Walking Dead Ethics

Ethical analysis of the AMC series The Walking Dead.


What happened in each episode will be discussed.

 Walking Dead Ethics

Season 4, Episode 10, “Inmates”

So, “After” dealt with Rick, Carl, and Michonne. “Inmates” deals with everybody else, and adds some new ones at the end. To recount in a rapid fire way, who’s with who and what they’re doing:

Tyrese has the girls Lizzie and Mika, and baby Judith. When Tyrese leaves them to try to save others beset by Walkers, out of the brush comes Carol to save the girls from their own attack of the undead.

Bob, Sasha, and Maggie are all together. Sasha is intent on trying to find a new secure place. Maggie is intent on finding her husband, Glen.

Glenn awakens at the prison; finds Tara alive; and, they escape only to meet the new characters in the season Sgt. Abraham, Eugene, and Rosita. Those three are on a mission to get Eugene to D.C. because he claims to know what caused the zombie apocalypse and how to fix it.

As discussed in Episode 9’s analysis, much of what motivates the characters in Inmates is also based on their caring for others:

  • Maggie risks death to see if Glen is one of the undead in the bus they find;
  • Glenn teams up with Tara, who was part of the group who killed Hershel, because he needs help finding Maggie;
  • Carol, no doubt, was staying close despite being banished because she cared for Lizzie and Mika;

But, there was another aspect of this episode that joins the ethics of care as an overarching theme of this season:

  • Having a mission

Bob puts it most succinctly. When Sasha complains that Maggie’s search for Glen is pointless because odds are he’s dead. But, Bob responds that Maggie’s search for Glenn gives their lives meaning beyond just survival. It’s an echo of what Hershel said when he chose to go into the quarantine area of the sick in Season 3: life’s about choices, no matter what you decide, you’ve made a choice; and he chooses to do something meaningful by caring for the infirmed.

There were many missions in this episode:

  • Carol’s mission to rejoin Lizzie and Mika;
  • Maggie & Glenn’s mission to find each other;
  • Sgt. Abraham’s mission to get Eugene to DC.

These two ideas that life’s meaning is tied to who you care about and what purpose larger than you that you’re serving will be acted out throughout this season’s episodes.

Season 4, Episode 9, “After”

Where we left the group in the mid-season cliffhanger was that there was no longer a “group.” The Governor’s attack on the prison cast the survivors out in smaller factions. Will they regroup eventually?

The first episode (like the First Ever Episode) begins with Rick Grimes. He’s with Carl. And, Rick is darn near dead after the beating he took from the Governor. Eventually, they find refuge in an abandoned house, where Rick collapses, leaving Carl to fend for himself.

Michonne is also featured in this episode. She has two new zombie slaves that are allowing her to walk among the undead hordes. There is a flashback sequence where we see her with her son, and her boyfriend and his friend in an  idyllic apartment, that transforms to a post-apocalypse version, with the boyfriend and friend having their arms cut off. It is understood that her son didn’t survive.

Back at the house, Carl lays into Rick. Unleashing all his pent up frustration at his father’s decisions and how they’ve led them all to ruin. But, then comes around and tells him how much he still needs his dad.

Michonne finally has enough of walking with the undead, and kills her slaves and the remaining members of the herd she was in. She finds her way back to the house where Rick and Carl are, and the episode closes with her knocking on the door.

What ethical analysis can be brought to this episode? Answer: care ethics.

Care ethics is a school of ethics with a foundation in feminist theory. Rather than take a rule-based approach to what is ethical, as most ethics do in one way or another, instead care ethics is based on the “ethics of care.” It takes as a first position that people care about one another, in one way or another. And, therefore, what is ethical, what should or should not be done, is based on that caring.

It is criticized for being too vague, without true guidelines for suggesting how to arrive at a correct decision. But, in the lived experience, it certainly seems to hold up in actual application.

Why do we do so much of what we do? Because that is what we are commanded by our faith, or out of a sense of duty? Certainly that for some if those ideas apply.

But we all have done something in this life because we care about somebody. Selfishly we’d rather not go to a funeral, but because we care about the friend who just lost their father, we travel and sacrifice our time to provide comfort to our friend–even if we didn’t know, or even if we did and did not like, the deceased parent. That’s just one example. I’m sure you have one of your own from your own experience. Where you did something because it felt like the “right” thing to do because you cared about someone.

