In The Flesh is one of those shows. You know the type. The kind that makes you want to go up to strangers and start preaching about it. “Hello madam/sir, have you been led astray by shows filled exclusively with white straight men? Have you been searching for a speculative tale without misogyny, ableism, or queer-baiting? Let the holy light of In The Flesh into your soul and be saved.” In lieu of this preaching and the desire to scream into everyone’s faces, “WATCH IN THE FLESH,” I’m writing this post in the hope that I’ll be able to express that sentiment in a more refined, intelligent manner. Please note that behind each sentence is a very unrefined and somewhat desperate plea to everyone who loves speculative fiction, zombies, or just a good story, to watch this show, because you will not regret it.
The two essentials that make this show great are: firstly, its premise; and secondly, its use, and non-use, of speculative fiction to talk about mental illness and sexual identity. Beginning with the less weighty of those two things, the premise—it is absolutely brilliant. It is, essentially, a show about zombies, but it’s different from any zombie story you’ve ever encountered before. It takes place roughly a year after the “Rising”, which is a conventional zombie tale: people rose from their graves with the main goal of eating human brains.
In the show’s beginning, however, a cure has been found. “Neurotriptyline” is administered to the zombies—now called “Partially Deceased Syndrome” (PDS) sufferers—which “regrows” brain cells and restores their consciousness and humanity. The show deals with the grave effects of reintegrating the PDS sufferers into society. The PDS sufferers are given contact lenses and cover-up mousse to mask their decaying bodies, and are expected to go back to how their lives were before they died. As you can imagine, this does not go smoothly.
The show follows the struggles of the protagonist, Kieren, a PDS sufferer, who has to go back home to his small, northern England town that is extremely intolerant.
The show’s plot is rich with opportunities for metaphors. Speculative fiction has historically been used and interpreted as a vehicle for metaphors: the supernatural takes the place of real world issues. Count Dracula suggests late nineteenth century British fear and guilt of colonization; the Jekyll and Hyde dichotomy can be read as disassociation with one’s homosexuality; house elves are used in the place of racial minorities; etc. In the words of Octavia Butler, spec fic is a way to “revitalize topics” that people “have discussed ad nauseam” in other situations.
In The Flesh is no exception to speculative tradition. The “cured” zombies immediately call to mind mentally ill individuals: the medication needed to make them neurotypical, the harmful stigma attached to them simply existing, and the struggle to accept yourself for being neuroatypical are all things that people with real mental disabilities face every day. Neurotypical and neuroatypical are terms coined by the autistic community to refer to those not on the autism spectrum and those on it, respectively. However, they are helpful umbrella terms when discussing those without and with mental illness in general.
In a similar vein, being a zombie comes to be a metaphor for identifying as a sexual orientation other than heterosexual. This is difficult to discuss without spoiling the show, but the idea is this: it is just as dangerous to be attracted to people of the same gender as yourself as it is to be a zombie in this small intolerant town: those who are “different” from the norm are persecuted.
Clearly the zombie condition is used a metaphor for mental illness and sexual orientations other than heterosexuality. What is impressive is the non-use of metaphor: that is, actual representation of the real world issues it is metaphorically discussing. One of my biggest pet peeves in speculative fiction is the reliance on the sole use of metaphor to talk about these issues. Harry Potter specifically has been criticized for relying too heavily on house-elves and goblins and other creatures in the wizarding world to stand for class and race inequalities.
The actual representation of mental illness and queer identities in In The Flesh is remarkable. Kieren had severe depression before his death and is still dealing with the repercussions of this. Kieren is also queer (I use this term because it is the only “umbrella term” available, as his sexuality is purposefully not labelled by the show’s creator Dominic Mitchell) and it is clear that he was previously not accepted in his town because of his sexuality. Kieren’s being a zombie is a metaphor for him struggling with his mental illness and the homophobia of his hometown, but they also show him actually struggling with those issues in an isolated fashion that is so refreshing to see in a genre which often relies too heavily on metaphors.
Some other awesome reasons to watch the show: it passes the Bechdel test, there are prominent people of colour among the characters, there is no queer-baiting, and healthy relationships between people of the same gender are depicted. Finally, the actual show is beautiful to watch: the acting, cinematography, and script are all on point. A few things to watch out for are scenes of extreme gore, detailed talk about suicide, and depictions of self harm. There are tragically only nine episodes, which makes it ideal to binge-watch, but definitely leaves you wanting. A third season is still up in the air. Fans have started the campaign #SaveTheFlesh to get a third season, and after watching the show I think you’ll understand why this is needed.
So, please, do yourself a favour, and let this wonderful show into your life. #SaveTheFlesh and be saved by In The Flesh.
-contributed by Emily Maggiacomo