2 short seasons, leaving it with a grand total of 9 episodes. Each season tells a complete story, so no worries about being left on a cliffhanger, though threads were left open for season 3 to continue the story. (Bring it back, please!!) The show was created and written by Dominic Mitchell, who’s gone on to write and produce for Westworld.
In the Flesh is currently streaming on Hulu and included with Amazon Prime, or if you’re in the UK, on the BBC website. Even if you’re not in the UK, the other videos on the site aren’t geolocked, and there’s a lot of great stuff there.
This is my favorite zombie show ever, rivalled only by season 1 of The Walking Dead. It was recently featured in IGN.com’s article The 15 Best Horror TV Shows of the Last 10 Years along with my other relatively obscure personal favorites Crazyhead and Dark, both on Netflix. (I will recap season 1 of Dark, hopefully before the end of the year. Or before season 2 is released. Or the timeline changes. I have a draft started.)
In this universe, the recently deceased all rose on one specific night in 2009, for unknown reasons, then rampaged the world, killing humans and eating their brains. Eventually scientists figured out that they were eating brains because they were missing a specific brain chemical. Once a medication was created to replace what was lacking, the zombies’ mental state returned to normal. Their physical state remains more zombie-like, though it’s improved from the feral state.
But in the intervening years, many people died, among both zombies and the living. Volunteer militias were formed in small towns to cope with the zombies, since the military was spread too thin. These Human Volunteer Forces, or HVF, were the big heroes of the day, and some are having trouble returning to normal life.
The populace as a whole has difficulty accepting the Partially Deceased Syndrome sufferers, as the zombies are now known, back into their midst. The PDS sufferers grow resentful at being blamed for actions that were outside of their control. They are victims of a chronic disease, not criminals. Some begin to feel that they should wear their PDS proudly, as a badge of honor.
In the Flesh takes place in the small British town of Roarton, Lancashire. Roarton was hit particularly hard when the zombies rose, and was the origin of the HVF. Tensions between PDS sufferers and the HVF/townspeople remain high. When the medicated PDS sufferers are released back to their loved ones, the families of Roarton bring their relatives home secretly, hoping to keep the HVF unaware of their presence until tensions die down.
The show focuses on a PDS sufferer named Kieran Walker, who returns home to live with his loving but confused parents, Sue and Steve, and his sister, Jem. Kieran and Jem were once close, but Jem is now one of the heroes of the HVF. We also get to know Shirley Wilson, the town’s primary caregiver for PDS sufferers, her son Philip, who is the town clerk, Vicar Oddie, who has strong opinions about how the town should function, Bill Macy, the leader of the local HVF and a man who doesn’t know when to quit, and Amy Dyer, Kieran’s hunting partner from their zombie days.
Episode 1, cleverly titled Episode 1, begins in the midst of the war that followed The Rising, which is the name that the UK has given the date when the recently deceased rose from their graves, looking for BRAAIINSS. We are in the town of Roarton, a typical small town, in a grocery store, where two teenage girls are shopping. The store’s shelves are half empty, and the girls, Lisa and Jem, discuss what’s still available over their walkie talkies. They have HVF armbands on, over the camo uniforms they’re wearing.
Lisa moves on to a new section of the store, which is quiet and seems empty other than her and her friend. But that’s not true. Her shopping cart runs into a female zombie in a yellow dress who’s eating the brain of her latest victim, another HVF member. Lisa shoots at the zombie, but it has little effect.
Lisa backs away from the zombie, into a male zombie. He grabs her and goes in for the kill. We hear a man saying, “Kieran, Kieran, It’s alright. It’s alright.” The scene changes to a doctor holding onto the male zombie, Kieran Walker, who’s now cleaned up, wearing scrubs, and in a medical facility. Kieran is shaking, nearly having a seizure. The scene in the store was a flashback, caused by the dose of medication that the doctor just gave Kieran.
The flashback was an “involuntary recurrent memory”, and they’re getting more vivid with each dose. The doctor says that’s good, because it means that Kieran’s “cognitive circuitry” is reconnecting. It’s like a computer rebooting.
Kieran doesn’t feel ready to go home yet, but the doctor says that’s exactly why he’s ready. He’s “feeling”. Kieran is worried about the way he responds to the medication, Neurotriptyline, and its side effects, but the doctor assures him that his response is normal and he’s healing. It’s the PDS sufferers who don’t respond that are in trouble. They’re “taken care of”.
