SPOILER ALERT: If you haven't seen The Walking Dead and follow it, do yourself a favor and close this page without looking below, at our URL, or meta tags.
Okay, so, for the rest of you, let's review. Last night, a character named Carol, who was serving as a post-apocalyptic adoptive mother to pre-teen sisters Lizzie and Mica and an infant named Judith, was faced with a horrible dilemma.
For reasons that can be theorized about, but not confirmed, Lizzie believed that the zombies in the world of The Walking Dead were people who, according to her logic, were actually more worth protecting than the living humans they try to eat. Attempting to prove this to the adults around her, Lizzie took a knife and killed her young sister, Mica. She then suggested she should kill Judith, a baby, next.
In horror, Carol reasoned that Lizzie was irreparably "broken" and couldn't be "around people." Living in the world of the The Walking Dead, which is endlessly dangerous and lacks a mental-health-support infrastructure, Carol did the only thing she felt she could. Quietly and gently, she took Lizzie out to a flower-dappled pasture, asked her to look at said flowers, and shot the girl in the back of the head. Rough, right?
Now, modern shows like Law & Order: SVU, True Detective, and even Game of Thrones make it very clear that children, particularly young girls, are no longer off limits on network, basic cable, and premium television. Teens, tweens, pre-teens, and even toddlers are regularly kidnapped, raped, murdered, and worse in what producers will tell us is only motivated by their intent to present an honest, if grim, reflection of reality. We have our doubts about that motivation stuff.
In any case, if you want to watch television these days, you will inevitably run into young, precocious murdered girls. Usually, they're the innocent victims of men presented as mentally unstable and "evil." True Detective, The Bridge, and others delve even deeper by simultaneously touching on the actual, factual treatment of women (unsolved homicide rates in impoverished American communities and Juárez, respectively), and upping the murder-porn ante with their depictions of mutilation.
Granted, there's always a noble, if troubled, detective hunting down these evil men. Still, looking at all this entertainment, all these dead girls, is troubling. How could it not be?
We already had this on our mind when we saw last night's episode of The Walking Dead — a moment where a series lead, a protagonist, killed a troubled, yet adorable, young girl. It was sort of a landmark moment in the killing of little girls on television. But was it too much?
In a sense, it was. We've seen caretakers kill their surrogate children on SVU and other shows, but not in a case where the development of that relationship had been so intimately depicted over multiple episodes. Carol was as close as Lizzie had to a mother, and this is as close to watching a fully realized infanticide on TV as we'd ever seen. It was almost too much for television or even film. And, yet, in context, Lizzie's crimes and execution actually reversed the prevailing trope of little dead girls.
TV sends us a near constant stream of what producers and writers tell us are murderous sociopaths, psychotics, and schizophrenics. Their portrayals of the mentally ill are rarely ever realistic. We've also seen "bad seeds" before; young, homicidal boys and girls. But we've never seen anything like Lizzie. She was no more realistic, but she was a breed apart.
The implication of the episode was that Lizzie was already mentally ill, but it was the zombie apocalypse that made her a true killer. By the time the adults in her world had taken notice of her, she'd killed rats, mice, and fluffy little bunnies. Toward the end, she believed that she had access to a truth no one else did and that what she was doing and planning was actually a gift to mankind. In that, she wasn't just a bad seed. She was more like the killers in Se7en, The Bridge, and other stories — a missionary with a knife and exactly the kind of person usually responsible for TV's murdered girls. In fact, she'd already produced one: her sister. She took what has been almost exclusively the work of misogynists on shows like True Detective and turned it into a truly innocent misunderstanding of morality. Lizzie was a "broken" girl, but her heart was in the right place.
And then comes the issue of her execution. Carol, who had killed "good" characters before, but never someone healthy or awake, was gutted by the decision. As a matter of fact, she didn't blame Lizzie for Mica's death. Even though she spoke as if Lizzie's behavior was inevitable, actor Melissa McBride made the character's true feelings clear in her performance. Carol blamed herself.
What we have here is another set of little, dead girls killed by TV producers. But, this time, the murderer wasn't evil or a man. Moreover, the responsibility truly lay with the adults in her life. It was frightening in a way that True Detective just wasn't.
We can't say exactly what the latest episode of The Walking Dead means for the troubling, often anti-woman trend we see on television every night, but we know this: We're not thinking about TV's child victims the same way. We're not looking at the murderers or the producers any more. We're starting to look at ourselves. So, yes, this episode did go too far — and it was brilliant.