In this episode, the ethic of care is what leads both Carl and Michonne back to Rick. Carl resents the leadership role Rick assumed, and then abandoned, and the decisions he made that endangered the group. But, Rick remains Carl’s father and Carl remains Rick’s son. For all the resentment, and probably logical reasons to be angry with his father, Carl still cares for him, and still needs Rick to care for him.

Similarly, for Michonne, she went dead when her son died–hence her first slaves being her boyfriend and the other friend. When her new family in Rick’s group is taken from her, she reverts to being dead inside and walking with slaves among the undead. But, then she remembers her friends; her new family; those she now cares about. And, in a visceral demonstration, literally severs her ties with the undead to rejoin the living.

The ethics of care. A fuzzy, soft, hard to explain system. But one that we have all abided by at some point in our lives.

Season 4, Episode 8, “Too Far Gone”

Well, the Governor finally got his in the mid-season finale of Season 8. But not before destroying the prison, splintering Rick’s camp into smaller factions cast in all directions in a panicked escape, leaving us wondering what happened to Baby Judith since all we saw at the end was a bloody car seat, and we said good-bye to Hershel. That last event is what I’d like to address in this analysis of “Too Far Gone.”

Looking back, odds makers would have put Hershel as the favorite for meeting his end in this season. This is due in no small part that aside from Daryl Dixon, Hershel was one of the biggest favorite of the fans, and the show’s writers have a way of killing off favorites. Hershel had also succeeded to the role of the voice of wisdom that had been fulfilled by Dale, until a walker killed him in Season Two. In Season Four, Hershel ladled out that wisdom in almost every episode, making it likely that he would soon join Dale.

The three main lessons Hershel imparted were:

  1. Assuring Rick that no matter how far a person has gone down the dark path, they can come back;
  2. That we all have a job to do, which should be in service of sustaining life; and,
  3. We make a choice no matter what we decide to do, so we must decided whether to choose life or death.

For Hershel, he answered his last question with the first two: that no matter how many bad decisions a person may have made, they can turn their life around if they choose to work towards helping sustain life. Hershel demonstrated this in his own living testimony: an admitted alcoholic who may have neglected his family as a younger man, he turned his life around, and committed himself to being a healer, first as a veteranarian, and then as the de facto doctor for Rick’s camp. Indeed, he issued his challenge to his daughter Maggie and to Rick of what they were choosing to do with the remaining life each of them had, when Hershel chose to expose himself to the potentially lethal flu by entering the quarantined ward of the prison to administer medical aid and comfort to the infirmed.

All of these lessons then were put to the test in this season finale in his confrontation with the Governor. Previously in this season, it seemed that the Governor was trying to turn his life around from being a megalomaniac sociopath, and showing real concern for others. That, quickly changed, however, when he discovered his object of vengeance, Michonne, who had ended his daughter’s zombie state. Unfortunately, for Hershel, he was with Michonne when the Governor took them prisoner.

The Governor ultimately chooses not to come back from his misdeeds–hence the show title, “Too Far Gone.” Instead, the Governor chooses to continue his sociopathic reign of terror, bringing about not only his death, but those he claimed to care for, the members of his new-found camp and his substitute wife and daughter. He chose not to sustain life, but why? That’s the central lesson of this episode that I want to feature.

The critical scene that reveals the significant distinction in how Hershel and the Governor view the world is the very scene that encapsulates why the world’s atrocities occur. That may seem like hyperbole, but believe me, it is not.

The scene is where the Governor, Hershel, and Michonne are in the Governor’s RV. The Governor is deciding what to do next, and Hershel is making the case for why the two camps can co-exist. The Governor resists, explaining why it must be an either-or world, either his camp or Rick’s camp will go on living. Hershel attempts to make the issue more personal to the Governor.

Hershel pleads with the Governor to choose against armed conflict because Hershel has daughters in the prison. Hershel appeals to the Governor, begging him to appreciate Hershel’s perspective, since the Governor himself was a father and had a daughter. The Governor instead turns to leave and explains that Hershel’s situation is not the same as his for this simple reason:

Because they’re not mine.

And, on that distinction hangs all of human atrocities.

Hershel was appealing to the Governor using the “universality principle.” It’s a principle of ethics expressed by Kant, Christ, Hillel the Elder, and other great thinkers. It’s the notion that if you would not have it done to you, then you should not do it to others. It is based on a fundamental recognition that if you are of moral value, then so, too, must others be, for you are not exceptional any more than anyone else.