Next, the doctor asks if Kieran’s family is looking forward to having him home again. Kieran scoffs, as if that’s a ridiculous question. He explains that he’s a zombie and he killed people, why would his parents want him back? The doctor makes him correct himself using statements that have obviously been practiced many times.
“I am a Partially Deceased Syndrome sufferer and what I did in my untreated state is not my fault.”
Kieran can’t bring himself to say it with any sincerity, but the doctor accepts that he at least said it. There’s some work to do here on self-image and getting past the victim-blaming.
Seriously, I’m once again amazed by the compassion and breadth of the British National Health Service, though. Bet the PDS sufferers in America don’t have it this good.
The doctor escorts Kieran out to the hall, where dozens more PDS patients are waiting to see him. Kieran’s next stop is the line for contacts and mousse, to cover up his white eyes and pale skin, so that he doesn’t offend the normals more than necessary.
We wouldn’t want the normals to be upset.
Cut to Roarton and the opening credits. Prominent graffiti in town says “Beware Rotters” and “God bless the HVF”. Rotters is the pejorative slang for PDS Sufferers.
Kieran’s parents, Sue and Steve, are showing their house to prospective buyers, but their daughter Jem makes it uncomfortable by playing loud music and being antagonistic. The couple notice that she’s wearing her HVF uniform and decide they aren’t interested in the house. Like Sue and Steve, they’d hoped to move someplace rural so that the PDS sufferer in the family would be safe. Roarton is not that place.
Steve threatens to seriously ground Jem if she doesn’t start behaving. She asks what the alternative would be, hilarious grounding? She’s a 17 year old soldier who’s seen years of action in her hometown. There’s not much her parents can say or do with her at this point.
Sue tells Jem that they’re going to pick up Kieran tomorrow. Jem wants nothing to do with Kieran’s homecoming and walks out on her. Steve, the optimist in the family, is sure she’ll come around eventually.
Kieran and the rest of the PDS Sufferers who are being released tomorrow are taken from the high security facility that they’ve been staying in to a minimum security facility. The government doesn’t want to admit how much of a risk they still are, at least when congregated in groups.
In group therapy, Kieran says that the worst side effect of the medication is the flashbacks to the last person he killed when he was in his untreated state. His guilt over it is crippling. Another sufferer, Alex, says that he shouldn’t feel guilty, because he needed to eat brains, or he would have rotted away.
The counselor hisses at Alex, so Alex points out that zombies were killed during The Rising, too. That was seen as defending humanity rather than murder. “While they get medals, we get medicated.” Someone else points out the obvious, that without medication they’d be “rabid”, or lose their cognitive abilities again. Alex says that, “Maybe that’s the best state to be in.”
Some sufferers have maybe lost touch with reality a bit. Or they want to lose touch by going back to a nonthinking state.
The counselor turns the discussion to the families, and asks who Kieran is looking forward to seeing. He misses his little sister, Jem.
That should go well.
The HVF meets in the Legion hall bar, which has just started charging them for drinks again. Their leader, Bill Macy, is still trying to live in his glory days of the height of The Rising. He calls Jem the “Rambo of Roarton”. During the meeting, he tells his troops that they’re continuing regular patrols, despite government orders to disband. And he decrees that “A rotter’s a rotter, drugs or no drugs.” He intends to deal with medicated PDS sufferers the way he’s always dealt with rotters.
He hands out fancy new radios to the team, to show his commitment to continuing their mission. Then he checks in with Jem, who’s quiet and troubled. He assumes it’s because the anniversary of The Rising is coming up. The team salute their fallen members. There are a dozen or so photos hanging on the wall.
Alex gives Kieran a web address for the Undead Prophet, who he thinks is a leader the PDS sufferers can trust, unlike the living. Then it’s time for their daily shot. Alex snorts a drug just before his turn. It causes a bad reaction when combined with the Neurotriptyline, with black bile spilling out of Alex’s mouth. The orderlies drag him away.
The next morning, Steve and Sue leave before dawn to pick up Kieran. Kieran is given a plastic bag of clothes and taken to yet another facility. He puts on his full ensemble of skin tone mousse/foundation, brown contacts and regular clothes.
