Why do so many people watch The Walking Dead? I’ll admit, I was a bit cynical when I first tried to answer this question. I reasoned that people watch The Walking Dead because it has an unprecedented amount of violence, or because Americans love guns. And those elements of the show might be appealing to some viewers, but they don’t fully explain the show’s intrigue.
The character drama in The Walking Dead far surpasses many of shows we see on television. At the heart of The Walking Dead are a series of ethical problems that are usually catch-22 situations. Nobody likes to be in a situation where there’s no clear course of action, a situation in which either alternative seems like a dead end. Still, these complex problems that we dislike in life are appealing in T.V. Drama. The seeming hopelessness of the situation, the frantic character indecision, amplify the work’s intensity and intrigue. And I think we love the work more when these awful situations bring out the best in people, although that’s not always the case.
When I took notes on season 2, I found myself quickly jotting down a series of ethical quandaries that I would never want to face, but that are fascinating on screen. I chose disagreements that I saw no easy answers to, where two parties could hold vastly different views and both views would be valid. Because I just finished season two, I focused mostly on season two’s ethical problems, although some difficulties in season one made the list. These are the top 10 ethical conundrums in Seasons 1 & 2 of The Walking Dead.
10.) Glenn’s suicide missions: Anyone who’s been watching The Walking Dead for a couple seasons can attest to the fact that Glenn’s taken more than one for the team. Glenn is an admirable and selfless character who has an uncanny knack for navigating the zombie apocalypse and a willingness to put himself in harm’s way to benefit the others. In The Walking Dead, the prevalence of zombies leads to a lot of suicide missions – missions in which one person puts himself at risk of death for the good of the group. Glenn is notably good at these missions, and the group knows it. On the one hand, it makes sense to send the guy most likely to achieve the task. On the other hand, it’s completely unfair to keep putting the same person consistently in harm’s way. But, Glenn has no wife, no children, meaning nobody he’s bound to and needs to take care of, although of course he does end up dating Maggie. Should Glenn keep accepting these missions? Is it fair for other group members to ask him to take such actions?
9.) Carl’s Got a Gun: When Rick initially hands Carl a gun in season two, an angry Lori takes it. But, Carl eventually ends up with a gun, anyway. This disagreement raises the question: what is the logical and fair thing for a parent to do in a zombie apocalypse? On the one hand, Carl has as much right to, and a need for, self-defense in a zombie apocalypse as anyone. In fact, he is shorter, and thus may run slower, than some fit adults. Since it’s unrealistic that he be literally right by his parents’ sides every second of the day, it seems logical and essential to arm him. On the other hand, there are myriad reasons why giving a gun to a child, even in a zombie apocalypse, is questionable. First of all, carrying a gun around is physically dangerous. Second, there are psychological ramifications that accompany the process of shooting someone or something—even a zombified human being. Shooting a person, or a zombie, must leave an imprint on the mind that could affect anyone, let alone a child. Carrying a gun around before you’re a teenager is definitely a sign that you’re growing up too soon, but is this action a necessary risk under the circumstances?
8.) The Ricktatorship: I’ve heard that Rick’s role in The Walking Dead is termed “The Ricktatorship,” although I’ve only just finished season two and can thus only begin to appreciate that term. Indeed, Rick calls nearly all the shots, a position of power that Shane both disagrees with and resents. Most viewers will agree that Shane’s hardly a voice of reason for the group, but the Ricktatorship still raises some basic questions. First, how do we know that Rick has all the answers? Is a dictatorship necessary in an apocalypse, or would a democracy been a more rational, fair way to make decisions? Along different lines, with power comes responsibility. Like Glenn, Rick frequently puts himself in harm’s way and embarks on dangerous missions for the benefit of the group. These decisions strain Lori and Carl, who worry about whether or not he will return safely. Especially because Rick has a pregnant wife and a child, is it logical and fair to keep sending Rick out with “the walkers?” Usually Rick volunteers for these missions without hesitation. Is his seeming selflessness really reckless machismo that puts his wife and son in danger? Does his need to save everyone translate to a reduced ability, even need, to protect his family?
7.) Firing Shots: Of course, I’m very schooled in zombie trends after watching The Walking Dead. I know how these decaying masses of flesh act and move, and I know they’re attracted to sound. So I imagine – and scenarios like this arise in the show – that I could be in a situation where shooting a zombie would only attract more zombies and thus put those around me at risk. Similar situations have happened in the show. As a character on The Walking Dead, do I shoot to save myself if I need to, even if the shot attracts other walkers who could hurt other members of the group, or do I let the zombies begin chewing off my face? Rick shoots to save himself in one of the first episodes, and Glenn, who just met him, yells at him for attracting the walkers. Glenn has a fair point, but if the only weapon a person has to protect her or himself with is a gun, what does she do when a zombie attacks and a herd is nearby?
6.) Suicide: Not surprisingly, in this dreary apocalypse there are people who decide it’s not worth living life anymore. In the CDC, Jenner sits in a room waiting for the building to combust, and a couple characters from the show join him. One of the joining characters is Andrea, who had made a personal connection with Dale. Now that her sister is dead, Andrea sees no reason to live in apocalyptic hell, so she decides to stay in the CDC. Dale joins Andrea for the express purpose of making her leave the building, an action that angers Andrea, who feels death should have been her decision. All these decisions raise the question: how do you react in a zombie apocalypse when someone wants to kill her or himself? When the younger Beth wants to kill herself, Lori stands watch to prevent the action, but Andrea leaves her post when it’s her turn to guard Beth because she wants Beth to make her own decision. I was angry at Andrea when I saw this episode, especially because Beth is a little girl, but when the world’s ending and being overrun by corpses, is there some legitimacy behind suicide? Suddenly, there’s a lot of struggle and fight inherent in the goal to stay alive. Is it fair to force an individual to keep fighting when she or he deems a better life hopeless, just because you may have hope? Handling suicidal urges in The Walking Dead poses a significant problem.
