Victim-Blaming After the Zombies Come


Is preserving our own beliefs better than reaching out to help others no matter what the personal cost? I contemplated this thorny issue watching “JSS,” the second episode in season six of the zombie apocalypse TV juggernaut The Walking Dead. The question centers on the actions of two good, kind men: Morgan and Aaron. In “JSS” (SPOILERS COMING), a group of very unpleasant men and women—with Ws carved into their foreheads to mark them as Wolves—partially ransack Alexandria, the town where Morgan and Aaron live, murdering many citizens in torturous ways that rival the worst “walker” (zombie) attacks.

After the episode aired, Chris Hardwick, the host of the follow-on talk show The Talking Dead, polled viewers about whether Aaron or Morgan was most responsible for the Wolf invasion (yes, a classic case of victim blaming). The audience overwhelmingly chose Aaron; I chose Morgan.

Here’s the back story: During season five, Morgan was targeted by two Wolves. In an easy, calm conversation across a campsite, these two men told Morgan they would take his things and kill him, that they had killed a lot of people before him and they would continue to murder people after him, not because they needed to but because they enjoyed killing. However, Morgan used his mastery of a wooden staff called a bō to knock both men unconscious. He left them alive, piled into a car to protect them from hungry walkers.

In the meantime, Aaron was caught in a walker trap laid by other Wolves while he was out on a recruiting mission. (Aaron’s job is to find good people and bring them back to live in Alexandria.) Morgan was able to help rescue Aaron, but in the melee Aaron lost his backpack, which was filled with photos of Alexandria to show people what it was like– but no map or other trail of breadcrumbs.

The Wolves found the backpack and, cue season six, they attack Alexandria. The two Wolves Morgan left alive are among the Wolfpack. Aaron takes a gun and goes out into the streets to help defend Alexandria, killing at least one Wolf onscreen. Morgan defends Alexandria as well, but will not use a gun and will not kill Wolves.

The Walking Dead universe is filled with the dregs of humanity. Previous seasons have seen warlords, child rapists, and cannibals. The Wolves relish killing people (one tasted his victim’s blood), and every so often get their jollies by tying a naked woman to a tree and cutting her open just enough to lure the walkers to a living feast.

With no police, military, or jails, anyone with a conscience faces the dilemma: When is it necessary to kill other human beings? While there’s some question about whether Morgan was forced to kill a Wolf at the end of “JSS” for his own survival (I think not), he basically has decided that taking a life is never OK. During the Wolves’ rampage, he saves one Alexandrian and stops to tie up the murderous Wolf, rather than kill him, and moves on to help other Alexandrians who are being slaughtered. Morgan then proceeds to confront a group of six or so Wolves and convinces them to leave—for the moment—by saying Alexandrians are poised to shoot them with sniper rifles.

The Alexandrians aren’t a perfect people, yet they care for children and the elderly, they seek out others to join the relative safety of their community, and they haven’t yet perpetrated an unprovoked massacre and proceeded to bathe in the blood of their victims–or eat them. So they count as good folks in a zombie apocalypse.

Engaging in the game of victim-blaming, I choose Morgan as the culprit because, even though Aaron makes a mistake, he is actively engaged with the world, trying to save people who aren’t obviously vicious. He tries to do good works despite the potential risk to himself and his fellow Alexandrians. Morgan rescues a few people along the way too, including Aaron, but his primary mission is saving himself.

Obviously “thou shall not kill” is always a positive guiding principle, but it doesn’t work as an absolute maxim in this fantasy world—not for anyone who wants to ensure some non-feral humans remain on the planet and have a chance to live rather than just survive. At some point, absolute adherence becomes a selfish act, perpetrated for personal comfort rather than the benefit of humankind. Note: This is apocalypse theory, and I’m pretty pro-“thou shall not kill” unless and until complete societal collapse occurs on a global scale.

But how often do we hold onto archaic beliefs in the real world? Facing what seems like the occasional whiff of apocalypse ourselves, how often are we Morgan, clinging to beliefs that we think are good and true but come at the expense of some pretty nice people? Putting our beliefs above people is false morality, no matter how well-intentioned we are.

Caralyn Davis lives in Asheville, N.C. She works as a freelance writer/editor and is a student in the Great Smokies Writing Program at the University of North Carolina-Asheville. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in Superstition Review. Her fiction has appeared in The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, Monkeybicycle, Relief Journal, Deep South, The Drum, and other publications.