Sue and Steve wait for Kieran in a hallway with other families. One family is reunited with hugs and kisses all around. When Kieran comes out, Sue bursts into tears, and Steve is happily relieved that Kieran looks so normal. They both stay a good 6 feet away from him- no touching or hugging. As the counselor walks them to the car, Sue and Steve try to convince the counselor that Roarton will be safe for Kieran. Kieran walks behind them.
Meanwhile, in the burned out shell of the town church, the vicar is preaching that the PDS sufferers are vicious killers who won’t be tolerated in their town. His speech is actually an introduction for a government official who’s there to smooth the way for the PDS sufferers who are on their way home. The PDS Domiciled Care Initiative created the program that’s sending the patients home, but they are protected under the PDS Protection Act.
The crowd jeers at and interrupts the official every few words. When the minister (of Partially Deceased Affairs?) speaks about the protections that the law provides the PDS sufferers, the vicar interrupts and asks who’ll protect them when the rotters decide to attack them again. The minister tries to explain that the PDS patients didn’t decide to have symptoms, and that they’re properly medicated now, but he’s practically laughed out of the room. He tries to explain that it’s illegal for a PDS sufferer to stop taking their medication, and there are strict protocols in place to deal with them should that happen.
But the town is still stuck back in the days of The Rising, when no one understood what was happening or how to deal with it. They can’t understand the difference between a few patients who are medicated and understand their condition being carefully monitored by themselves, family and medical providers, and the feral horde that rose from the graveyard.
The town leaders encourage this thinking to continue, drawing attention to themselves as the only ones who know what’s best for the town and how to save it, while anyone with education or experience with the subject of PDS is laughed and jeered at. The vicar and Bill Macy know how to kill rotters, but they know nothing about PDS sufferers. They’ve convinced the town that there’s no difference.
It’s scary how easy that is to do.
There’s still a lot of anger in Roarton over the perception that they were abandoned by the government during The Rising. The minister says that there were 144,000 PDS sufferers who rose from their graves in the UK and had to be subdued. It took longer to get the cities under control than they thought it would.
The cities are where most of the people live, and most don’t keep weapons on hand. As it turned out, the towns figured out how to protect themselves, but many died in the process.
He thanks Roarton for forming the first chapter of the HVF, inspiring all the towns that followed. Another citizen, Ken, who is practically foaming at the mouth, yells that they still don’t get why the government wants to bring back the monsters who tried to destroy their community. The minster is out of time and excuses, and directs them to the official website.
Steve is a film buff and chatters away at Kieran about the films they need to catch up on, for the entire long drive home. Kieran listens politely.
As they approach their neighborhood, they see their neighbors walking home from church. Kieran hides under Sue and Steve’s jackets, but Ken asks for a ride home. They’re saved when Shirley calls Ken over to have a word with him.
Sue parks the car as close to the side door as she can get under the carport, then Kieran puts a coat over his head and quickly slips the couple of feet between doors. Inside, Kieran asks why all of that was necessary, after they told him the town was tolerant now.
Steve distracts Kieran by telling him that they kept his room just as it was. Kieran goes up to look at it, but then Shirley’s at the door. The Department of Partially Deceased Affairs recruited her a few months ago to become a PDS Community Care Officer. She there in that capacity, to show the family how to give Kieran his daily shot.
She says, “I never really agreed with treating PDS sufferers badly. I mean, I know they went rabid for a while, and caused a spot of bother, but you know, the past is the past.” Then she says that she trained for a long time for this position- 3 weeks.
He must be the first PDS patient in her district to arrive home, because she has a lot of trouble setting up the vial and injector combination. She eventually figures it out and shows them how to find the little black hole at the base of Kieran’s neck, between the 1st and second vertebrae, to give him the injection.
Kieran shakes and folds in on himself, flashing back to his last kill again. He and his hunting partner bashed Lisa’s head against a shelf to kill her. Sue and Steve are shocked at Kieran’s reaction to the Neurotriptyline. They ask how it works. Shirley explains that it helps with balancing chemicals in the brain.
She goes to check the pamphlet for the medication for more details, but Kieran already knows the answer. “Neurotriptyline artificially stimulates neurogenesis of glial cells. Cells I can’t produce any more. Glial cells are vital for proper brain function.”