5.) Lori’s pregnancy: Where you stand on the pro-choice or pro-life issue may influence your stance regarding this next argument, but I’d argue that all bets are off and all morality is skewed during a zombified dystopia. The life the characters in this T.V. show face is bleak. The show intersperses myriad grim moments with the occasional humor or ray of light. Zombies have basically overtaken the earth, and all the living have the zombie’s virus in them, so when they die, they will eventually become zombies. The characters in The Walking Dead live a life of killings and close escapes, with little hope of future reprieve. Is it rational, even kind, to bring a child into that world, a child who may not survive physically past a young age and who may not develop in-tact psychologically if she or he survives physically? Lori argues that at least she has happy memories, but the baby won’t; it will not know life outside a dystopia. Through that lens of perspective, Lori’s decision to take pills and try to kill the baby is at least understandable, though not commendable. The problem is a difficult one to answer. On the one hand, in an apocalypse, we want to re-produce to further the human race, and even pro-choicers don’t advocate wanton baby-killing. On the other hand, there may be little, if any hope for mankind, and life for the child might be, as Hobbes said, “nasty, brutish, and short.” Plus, it will be difficult for the group to move quickly with a baby in tow.
4.) Goodbye Merle: The Dixie Chicks sings a song “Goodbye Earl,” and if we wanted to be relatively heartless while watching The Walking Dead we could sing the song “Goodbye Merle.” Merle is a violent racist—clearly a threat to the safety and organization of the group. To essentially tame him, when Rick arrives on the scene, he chains Merle to a pipe to keep him from killing T-Dogg. This action is quick and reasonable more than it is questionable, but when a gang of walkers descend on the area, in haste, the group members more or less leave Merle to die, even though T-Dogg tries to run back and save him and accidentally drops the handcuff key. Had Merle been less of an asshole, the group members would have assuredly risked their lives to save him, as they do for one another on so many occasions. But, because he’s a racist jerk, their instinct is to let him die, although many of the men endanger themselves again by going back to the city of Atlanta to look for him. On the one hand, he seems to threaten the group. On the other hand, killing threatening personalities seems like a relatively low death bar to set. It’s hard to answer the question, in a zombie apocalypse: what lives are worth taking an extreme risk for? Should Rick and the other men have gone back for Merle, or was their instinct to leave him the right thing to do?
3.) Saving Shane: In a fit of jealous rage, Shane throws a large, metal wrench at his best friend, Rick. He loves Rick’s wife and wants to be the head of a group. The wrench-throwing occurs during a fight. Shortly after throwing this wrench, Shane walks onto a school bus and becomes surrounded by zombies. Initially, it looks like Rick is going to leave without him, but Rick turns the car around, instructs Shane to jump out of the bus’s emergency exit, and picks him up. I cringed during this part of the show; why would Rick spare the life of a jealous madman who wants to kill him? At the same time, the men have a long standing friendship, and leaving your friend to suffer a brutal death by walkers isn’t an action that anyone would want on her or his conscience. Like Merle, Shane is a danger to the group, and tries to kill Rick again shortly after Rick saves him in this scene. I got frustrated in this scene, and felt Rick’s moral compass had swung too far the wrong way, but then, how easy is it to leave your best friend for dead?
2.) Sophia’s disappearance: When Carol’s little girl, Sophia, disappears, the gang stops what they’re doing to conduct a thorough search for her. The search for Sophia spans half the season, though I’m not sure what the duration of the search would amount to in real time. They stop their migration and risk several people to look for Sophia, even when it may seem rational that hope is lost. Daryl is the most endearing character in this segment, because he seemingly can’t rest until Sophia is found and refuses to give up the search. Shane seems callous and insensitive, and suggests that the group should stop looking for Sophia after enough time has passed. I don’t think anyone who watches The Walking Dead likes Shane, but his conviction is vindicated when Sophia shows up again in zombie form, and the group’s actions raise the question: to what extent do you put abled-bodied, useful lives at risk to save a little girl who is probably dead? Of course, searching for her initially is the only right action to take, and suggesting the search end seems heartless, but is there some logic behind it?
1.) The pesky kid from the gang: When a kid from a rival gang tries to shoot a few male group members, he jumps off a building and lands on a pointy fence; the metal stabs through his leg. Rick’ s instinct is to save the kid by pulling his leg off the fence and handing him off to Hershel for medical treatment. Problematically, the group members conjecture that if they free the gang member, he might find his gang and lead them all back to the farm that the group stays on. When Shane asserts that killing him is the only reasonable thing to do, most of the group members are on board, except for Dale, an ostensible voice of reason who points out that they’re killing a kid for a crime he hasn’t even committed. Most argue that there is no justification for taking a human life. On the other hand, if the kid returns with his gang, it could mean death and destruction for the group. This is the biggest catch-22 for the group; indeed, there seems like no right action. Dale’s death is the only event that prompts them to save the kid’s life, in Dale’s honor, but Shane kills him in secret regardless.
In these situations, there often seems like no correct course to take, but this is not an exhaustive list of ethical conundrums in The Walking Dead. What are some of the biggest ethical quandaries that you’ve seen in the show? Do you agree that these situations are problematic? Let me know what you think.