Saturday, April 9, 2016

The Interrupted Fall into Evil: Carol and Morgan in The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead's zombie apocalypse has inspired me to comment on the topic of the monster on more than one occasion--how could zombies really exist? But the story fascinates me much more because of what it does to the human characters involved.

I'm especially intrigued by the way human evil is portrayed in the show--when survival is on the line, the veneer of civilization comes off most people and they begin doing things, evil things, that their normal selves would barely have recognized. Some characters resist this general fall, but they do so from the beginning of their story arc. However, the characters Carol and Morgan have recently run counter to that general tendency of change always being for the worse. Why?

For the uninitiated, Morgan was a character in the story who the leader of the survivor group, Rick, ran into early in the plot. At first, he was just a decent person trying to survive. Later, he appeared again, unhinged, essentially insane. Dangerous--a killer.

Later still, Morgan appears again in the story and has become a permanent character, one now learned in martial arts, proficient in the staff, and utterly convinced that "all life is precious." The story dedicates an episode to how he came to have that change--a kind-hearted man with humanist principles (a former professional therapist) essentially kidnapped Morgan and educated him in the perspective that life matters even in the zombie apocalypse, a perspective he came to accept. (He also taught him how to use the staff.)

It's no secret to those who have read this blog before that I see the world from a Christian perspective. What Morgan went though fits within that paradigm readily enough. It could be tagged with a term the Bible calls "repentance." Repentance translates the Greek word
 metanoia / metanoia which refers to a transformation of the mind or the understanding. Usually, of course, the Bible refers to repentance being about feeling convicted for sin and turning to God because of it--the transformation of the mind comes into the process because a person does not see himself or herself the same way anymore. Clearly Morgan went through an experience that caused him to see himself differently--i.e. he repented.

Some Christian friends might object that repentance without accepting Christ doesn't really have the power to change a person. A person needs divine help in the form of the Holy Spirit to truly change, such a friend might say. I don't completely agree--whereas I do believe there is something special about the repentance that comes with conversion (it uniquely brings eternal salvation, for example), people undergo transformations of their thinking in a way that changes their behavior all the time. Like a man who kills a family while driving drunk finally understanding he really needs to quit--and never touches another drop of alcohol again, which of course can and does happen without accepting Christ.

Repentance has power outside of its Christian context, it really does. Morgan exemplifies that--through a form of repentance, he returned from being a viscous killer, transformed into someone who cherishes life.

The case for Carol is quite different. Starting the show as a housewife intimidated by an abusive husband, the death of that man coupled with the continual need to kill zombies to survive strengthened Carol to the point where she not only found it easy to kill undead monsters, the character is shown killing human beings who threaten her group without hesitation. Coolly and calculatingly. 

Some readers might object to the title of this post at this point. Am I saying Carol became evil in her easy acceptance of killing others? After all, some might say, Carol always killed in self-defense and for the benefit of the group. That's not evil, is it?

Debating the nature of evil isn't my point for this post. I think we can agree at least that the world around Carol became more evil and her easy adaptation to it points to a type of fall into wickedness. Even if her actions themselves weren't strictly evil, Carol did change over time, not in a sudden transformation of understanding, but in a gradual acceptance of more and more brutal behavior in herself--yes, in response to an increasingly brutal world around her. But still.

What's interesting about the character of Carol is the current script now shows her struggling with killing, not certain if she can continue. It's as if the accumulated weight of all the killing she did in the past has finally affected her and she's finding it hard to go on.

Now is that a realistic portrayal of human behavior? Do humans who become accustomed to killing, spontaneously start having a hard time with it?

Well, soldiers acting under orders to kill have been known to do something like that. Sometimes. after an initial revulsion to the death of others they come to accept it. Sometimes, often enough in fact, they go through traumatic stress reactions that effectively shut down their effectiveness in combat and make it impossible for them to continue killing.

The character of Carol is acting rather like that--but here's the thing, nobody ordered her to make the cool and effective decisions to kill that the character was demonstrated to make. She came up with that on her own.

So does it happen that someone who has dropped the trappings of civilized behavior in the midst of a brutal environment, without being ordered or pressured to so, someone who did it herself--has someone like that ever suddenly reverted to more gentle behavior? I actually can't think of a single historical example of such a thing. Oh yes, quite a number of vicious Nazis, after the war was over, found niches in ordinary civilized life after the fact. But I can't think of one of them that quit right in the middle of brutality, saying, "I just can't do this anymore."

Maybe there are historical cases of what I'm talking about and I just don't know about them. If so, please mention them in the comments to this post. But I read a lot of history, much of it touching on the topic of humans plunged into the worst of possible scenarios. The fact I've never seen such a thing certainly suggests it isn't very common. No, humans who find themselves able to engage in brutal acts on their own generally (if not always) can keep doing so without end. And in truth, when things are terrible, while some people will refuse to be brutal, many, many people will actually engage in the worst behavior possible rather quickly. And they will stay there.

In fact, that's part of why I find The Walking Dead so compelling. While zombies as a monster don't really make sense (I've tried to make sense of them in the past, but it doesn't quite work), the human monsters in the story are all too real.

Perhaps the writers of the story world behind The Walking Dead simply could not go on that way. Perhaps they really believe, as many modern people do, that human beings are essentially good after all. So they wrote into the script a character's innate "goodness" swelling up and interfering with an already-demonstrated capacity to kill in a cold and calculating manner.

I'm not saying the character of Carol isn't well-written--they've shown foreshadowing of her behavior to establish it wasn't instantaneous. But I think her recent change is based on false premises. While there are cases of good people of all kinds steadfastly resisting evil in the real world, while there are cases of repentance of both religious and non-religious types causing people to change how they act, people don't just spontaneously on their own start acting good when reacting to an evil environment.  They don't. Though sometimes people do plunge all the way down to the most evil actions imaginable, very rapidly.

That's a truth that the writers of The Walking Dead seemed to ready to embrace once. But now are walking away from. Or so it seems to me.

Do you disagree? If so, please let me know in the comments. Thanks :)


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