Shirley advises Kieran to stay inside for the time being, even though the PDS Protection Act made harming PDS sufferers illegal. If he does go out, he’s to wear his mousse and contacts. There might still “be a spot of bother.” That’s how she described The Rising and the war.
Then Shirley pulls Sue into another room to give her a taser, which she’s legally required to do, and to warn her about the new drug that’s making the rounds with PDS kids, called Blue Oblivion. If Sue ever sees Kieran taking blue pills, she should call Shirley. But if Philip picks up, she should pretend that she’s calling Shirley about something else. Philip works for the parish council. If he finds out about the PDS sufferers in Roarton, it could be dangerous. He’d feel compelled to tell the vicar and HVF.
Phillip is at a council meeting, where they’re discussing whether or not to allow Halloween celebrations for the first time since The Rising. He makes an insightful comment, voting for the ban to stay in place, because he thinks that the costumes might upset some of the townspeople who are still traumatized from The Rising.
Later, the vicar brings Phillip into his office to ask for his help with protecting the community from the reassimilated undead. Vicar Oddie has heard whispers that some medicated rotters have returned to Roarton. And he has suspicions that Phillip’s mother has quit her job at the hospice. He wants Phillip to find out what Shirley’s new job is.
It’s dinnertime at the Walker home, and Sue’s set a place for Kieran. When he reminds his parents that he doesn’t eat anymore, Steve tries to entice him into it anyway by telling him that it’s his favorite, lamb. Sue tells him to pretend to eat. So Kiernan pantomimes eating the plate of food they’ve given him.
There’s just so much wrong with this scene. His parents are in denial, refusing to deal with the fact that he’s changed. They want him to accommodate their fantasy to the point where it’s physically unhealthy. (We’ll eventually see that PDS sufferers’ bodies can’t tolerate solids or liquids.) It was almost cruel to make a favorite food that he can’t eat. Plus, he’s got to be feeling like their love and tolerance depend on him maintaining the facade that he’s the same person as the one who died years ago.
But there’s no way he’s the same person. He’s died, risen, wandered as a killer zombie, and gotten treatment. Now, he has to deal with permanent physical changes, plus the guilt of what he did when he was untreated. It sounds a lot like recovering from an addiction, when you think about it.
Jem’s also not big on acceptance. She comes home and yells that she’s not eating until “that” is gone, referring to Kieran. Kieran was excited to see her, and is crushed when he discovers the extent of her rejection. But he accepts it, because it’s close to what he thinks of himself. He leaves the room. Jem comes in through a different door, complaining that the meal isn’t up to her standards.
Kieran goes to his room and pulls a shoebox out from under his bed. He takes out a photo of himself and another boy, in a cave, and stares at it, while gently rubbing his thumb on the other boy’s image.
The other boy was Rick Macy and it’s his birthday. He was Bill and Janet Macy’s son and a soldier. The Macys have a little shrine set up for him on their mantle. Janet brings his birthday cake there.
Shirley and Philip watch a little TV before bed. Shirley complains that her feet hurt. Philip epically fails to get her to say that she was walking around someplace other than the hospice. As soon as he thinks she’s asleep, Philip tries to search the files on Shirley’s laptop, but he can’t guess her password. He does see folder names that refer to Roarton PDS Cases and Understanding PDS.
Shirley discovers him and asks what he’s doing. Philip thinks quick and says that he’s watching adult videos on the World Wide Web to relieve stress. He thinks he might be a sex addict.
He might develop some decent spy skills yet.
Shirley is as put off as you’d expect, and tells him to scan for viruses when he’s done. Not sure if she means her computer or his own body.
Kieran dreams about killing Lisa for the second time that we’ve seen. (The first was in the treatment facility.) He startles awake, at first thinking Lisa is standing over his bed. Instead, it’s Jem. She wants answers to the existential questions that are plaguing them both. How can he be both her beloved brother and the monster who killed and ate her friend Lisa? How can they both forgive him if he is?
Jem: “What are you? Are you a demon? A monster sent from hell?”
Kieran: “I don’t know.”
Jem: “You see, my brother was a kind, gentle person. He wasn’t a monster. Who are you? What’s your name?”
