If you can stand the periodic spectacle of shambling, rotting flesh and heads being lopped off or split down the middle, AMC’s “The Walking Dead” still provides the most daring and interesting ethics storylines available on television.
The latest episode, titled “Indifference,” raised two gutsy issues that are unpopular in today’s culture to the point of taboo. It was revealed that Carol, previously the simpering and tragic mother of the now dead, zombified and executed little girl Sophia, has morphed into a stone-cold pragmatic survivalist who advocates killing on instinct when the threat is sufficiently severe. In addition to teaching methods of mayhem to the children entrusted to her instruction in the grim, abandoned penitentiary where our heroes have fortified themselves against the roaming zombie hoards, Carol summarily executed two members of the community who were fatally ill with a pernicious virus on the grounds that they threatened the safety of the rest. For this, Rick, the sheriff-turned farmer alleged leader of the non-zombies, orders her out of the prison.
Strange. In a world without doctors, medicine and hospitals, where the objective is simply to survive long enough for some remote miracle to rescue humanity, a runaway virus is as much of a threat as a maniac with a hatchet. Rick and the rest have long ago accepted the necessity of killing members of their group who are bitten by zombies, since they are certain to “turn”after death and start indiscriminately eating people. True, the preferred method is to withhold execution until the second after the living become undead after becoming unliving, but this is a distinction without a difference. Carol is quite right that a breathing, doomed, virus-carrier is as much of a threat to the group—perhaps more—as a newly-minted brain-muncher. Why is her strong action in defense of the group, a defensible utilitarian act, reason for exile?
I see two justifications, one legitimate, and one not. The latter reason is that Rick is an emotion-driven leader. a.k.a. “a bad one.” He decides critical matters with his gut rather than his brain, which means that his decision-making has no integrity or reliability, and often takes much too long. Rick couldn’t articulate the difference between killing a pre-zombie (also the result of a virus, we have learned) and an infectious and doomed colleague who is likely to infect more members of the group the longer he or she lives, it just feels different to him somehow. At least it does today: based on the past seasons’ evidence, Rick is likely to wake up some morning with a new idea of what’s right and start killing the sick himself. Rick, as a weak and feckless leader in a crisis situation, is a menace.
Rick’s valid reason for exiling Carol is her apparent coldness, the indifference referenced in the title. The problem of the zombie apocalypse survivors gradually becoming so used to death and utilitarian killing that they lose their own humanity and become cold-blooded murderers without conscience or hesitation is a looming problem for “The Walking Dead” characters, and one with cosmic significance: if humanity survives but in a form nearly as ruthless and without pity as the zombies, what’s the point? I’ll give Rick the benefit of the doubt and assume he recognizes this, and sees Carol as a threat.
The other tough ethical issue confronted in the episode involves alcoholism. Survivor Bob endangers the safety of the rest by falling off the wagon, and stalwart Daryl makes it clear to him that being alcohol-impaired is not acceptable in a community where there is so much interdependence. Of course, all societies are interdependent, and substance abuse, far from being a “victimless crime,” involves an abdication of one’s duty not to disable oneself from participating productively in the community, as well as being trustworthy for the tasks involved. Those whose judgment is impaired by drugs undermine the lives of others in myriad ways, at work, in their families, in the quest of self-government, and financially. This is obvious when fighting zombies, but it should be just as obvious here and now: we certainly have enough experience. Sadly, U.S. society appears to be charging in the opposite direction; the consensus is that we all have a right to disable ourselves. Whether it was the writers’ intent or not, “The Walking Dead” makes the better case that we shouldn’t have that right; that remaining productive, trustworthy and reliable is a mutual obligation of everyone in a community, even when there aren’t ravenous zombies just outside the gates.