But the Governor does not abide by this rule. He is exceptional. All that matters is what he cares about, not what any one else cares about. And, more than that. By being exceptional, others are not of the same moral worth. Hence his dismissiveness that it does not matter that Hershel’s daughters are in the prison, because they’re not his daughters.

This viewing of other human beings as being less than human, being less than worthy of the same moral value, is the root of all atrocities in human history:

  • Natural-born Germans are superior to all others, and particularly to Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and the disabled, and so those may be disposed of in a cleansing of humanity.
  • The Hutus called the Tutsi’s “cockroaches” in their radio messages across Rwanda, as the Hutus sought to exterminate the pestilence of the Tutsi’s.
  • White people can own Blacks in slavery, or rule over them in apartheid, because they are not a full human.
  • And, related to the central issue of this blog, bioethicists have argued that parents could kill their children even after they are born, particularly if they are born with Down syndrome, because they are not full persons, yet.

So, not an exaggeration that the Governor’s dismissive remark is the justification for every human atrocity: the failure to see another human being as just that, another human being, one of equal value and worth. Because when you start making distinctions of who are full humans, or humans of equal respect, well, then, what’s to stop you from killing them?

Sadly, Hershel was killed by this man who he tried to empathize with. But Hershel’s lessons remain for us to follow and remember. That we can all come back; we all have a job to do in furtherance of life; and, we make a choice in everything we do of whether we are serving life or serving death. RIP Hershel.

Season 4, Episode 7, “Dead” Weight

So, it didn’t take long for the Governor to resume his old ways.

In this episode, the Governor commits two murders. First he kills Martinez, his former Lieutenant at Woodbury, and the leader of the new camp the Governor has joined. Then, despite seeming shaken by the first murder, he kills Pete, the interim leader of the new camp. In both instances, it was after the Governor had judged each as insufficient to ensure the safety of the Governor’s newly adopted family. After which, the Governor then rises to leading the new camp. Effectively living out the phrase, “If you want something done right, do it yourself.”

governor and mitch the walking deadSeveral ethical issues presented themselves for analysis in this episode beyond the Governor’s murders: the bodies beheaded surrounding the survivalist cabin suggesting some justice meted out for their crimes of being a “liar,” a “rapist,” and a “murderer;” whether the killing of the other camp members by some unknown group supports Mitch’s post hoc justification for why they should have robbed the camp earlier; and, Mitch’s own murder of the surviving camp member.

But, one line from the episode sums up the focus of this page where the Governor says to Mitch:

You’ll never have to worry about whether you’re doing the right thing or the wrong thing, because we will do the only thing.

This is the guiding standard by which the Governor lives: the ends justifies the means. So long as the end result is what he desires, then anything goes for him to arrive at that end result. Considering that Machiavelli made that phrase popular, it shouldn’t be surprising that a man who appoints himself the Governor, and then kills his new camp’s leader to take over that role, is guided by a principle of classical political theory.

The world in the zombie apocalypse begs whether this should be the guiding standard. For most, the base instinct of survival–simply staying alive–is the consequence, the end, which justifies several actions. In this episode, the end desired by the Governor was having a leader in which he could entrust his new family, which ultimately could only be him.

The weakness of the Governor’s justification is that it relies on a hubris that he is the one to determine what is the best end result. If the Governor could step outside himself, perhaps he would see that the Governor is not the master of his own domain. He kept his undead daughter alive and pantomimed the rituals of when she was alive, like brushing her hair while all she wants is to take a bite out of him; he unwinds by watching zombie heads in aquariums (repeating the whole undead-submerged-in-water fetish by anchoring Walker Pete in the pond); and he mowed down his previous camp-mates when they called him out for trying to kill others. If he could take this objective view of his actions, the Governor might realize that, even if the ends justify the means, he’s not fit to determine what those ends should be.

And that begs the question: are any of us?

Season 4, Episode 6, Live Bait

Perhaps the greatest episode in the entire series for one single reason: the opening song by Ben Nichols, “The Last Pale Light in the West,” from his solo album inspired by Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Nichols is the lead singer of one of my favorite bands, Lucero, who not only should be seen live, but should be seen live in Louisville where, for reasons the band can’t explained, the crowd engages in ritualistic beer spraying of the band and the rest of the crowd.