Kieran says his name, but she doesn’t believe him. She wants him to prove his identity by telling her something only Kieran would know.
He tells her that when she was 11, she walked on her tiptoes for 9 months. No one knew why. Her parents took her to therapy, tried medication and special shoes, but nothing worked. Kieran was the only one who figured out that she thought she was strange and didn’t want to be noticed, so she walked around quiet as a mouse. He made her a hardcore metal mix CD, full of swear words, and that fixed things.
He must have taught her that it’s okay to be strange and loud. He needs to find that in himself now.
Jem believes it’s him. She’s crying, and says, “You didn’t even leave a note, Kier.”
Kieran: “I just wanted to disappear, Jem, when I heard about Rick. It was my fault he died.”
Jem, sobbing: “Bulls–t! He died in Afghanistan! Taliban killed him!”
Kieran: “It was my fault he joined the army. (whispers) I’m sorry, Jem.”
Jem: “You don’t get to say that to me!”
Kieran reflexively says he’s sorry again, and she throws a glass at him, as she storms from the room, still yelling angrily at him. Steve arrives to find out what the yelling is about. Jem tells him he shouldn’t worry, Kieran can’t kill himself twice.
He can partially kill himself this time.
Steve looks stunned, then walks away without saying a word. That was too real for him. No wonder Jem waited until the middle of the night to bring up the deep issues, and no wonder she’s so messed up to begin with. Emotionally, she and Kieran raised each other, then Kieran bailed on her, in the worst possible way.
The next day, Kieran checks out the website Alex gave him, undeadliberationarmy.co.uk. Password Revelation 1:18. The site is for the Undead Liberation Army. There are buttons to join them and to buy the drug blue oblivion. A man wearing a skeleton costume and black hood appears on the screen and a voice is heard:
We know how you feel. I know how you feel because I was once where you are now. Frightened. Confused. Filled to the brim with guilt. I was like you. But then my heart was opened and I no longer felt ashamed, because I finally understood we have a purpose, a divine purpose that must be fulfilled. We who died in 2009 and were redeemed from the Earth are truly blessed. Remember, God shall wipe away all the tears from their eyes, for as they shall rise from the dead, they are as the angels which are in heaven.
Well, that page and speech tick off nearly every box on the cult checklist.
Steve walks in, so Kieran shuts the tab before his father can see it and have an aneurysm from being forced to confront reality. They talk about the weather instead.
That night, Vicar Oddie calls Bill Macy to his home to share some important intel and give Bill a mission. There is a wolf in their midst. One of the evil undead has returned to town and must be eliminated.
Somebody’s nosy neighbor talked.
Macy mentally prepares himself, as the vicar prays over him. They believe that everything they do is correct, because God is on their side, and they can pull out a Bible passage for every occasion to prove it to you. Did you notice that the zombie cult had a favorite Bible passage, too? Revelation 1:18. Bill may fear no evil as he walks through the valley of the shadow of death, but the PDS sufferers are alive for evermore and have the keys of death and Hades.
I think the zombies win the Bible verse dance off.
Bill weapons up and calls the band back together. He tells them to meet in the cul de sac where the Walkers live. Jem hears it on her radio and rushes home to warn the family. They spring into action, getting their weapons from the shed. Jem hides Kieran. Sue has a chainsaw, Steve has a cricket bat with nails sticking out of it, and Jem has a gun. They take their positions.
For the first time, we can see that these are people who fought a war together. These would be their preferred weapons for an attack by a group of rotters, and their battle positions. They wait tensely, but confidently, for whatever comes. No one’s getting past them to Kieran.
Their doorbell rings. Dean, one of the HVF, asks for Jem. He calls her outside, because Macy wants her to be a part of this. The PDS sufferer is Ken’s wife, Maggie. The Ken who yelled so loudly at the church meeting. They bring Maggie, who is in her 60s, outside, wearing her nightgown, and make her kneel in the middle of the street. Macy toys with her and Bill for a few minutes, pretending that he’s undecided about killing her. Then he suddenly shoots the sweet old lady in the back of the head.
There’s no question as to who the real monster in town is.
Jem goes inside nearly in tears.
Kieran has come out of hiding to watch the execution from an upstairs window. He understands what he’s up against, now. Or maybe he already did. That was Rick’s father who killed an unarmed woman. Whatever else Kieran and Rick were, they were close.
