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Essay

Walking Dead and Moral Reasoning

By November 7, 2013 One Comment
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During the last season of Walking Dead, I blogged about faith, hope, and love in a zombie apocalypse. As I wrote then, the AMC television series raises questions about who the real monsters are and how, and why, some persons seem to lose their humanity in extremis. The persistence of hope has been a sign of resilience and indomitability of the human spirit. The show, now in its fourth season, continues to raise nagging questions about being and remaining (more than becoming) human, about hope and hopelessness, and community.

Last Sunday’s episode, “Indifference,” was the best of this season in my opinion. It threw faithful viewers and fans into wild debate—or at least vigorous disagreement—for days afterward. I expect that debate will continue to rage as the season unfolds. The essence of the storyline is this: Carol, once a battered wife, killed two people who were infected with a plague-like virus that threatened to spread through the small band of survivors. The result of dying from this virus is turning into a flesh-eating zombie. That already happened when, within twenty-four hours, a sick young man became a skin-eater and killed a bunch of the survivors. Carol was not about to let this continue. So she murdered two sick people and torched their bodies using gasoline. Rick, once a sheriff who upheld the law and leader of this community for the first three seasons, found Carol out. The episode unfolds through a series of awkward, tense, and sometimes poignantly honest conversations between Carol and Rick. At the end of the episode, Rick bans Carol from the community. He sends her packing.

Carol and Rick have strong rationales for their choices. For Carol, she ended the suffering of two sick people who, at least in her mind, would have died anyway. She kept the community safe or at least tried to. She acted when nobody else would. She has survived in the new reality by becoming indifferent, by shutting off her grief, her fear, and her inclusion of others in important decision-making—for example, by secretly teaching young children to use weapons without their parents’ input. And that’s an important point—she has moved out of communal decision-making into secrecy and independence. For Rick, he is preserving Carol’s life. Tyreese, whose girlfriend was one of the two killed by Carol, surely would kill Carol when he found out, or so Rick reasons. He believes he is preserving the community of survivors. Who else might Carol kill? One of his two children? To say that trust is severed would be an understatement.

Viewers and fans have lined up on either Carol’s side or Rick’s side, using their best moral reasoning to advocate for one or the other. And, to be honest, there is moral ambiguity in this, especially when you consider Rick’s, Carol’s, and the entire community’s backstories—though that would be too much detail for this blog. One of the interesting dynamics here is that moral ambiguity emerges precisely from the dogged moral surety of two beloved, respectable, compassionate characters. (Yes, Carol remains compassionate.) Moral certitude, in this instance, is perhaps the problem in and of itself. But that’s not all.

Rick and Carol mirror one another. They are both trying to preserve lives, to keep the community safe. Carol kills so that “we [the community] can live.” Rick bans Carol and thereby sends her off to probable death so that “ you [Carol] can live.” Neither one has the capacity to see any other option, though viewers do. Both make unilateral decisions, excluding the leadership council and community members.

In contrast to Carol and Rick, the episode presents viewers with another option altogether: Daryl. While leading a small expedition of survivors in search of medication, Daryl receives Bob’s confession. A new and minor character on the show, Bob explains how his unquenchable thirst for alcohol caused the death of a young community member. Daryl listens and replies with his version of a pardon, “That’s bullshit.” But right after that, Daryl discovers that Bob’s remorse has not led to repentance. Instead of gathering medication, Bob has stashed liquor in his bag. He nearly loses his life and jeopardizes others’ lives by trying to rescue the bag from a horde of zombies. Daryl is furious. He could have easily left Bob behind at that point, but with a certain kind of pity, he lets Bob return with them to the community—though not without consequences. Daryl has little room for the moral certitude and righteousness of Rick and Carol. Nor does he act unilaterally. He listens to Tyreese who calms him down at the height of his anger.

And that seems like a key in this mix of moral ambiguity, moral certitude, and moral reasoning: how does one belong to the community? How does one live and make decisions communally? That is essential to moral reasoning in extreme, unimagined, and beyond complex situations. Of course, Christian theology knows this well. Human wisdom, on its own, is limited, even when it’s communal wisdom. Yet wisdom divorced from communal discernment is worse. It devolves into folly or wickedness. Wisdom divorced from the hope for redemption is the same. Daryl’s decision leaves room for redemption; Rick’s and Carol’s decisions foreclose on that possibility.

One Comment

  • David Vandervelde says:

    I enjoyed reading this.

    I love The Walking Dead. It is packed with humanity and deep themes. You have done a nice job of highlighting some of those. Thanks.

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