Nichols’ song serves as the background music while the show provides a quick recap of the Governor’s activities since the end of Season 3. Being abandoned by his two remaining Lieutenants after they realize he may be completely detached from reality, the Governor goes full drifter, growing a scraggly beard, wearing clothes with holes in them, and no doubt giving off a rich musk of B.O.

As he stumbles through a city street, he sees a young girl in an upstairs window and goes up to find her. There, he finds the girl’s mom, aunt, and grandfather, who is suffering from end-stage lung cancer and (literally) dying for a smoke. The young girl, Megan, reminds the Governor–now going by the alias Brian Heriot after a name scrawled on a barn of those gone missing–of his own daughter. And, this brings us to this episode’s ethical issue:

twd4Man’s search for meaning.

Much of this episode is re-introducing and humanizing the Governor, who ended Season 3 being a full-on psychopath, killing the towns people who looked to him to lead them. Having lost everything he had to live for up to that point–his wife, his daughter, his daughter again when the undead version was killed by Michonne–he then figures nothing matters, and kills the people who trusted him. Once his Lieutenants abandon him, the Governor is truly left with nothing, and becomes a live version of the undead Walkers all around him: shuffling aimlessly looking for the next thing to give him life.

The Governor finds a new reason to live in Megan. Through her, he believes he can start over where his first family ended–Megan and her mom, Lily, are even close in age to the Governor’s dead wife and daughter. When he showed up, the Governor was a grizzled drifter, unkempt, who barely ate or interacted with the others, but upon seeing a chance with Megan, he’s fetching a backgammon set to brighten her day and retrieving oxygen tanks from a Walker-overrun nursing home for her ailing grandfather. By finding a reason to live in Megan, the Governor risks his life to make her happy.

It’s a fundamental challenge of the human condition. Coming of age during the early ’90’s, I was steeped culturally in existential angst, expressed in the grunge music of the day. The Governor, existing in a zombie apocalypse where his first loves were killed and he killed his second (the town), did his own period of wandering until discovering his new reason to live.

Victor Frankel wrote of this mystery of life in his amazing book, Man’s Search for Meaning. In it, Frankel details his experience of surviving in a Nazi concentration camp–a version of an apocalypse for those imprisoned. While other camp members “opted out” like the camper in Season 2 and the double-amputee whose house the Governor visits for the backgammon game, Frankel spent his time choosing to find meaning amongst the suffering.

In “Live Bait,” so, too, does the Governor. He had given up believing anything was worth caring about, until he found a new family to care about. He found his meaning … at least for this, the next chapter of his life.

Season 4, Episode 5, Internment

The title, Internment, refers to the quarantining of the sick and dying in Cell Block A of the prison awaiting Darryl and his crew’s return with much-needed antibiotics to fight the infection ravaging Rick’s camp.

This episode was packed with suspense, climaxing in Hershel being pinned by a Walker, who is taken out by Maggie in a bit of sharpshooting, so that Hershel can then take the intubation kit off the Walker and (after cleaning it) insert it into Glenn, who is choking on his own blood, all the while Rick and Carl are strafing the Walkers who have breached the fences. There are perhaps other issues that could be addressed in this episode, but the one I thought to focus on was:

lizzie-leads-walkerThe treatment of children in a zombie apocalypse.

In the climatic scene in Cell Block A, where it seems all of the near terminally-ill patients chose to simultaneously die and re-animate to attack the living, Hershel takes the extra step to spare killing the Walkers in front of Lizzie, a young girl.

Now, this is after Lizzie already intentionally drew a Walker’s attention so it would come after her and leave Glenn, who had collapsed.  And, yet, Hershel makes the extra effort–emphasis on extra, considering he’s an amputee below the knee on one of his legs–to lead the Walkers around a corner and out-of-sight from Lizzie, before he puts each one down. Why?

It seems that Hershel simply wants to try to preserve as much innocence as he can in a world gone mad. By ending the Walkers out of view of Lizzie, he spares her seeing the gore of their skulls being pierced. And, in the zombie apocalypse, or simply in the real world, it is natural for parents and care-givers to try to preserve the innocence of children.

But, should he have done that or is he being unnecessarily sentimental?

Having one intact leg, Hershel could have stumbled as he led the Walkers around the corner; he might not have been able to put them all down; and that adds the risk that not only would he be dead, but so, too would Lizzie, when he could have expediently killed the Walkers in full view of Lizzie. At the same time this is all happening, Rick’s son, Carl, who is only a few years older than Lizzie, is being given a semi-automatic rifle to help his father  put down not just three walkers, but dozens of them.

