It has been several weeks since the episode “The Grove” aired, and it continues to sit with me. It is the episode in which the storyline of Lizzie ends, and with it, so does the character Lizzie.
This past Wednesday I attended Cripping the Comic Con at Syracuse University, and had the distinct pleasure of meeting Bill Peace, and hearing his keynote on the Walking Dead and euthanasia. That keynote has given me many of the tools necessary to talk about why this episode bothered me – and what that means for the future.
In the episode “The Grove” we learned that Lizzie is mentally ill – the writers had certainly been leading up to this revelation, but we had not been fully aware until she kills her sister – and then informs her caretakers, Carol and Tyreese, that she was just about to kill the baby, because they would be zombies – and they would be her friends.
We learn that she is responsible for feeding the dead – and that she never saw them as a threat.
Mental illness is absolutely a reality in the world of a zombie apocalypse, and children are obviously exceptionally vulnerable since they are being exposed to any number of horrors, and processing trauma would be difficult. It’s why – for example – in our present world most parents would probably not allow their 8-year-old to watch “The Walking Dead”.
In a society where mental illness is almost always conflated, incorrectly, with psychological issues we have to be careful with how we portray mental illness. We must be even more careful with how we portray those without mental illness and how they manage and support those with it.
Which brings us to what happens in “The Grove”. Carol makes the decision to execute Lizzie. Sure, she just killed her little sister, and was about to kill the baby. Sure, she doesn’t see danger in the zombies. But what the show just did is normalize the execution of people with mental illness. It also normalized the death penalty for people with mental illness.
This episode crossed a serious line for me. It also crossed a line because unlike many fan outcries, this didn’t seem to hit a nerve. I didn’t see twitter erupt in a storm of “how could you”‘s. I did not see facebook erupt with angry status posts. In reaching out to my friends, those of us with mental illness or disability were left feeling disturbed. Herschel wasn’t “put down” when he lost a leg, yet Lizzie was killed.
“The Walking Dead” absolutely creates a utilitarian atmosphere which supports the notion that if you are not considered sane, you are a liability. It supports the fear. It supports the hate.
I was especially disappointed that no one was publicly angry. We have to start showing compassion, and sure, it’s hard to show compassion for someone who kills her sister. It’s hard to show compassion for a person who shoots up a movie theater. It’s hard to show compassion for those who do violence to others.
I’m not advocating for no punishment, but I am advocating for compassion. Mental illness is not always what we see it as in television. Mental illness is not always what we see in the news. So many of us live our lives with mental illness without ever hurting another person and yet every time that we see a mentally ill character we see them as damaging to the world.
It strikes me as particularly timely that I should be thinking about these things as I write the game DEAD SCARE, because I don’t want to create a game in which I am encouraging people to kill the mentally ill or the disabled. I don’t want to encourage the thought process behind that – and I want to encourage compassion in the face of horror. The genre does not need to encourage hate, it does not need to encourage summary execution. As fans, we need to be more critical of what these actions say about our thought processes, and how they influence how we see the world.
They executed a child for being mentally ill. How much more shocking does it get?