It’s not every day that a popular cable TV series illustrates a profound moral dilemma that’s worth talking about, but last week’s bold and dramatic episode of the “Walking Dead” did just that. A group of human survivors of the Zombie Apocalypse so gruesomely depicted in that series, now in its 5th season, decides to summarily execute one of its own. And not just any one of its own, but a young girl, “Lizzie,” who’s not even reached her teen years. She’s just eleven, in fact, which makes the killing heart-breaking, to say the least. Executing a child for any reason is considered such an extreme remedy that even the US Supreme Court, which has freely given its blessing to lethal injection and largely ignored the growing movement to abolish the death penalty, has expressly forbidden the use of the electric chair for minors.
Why did the group execute Lizzie? Arguably, because she had become a real liability to its day-to-day survival. When the group was holed up in a prison and under constant siege by marauding zombies, she felt sorry for the creatures, and would secretly leave them dead rats and mice to eat. Carol, one of the group’s den mothers, and a surrogate mother to Lizzie and to the other surviving girls, taught them all how to shoot handguns and other nifty techniques for dispatching the zombies, mainly bludgeoning or stabbing them in the head. Lizzie had recently participated in the prison’s defense, even saving a number of adults from getting bitten and infected or eaten alive. She had become quite the little marksman, in fact.
But a reluctant – and deeply anguished – one, too. Even at her tender age, she sensed that something wasn’t quite right about the moral fabric of her world. To her, the zombies were just people that had died through no fault of their own; they seemed to lumber around in a daze, sad, bedraggled, missing limbs, but still recognizably human, and seemingly on a perpetual mission to satisfy a craving for food, especially live humans. Lizzie dutifully obeyed, outwardly at least, but she clearly harbored doubts about whether the zombies still had a semblance of life, and whether killing them, in fact, was justified. Those doubts came rushing to the fore in last week’s episode, when she found herself part of a smaller surviving group with Carol, her sister Mika, Tyreese, an African-American man, and Judith, an infant child.
The five of them had formed a splinter group after being forced out of the prison and were foraging for food and trying to stay alive, all the while looking for fresh sanctuary. The group stumbled across an abandoned suburban house. It seemed like a great place to hide and to regain strength. At Tyreese’s urging, they were even thinking about making it their next home.
But their idyll didn’t last. It soon become clear that Lizzie – who could shoot zombies deftly one moment then lapse into a state of hysterical remorse shortly thereafter — hadn’t given up on the zombies as sources of recreation and amusement, even potential friendship.
Early in the episode, she was seen happily feeding a mouse to one subdued zombie while her horrified sister looked on. She even tempted fate by dangling her hand in front of the creature, as if daring it to bite her, which it most surely would have, if given half the chance. Later she was caught letting a zombie chase her around the front yard, shrieking with laughter and joy, as she narrowly escaped its clutches.
Shortly thereafter, a group of zombies set upon the group, and Lizzie proved herself a bold young warrior again, standing her ground and gunning down several attackers. But the next morning, after Carol and Tyreese set off to explore the area and to gather food, they returned to a horrifying scene: Lizzie had just killed her sister Mika with a knife and seemed ready to kill the baby, too.
And yet she didn’t seem to realize what she’d done. In her mind, her sister would soon come back to life as a zombie, but would still be her sister. And her “resurrection” would prove to everyone that the zombies were still quite human. “I want you to see what I see,” she said.
It was homicide, no question, committed by a confused and distraught girl. But what should the group do? It was a heart-wrenching moment, one of the most troubling in the series to date. Lizzie, Carol concluded, could no longer be trusted. Within minutes, she marched the youngster outside, and after quietly distracting her, fired a bullet into her brain.
Were fans of the show outraged or upset? Not really. A bit sad perhaps, but mainly there was oohing and ahhing over how “bad-ass” Carol hah become. In season 1, she was a mousey victim of spouse abuse. But this year, she’s morphed into a rogue warrior queen. Fans love Carol. The consensus? She was right to execute Lizzie before the youngster caused even more harm.
At one level, that’s a perfectly reasonable argument. Soldiers in battle are known to shoot captured prisoners that might slow them down or betray them. Was it realistic to expect Carol’s group to try to rehabilitate Lizzie, or to incarcerate or isolate her in some fashion? Considerations of sheer expediency, if not utilitarian need, seemed to favor removing her at all costs.
But there are deeper considerations here. Your children are your future, they are part of what gives you hope, of why you struggle for a better world, especially one that seems to defy all hope. Lizzie was clearly angry at having become, in effect, a child solider, a pre-teen deprived of her childhood innocence, and made to embrace the deeply corrosive war psychosis that’s gripped the adult strangers in whose care she’s been placed. She found it emotionally unbearable to the point of acting out her own confused rage with violence, and forcing these same adults, willy-nilly, to accept the ugly consequences.
This is the world of the “Walking Dead.” It’s a vision of a dystopic future, but it also speaks powerfully to our present. Civilization – government, law, the economy — has collapsed. People are just holding on. Death can come quickly and horribly to those you love, and everyone wonders how much to attach themselves to others, and whether there’s anything of value to build upon. However, if they are ever to survive and rebuild, they must find a way to hold onto deeper values, and to pass on those values to their young, even amidst the horrific conditions under which they live. By that standard, the group, not Lizzie, failed miserably last week.
What Lizzie did was deeply disturbing, and it seems to vitiate the power of her conscientious objection” to Zombie World. But it’s a mark of how debased and brutal the world of these survivors has become that an intelligent child among them feels she must commit murder to be heard. It was a desperate plea that many of us watching our own world degenerate into endless war against “foreign enemies” that might as well be zombies, too, should want to hear — and to heed.
Lizzie didn’t “deserve” to die. All she really wanted was good reason to hope that one day she might grow up in a better world. Many of our own children – trapped in gangs, hooked on meth, some armed and dangerous, facing no future — want to know the same thing. The adults in Lizzie’s world failed her, and she ended up paying with her life. How long will our own children suffer the same fate?
Stewart J. Lawrence can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org