At least one way to defend both situations is by looking at each circumstance and judging it by the facts of the matter.

With Rick and Carl, Carl had been trained in how to use a gun, had killed Walkers (and a live human) previously, and Rick and Carl were the line of defense to stop the prison from being overrun.

On the other hand, Cell Block A was an infirmary where Hershel had entered in order to provide care and alleviate suffering. By leading the Walkers around the corner, Hershel continued in this role, by sparing Lizzie the trauma of seeing pierced skulls.

Do the situations and the respective roles that Hershel and Rick were playing justify the divergent actions each took regarding the way they dealt with the children in their charge?

Perhaps not, but there is a certain consistency that provides a justification for their actions: Rick, serving as defender, enlists his son, who has killed before, to aid him in securing the defense of the prison; Hershel, the care-giver, spares Lizzie as a measure of compassion to avoid causing trauma. Both can be justified then by the roles each was playing in their given circumstances.

Season 4, Episode 4, Indifference

Wow. Who saw that ending coming where Rick banishes Carol for killing Karen and David? And, hands up if, like me, you thought there was a chance that Carol was going to aim the car at Rick as she drove off?

Not to ignore the crew retrieving the needed medicinal supplies–or the issue of Bob’s alcoholism trumping his desire to not put his comrades at risk–but, it seems the clear issue to be dealt with in this episode is:

mgid-uma-content-mtv.com-1716737Was Rick justified in banishing Carol?

Being an attorney, and a former JAG who has tried his share of court-martials, this issue centers on the ethical principle of justice: did the punishment fit the crime?

Let’s first address the crime: murder. Carol confessed to killing Karen and David. In most jurisdictions in this country, and historically, this has been a wrong punishable by death to the killer. What is Carol’s defense to mitigate capital punishment?

Carol explains her actions by appealing to a form of communal self-defense. Karen and David were infected and their death was imminent. In Carol’s view, this posed a compound risk to the rest of the prison camp: [1] they threatened infecting others in the camp, and [2] when they died, they would become Walkers, a clear threat to the living.

Further, Carol likely could explain her actions appealing to the ethical principles of beneficence: she killed them to alleviate their suffering. Actually, there is a well-developed body of writing, and even formalized health care policies, that would explicitly allow this sort of active causing of death where a patient’s condition is considered futile, i.e. that nothing will improve or prolong the patient’s life.

Rick, however, notes that Carol could not know whether Karen and David’s health would improve and therefore, she was not competent to decide whether their situation was futile. Further, they were already quarantined, thereby minimizing their threat of infecting others. And, as for the threat they posed as Walkers, though a very real risk should they die, it was a known risk that the prison camp members had become experienced at dealing with and was relatively controlled by Karen and David being kept in cells.

Instead, Rick chooses to banish Carol because her remaining in the camp would threaten the camp’s cohesiveness. Tyreese would kill her once he found out Carol killed Karen, while others would side with her decision. Carol challenges Rick’s ability to even make such a judgment, given that he had abdicated decision-making for the group. Ultimately, Rick decides he can no longer trust Carol and therefore she can no longer remain with the camp. But, rather than mete out High Plains justice and kill her, he exiles her. Rick bases this decision on his assessment that Carol will be able to care for herself and out of recognition of the good will she had accumulated through her positive contributions to the group. In this way, Rick mitigates the punishment.

Whether Rick’s punishment was justified will be debated, as it was on The Talking Dead, where noted ethicist and professional wrestler Chris Jericho thought Carol’s actions were entirely defensible and disagreed with Rick’s decision. But, Rick’s decision can be justified, and can even be seen as a more compassionate one than the alternative punishment he would have been justified in leveling in most jurisdictions for Carol’s crime: death.

My wife is a fan of The Walking Dead, which means I watch each episode with her. Personally, it gives me nightmares and causes me to run rapidly up our basement steps. But, the show is fundamentally a morality tale, ripe for ethical analysis and writing (I hope) will be cathartic, allowing for more peaceful sleep. 


  1. Just wanted to say I’m watching season 4 at the moment and I’ve been enjoying your comments. Especially like the commentary on ‘Too Far Gone’. Links nicely with one of the main themes of your blog.

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