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Suffer the Little Children: "The Walking Dead" Crosses the Line and Pulls Its Audience Along

by Sam Adams
March 18, 2014 1:22 PM
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Great big honking spoilers for "The Grove" ahead.

"The Walking Dead" creator Robert Kirkman warned in advance that Sunday's episode would be "a big one," and indeed it was, with 11-year-old Lizzie (Brighton Sharbino) fatally stabbed her little sister and was subsequently put down by a stoic Carol (Melissa McBride). It's not the first time "The Walking Dead" has killed a child: the series' defining moment was when, after devoting the first half of its second season to the search for Carol's daughter, Sophia, it revealed that she'd been dead for weeks, cooped in in a barn with a herd of mindless walkers. Nor is it the first time a child has killed: As Carol warned Mika (Kyla Kennedy) shortly before she was murdered by her older sister, the world they live in is not one where you can afford to let your guard down, nor hesitate in your own defense. But it was the first time we've seen a child kill for no reason: not for self-preservation, or out of instinct, as the walkers do, but because she'd lost her grip on the difference between life and death.

For most of the episode, as Lizzie played keep-away with one hungry walker or fed mice to another, she seemed more likely to get herself killed than anyone else, and perhaps that's one way of looking at the events of "The Grove": Lizzie killed the only person connecting her to the person she once was, effectively terminating her humanity before Carol ended her life. That certainly seems to be the interpretation the show's pushing, and which a surprising number of viewers have signed onto. The response to the Hollywood Reporter's "Did Carol Do the Right Thing?" question hovers at 86 percent "Yes," which is reasonably speaking about as high as you can expect the execution of a child to poll.

For the Reporter's Tim Goodman, "The Grove" is proof that "The Walking Dead" is as complex as the prestige dramas on which critics lavish their attention: 

That Mika was killed by her sister completely fits into the worldview that "The Walking Dead" has constructed. That Carol realizes Lizzie "can't be around other people" (and certainly not baby Judith) created a moral quandary that was as heavy as any you'll see on television. You don't just randomly have an adult shoot a kid dead on television. But it was believable and even felt like the right thing to do based on how hard the series has worked to earn that payoff.

Indeed, "The Walking Dead" has worked to get its audience to a place where Lizzie's death is acceptable, even admirable. The Wall Street Journal's Paul Vigna meant it as a compliment when he said "this was one of the sickest episodes" yet: "It’s hard to imagine any other show on television would go that dark. You really have a build an audience up for it, because it’s not an easy thing to swallow at all." And in the Los Angeles TimesPatrick Kevin Day discussed the episode's climax as proof of Carol's conversion to a hardened badass: 

If Lizzie was this episode's Lennie, then Carol was the George. We knew she had enough inner steel to take down critically ill adults who posed a threat to the well-being of the group, but would she handle one extremely mentally ill preteen? Oh yes, absolutely. Faced with the prospect of traveling with the murderous Lizzie and the innocent baby Judith, Carol did what she had to do. She took Lizzie out, asked her to look at some flowers for her dead sister, and then shot her in the head.

But is this really proof of "The Walking Dead's" complexity, or just the extent to which it's willing to follow its nihilistic worldview to ever-grimmer lengths? The A.V. Club's Zack Handlen found himself laughing unexpectedly. The show had crossed in a line, and not in a good way.

The writers took a risk, and threw out another shock to catch us off guard: this time, it was a little girl so convinced that the zombies were her best friends that she murdered her sister. It should be horrifying, and if the episode worked for you, I’m sure it was. It didn’t work for me, though, and the sight of Lizzie standing over that corpse made for a clean break in my mind. The whole situation became too ludicrously morbid, too absurdly grim to take seriously.

It may seem an odd complaint, but in a sense, "The Grove" was too easy, not in terms of its horrific imagery, but in the clear path it laid towards Carol's fatal choice. Of course she had to kill Lizzie: She had baby Judith to protect, after all. But on a better show, one that posed difficult questions to its audience rather than simply increasing their tolerance for bloodshed the murder of an 11-year-old girl should be something we wrestle. "The Walking Dead" didn't ask us to debate Lizzie's execution; it challenged us to accept it.

