All characters in The Walking Dead (TWD) suffer from moral injury, a form of post-traumatic stress disorder common in extreme situations like warfare or genocide. “Moral injury,” George Hagman notes, “implies that one’s experiences are not just inconsistent with previously held moral expectations, but have the power to negate and possibly pervert them.” The truly frightening and tragic realization in TWD is that moral injury “is a legitimate and understandable adaptive response to real experiences of moral collapse, or worse, the perpetration of ethically nihilistic acts, or outright evil.”[i] Those who take pleasure in killing walkers or use them for any number of unorthodox purposes are portrayed as abnormal and dangerous. The Governor deployed walkers in gladiator games meant to amuse Woodbury’s residents; he kept severed walker heads in fish tanks so he could watch his enemies suffer in eternity; and he hid his walker daughter in a secret compartment, feeding her raw meat. Negan also uses walkers as weapons against the living and depraved decorations. An educated audience surely recognizes similarities between this abhorrent behavior and the horrific stories of Nazis collecting trophies from murdered Jews, displaying human skin lampshades, extracting gold teeth, and forcing Jews to perform or compete in twisted games for the SS’s pleasure.
The effects of moral injury in TWD are most dramatically manifested in children, especially Lizzie (Brighton Sharbino). Like many children Lizzie is disconnected from the old world and its attendant rules and ethics; the only life she knows is the zombie apocalypse. Consequently, Lizzie and her younger sister Mika (Kyla Kenedy) sympathize with the walkers, seeing them as pets or a different incarnation of people they once knew. Traumatized concentration camp prisoners, George Hagman writes, similarly experienced “an almost fatal state of desensitization accompanied by identification with death and the dead.”[ii] Hagman argues convincingly that Lizzie, a vessel of the values and ethics signifying the new post-apocalyptic world, “may be the most terrifying person in the series.”[iii] We first encounter Lizzie and Mika behind the fences of the prison Rick’s group has transformed into a functioning society, complete with gardens, livestock, an improvised school, library, and hospital. Carl catches them waving and naming the walkers pressed against the perimeter fence. “They’re not dead,” Lizzie says, “they’re just different.” Carl, who bears the scars of his own moral injury, admonishes the sisters, “They’re not people, and they’re not pets.”[iv] Carol (Melissa McBride), who begins the apocalypse a cowering housewife before becoming one of the shrewder and more resourceful characters, adopts the girls as her own after their father is killed by walkers. Carol is intent on preparing them for life’s harsh realities. When Lizzie tells Carol the walkers are just people who come back, Carol is slow to grasp how delusional Lizzie has become. Carol assures her, “People aren’t who they were.” Lizzie is adamant, “Yeah, but they’re something. They’re someone. We all change. We don’t say the same as we started.”[v] For Lizzie, walkers are part of the circle of life, a rite of passage for all of us.
Months after the Governor destroys the prison and scatters Rick’s group to the four winds, Carol, Tyrese (Chad Coleman), Rick’s baby Judith, and Mika and Lizzie fend for themselves in the Georgia countryside. Lizzie is getting worse. We see her contemplate smothering Judith to keep her from crying. One evening Lizzie asks Carol about her daughter Sophia (Madison Lintz), who is killed soon after the apocalypse. “She didn’t have a mean bone in her body,” Carol says. Lizzie is perceptive, but chilling in response, “Is that why she isn’t here now?” [vi] Lizzie later entices a walker to the farmhouse they are residing in temporarily, dressing it in flowers and playing “tag” on the lawn. Carol destroys it, sparking another Lizzie outburst, who again will not accept that the walkers are dead. In her mind Carol “killed” the walker.
Lizzie commits arguably the most horrific act in the series when she plunges a knife into her sister Mika to “bring her back” and prove to Carol and Tyrese that being a walker is natural, better. Carol and Tyrese discover Mika’s white corpse and Lizzie with knife in hand, ready to murder baby Judith next. Carol knows there is no recourse. Carol walks Lizzie into a grove of flowers, offering her soothing and comforting words, and shoots her in the back of the head. Hagman writes the “combination of loving support and murderous intent in this scene is terrifying.”[vii]
Lizzie is irretrievably damaged in a world populated by the damaged, but we are also stunned by Carol’s decisiveness. Carol realizes Lizzie violates the boundaries between the living and the walking dead by inviting the walkers into the broader post-apocalyptic community.
[i] Hagman, 9-10.
[ii] Hagman, 15.
[iii] Hagman, 15.
[iv] “30 Days Without an Accident”, The Walking Dead, Season 4, Episode 1, Netflix, directed by Greg Nicotero, October 13, 2013.
[v] “Indifference”, The Walking Dead, Season 4, Episode 4, Netflix, directed by Tricia Brock, November 3, 2013.
[vi] “The Grove”, The Walking Dead, Season 4, Episode 14, Netflix, directed by Michael E. Satrazemis, March 16, 2014.
[vii] Hagman, 15.