Steve goes upstairs to sit with Kieran.
Bill Macy goes home. There’s a military police vehicle in his driveway. He assumes he’s going to be arrested. He starts lecturing the MP, but Janet interrupts him. Rick has been found. Macy asks if they’ve found his body. Janet says, “It’s more than that.” Macy asks if, “They found him alive?”
Janet answers, “Partially.”
Steve tells Kieran that it’ll be okay and leaves. Kieran goes to Jem’s room, and finds her putting her loaded gun under her pillow. This time, it’s there to protect him instead of to kill rotters.
The way that Roarton treats the PDS sufferers could just as easily apply to immigrants, members of certain religions, races or ethnicities, or LGBTQ people, as it does to chronic illnesses and disabilities. Kieran’s sexuality is explored as the story continues, so I’ll talk about that more in a later recap. But I think that it’s no coincidence that we watch the vicar denounce the PDS victims from what’s left of his pulpit, and that the story takes place in a small, insular town.
Macy and the vicar, who run the church and the town government together, keep everyone in town scared that they’ll be next if they don’t go along with a program of violence and hatred toward the PDS sufferers. Both Ken and Shirley had very positive feelings toward the PDS sufferers, but had to hide that in public. The way the Walkers hid Kieran and armed themselves when they thought the HVF was coming for him was so reminiscent of the way sympathetic people hid Jews from the Nazis that it felt like I was watching a World War II movie for a moment.
Then Macy pulled an elderly woman out into the street and shot her for nothing more than a physical characteristic she didn’t choose and couldn’t change. She could have been a Jewish woman in Nazi Germany, a black man stopped by the police in St Louis, a Mexican refugee trying to cross the border into the US, or an Islamic person whose neighbors didn’t like the way they looked. Macy and the vicar’s brand of reactionary Christianity breeds violence and hate, and governments based on separating the real citizens from the outsiders do the same thing.
The similarities between the historical treatment of AIDS patients and the hysteria over PDS sufferers are overwhelming. If you don’t know much about the history of the AIDS crisis, 2 good films to check out are Dallas Buyers Club and HBO’s The Normal Heart. Both are based on true stories. The Normal Heart is based on the autobiographical play of the same name by Larry Kramer. Kieren looks so much like teenage AIDS victim and activist Ryan White, that I think he must have inspired the character.
I’m going to try very hard to keep the chronic illness rants to a minimum, but just know that, on a day to day basis, Partially Deceased Syndrome is equivalent to any long-term illness, socially acceptable or not. People want you to say you’re okay today, and move along. They don’t want to be bothered by coming face to face with your everyday reality. Even medical professionals.
If it’s something with a stigma, like addiction or diabetes or fibromyalgia or AIDS, sometimes even cancer, there are lots of opinions about how you ruined your own life, and maybe even continue to ruin it by not getting whatever the fad treatment of the day is. If your illness has symptoms or frequent treatments that impinge on others’ delicate sensibilities or plans, you’ll face even more social disapproval.
We’re seeing all of that in In the Flesh. Kieran’s family loves him, but they don’t want to know what he really looks like, feels like or needs. They want him to pretend to be fine and ignore his own needs. They’re not even sure he’s the same person, and they don’t want to get close enough to find out, because the person they loved was healthy, attractive and normal. The old Kieran wouldn’t have done the disappointing things this Kieran has done and needs to do because of his medical condition.
For some reason, healthy, energetic people often see being chronically ill as a lifestyle choice. My guess is that if you believe it’s a choice, you can believe it will never happen to you. No one wants to be a zombie, even if there is a treatment. But unlike religion, race, ethnicity or sexuality, anyone can become chronically ill (or otherwise disabled) at any time. We are others who aren’t so other. PDS isn’t contagious, but the normals sense that something like it isn’t so far away for them.
Some people can’t handle a reminder that they could become a zombie. Or they can’t handle change, so they can’t adjust to a friend or loved one becoming a zombie. Some just victim-blame, because it’s a great place to project their anger, and other negative emotions. Some thrive on having a target to hate, and the entire group of victims of a particular illness with socially unacceptable symptoms, like zombism, obesity or mental illness, are easy targets.
Images courtesy of BBCAmerica.