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  • Craig Sanders | March 19, 2014 12:07 PMReply

    Maybe I'm alone on this but it seems the acting from all the kids on this show is quite bad... And getting worse. Especially the kid in the cowboy hat. Just sayin'

  • Liam | March 19, 2014 9:28 AMReply

    I have personal experience with the awfulness of mental illness, and I applaud the show for taking on the tragedy of severe mental illness in a world without hope of treatment. An illness like Lizzie's is not something you can fix with patience or understanding; she was clearly disconnected from reality and a proven danger to herself and others, and the only way to treat that is with professional care, proper medication, or hospitalization. Those are simply not options in this world, and putting her down was the humane thing to do. It is an incredibly sad truth and the writers were brave to take it on honestly, rather than dangling hope when there would realistically be none. It is certainly a dark turn for the show, but it was also very poignant and respectful of a very difficult topic.

  • Sujewa Ekanayake | March 19, 2014 5:36 AMReply

    Yeah, may be time to stop watching WD. If the humans have descended to the level of killing their own children (well, at least someone's child in their care), then the zombies have won :) Let's just imagine that the story ended with the gang settling into the prison early in Season 4.

  • Jay | March 19, 2014 2:16 AMReply

    I think the show blew it in terms of timing. With Mika gone, and Terminus possibly a day or two away, Lizzie is not a huge threat, not even to Judith.

    In the meantime, Terminus is a huge unknown. Is it a small group of survivors, or is it a real town? If it is a real town, it is likely they have encountered people like Lizzie before and have the resources and even rudimentary legal system to deal with it.

    It might have been more powerful if the Lizzie/Mika story played out before they saw the signs for Terminus. Then, a day or two after killing Lizzie, they find the sign for Terminus and are forced to rethink the killing of Lizzie. (Especially in the light of the killing of David and Karen.)

  • xlntgalcobf | March 18, 2014 5:22 PMReply

    That's not true, they had a choice. They could have stayed there and kept her locked up, they could have left her in the middle of the night to make her own way, they could have flat out told her to go away. The problem was, she thought she was in trouble for pointing the gun at Carol, not for slicing up her sister. Also, she didn't just think Walkers were 'different', she killed animals for no good reason. She sliced up that rabbit and pinned it to the board in the prison and she killed the baby rabbits just because they were there, she didn't even pull them out so they could be eaten. She almost smothered Judith on a previous episode and I'd bet if she were given the chance, if she and her sister were confronted with Walkers and there were no adults around to tell her to kill them, she would have let the Walker eat her sister just to see what happens. I think there were other options, and I probably couldn't have shot her but I know I wouldn't have traveled or lived with her either and abandoning her or turning her away would have amounted to a death sentence anyway.

  • Lovesfilmnmusic | March 18, 2014 1:54 PMReply

    Sam Adams, what would have been your preferred outcome?

  • Chris H | March 20, 2014 1:17 AM

    Engineered? It's a reality that there are people in the world who unfortunately lack empathy. As in the case with Lizzie, not only did she lack empathy but she had an unnatural fascination with death and and the act of causing it. Look at Jeffrey Dahmer or 10 year old serial killer Mary Bell. Both of which started on smaller prey (dogs and cats), eventually moving on to people. By saying "Of course she had to kill Lizzie: She had baby Judith to protect after all" is entirely missing the point. The fact that she took a life for no other reason than curiosity is damning and something you can't fully correct even with lithium. Even if she had never mentioned "changing" the baby, I still would have "put her down" before sunset because while she lived "my" life would have been in danger. Nothing really to debate there. No room for mental illness in the apocalypse.

  • Sam Adams | March 18, 2014 2:43 PM

    Not sure I know how to answer that. The point is that they engineered a situation in which Carol only had one real choice.

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