The Walking Dead universe is very large. It counts nowadays the comic book series, the TV series, two novels, a video game, and various other Media (webisodes, social games). Zombies deconstruct the identity of the child and question his future among the dead.
In the same way that Night of the Living Dead (1968) or 28 Days Later (2002) push the boundaries of ethics and humanity in modern society, the TV drama series The Walking Dead (AMC, 2010) analyses the relationship of a few survivors near Atlanta, in the United States, after a national zombie infection. Let us focus on the children, and especially on Carl Grimes (Chandler Riggs). Youth is a key element to understand the universe of the Walking Dead. Carl is a 13-year old boy, facing the end of the world with his parents. The main character Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) will try his best to protect his son and to find him a safe place to grow up in. However, Carl Grimes, along other children in the series, have to improve their independence. They develop a spirit of survival, while the grow-ups persevere to teach them moral values and basic education.
Death versus Youth
“Family is all that matter”- Rick Grimes to his son Carl
Carl is the main child in the TV series, whereas the comic books have many opportunities to place the children in the heart of dramatic events. Duane, Sophia, Ben and Billy are only a few references to the presence of youth, from four to sixteen. In the video game’s alternative story, the main character, Lee, takes responsibility for Clementine, a 9-year-old girl. Jamie and Billy are heroes of The Walking Dead webisodes, shown between season 1 and 2. On all media, children are a source of responsibilities and troubles. They create dangers by accident, they get lost, they need more attention or they die. A great part in season 2 of the series deals with the disappearance of Sophia (Madison Lintz), a 6-year-old girl following Rick Grimes’ group. She is separated from the group during a zombie attack, and the survivors spend several episodes looking for her. (What Lies Ahead, 2, 1, AMC, October 16th 2011). This event creates tensions between the characters as some decide to abandon the girl to assure their own survival.
On the other hand, they create a group unity and help rebuild a certain routine in the survivors’ lives. Besides, the audience learns that several of the main characters in the TV series, the comic books or the videogames had children of their own before the zombie apocalypse. To take care of children is for them a reminder of their previous lives and of their humanity. For instance, Michonne had two daughters and Lee wishes he had had children in his previous life.
Children also embody the duality between life and death. Zombies can be considered to be human beings returning to a primitive state. They lose their speaking ability, they walk without destination, and they die by themselves if they do not get any food. On the other hand, children grow up as survivors. They learn to be responsible and adapt their living ways to a new cruel world. Parents in The Walking Dead understand that their life expectancy has been greatly diminished and the only possible future is through the growing up of their children. In time of crisis like in The Walking Dead, the characters tend to rely on old but reliable values, such as family, friendship, honour. However, violence and death is everywhere in this world, pushing human beings into their deepest fears and worries. Men change to survive, the group gets rougher, the community gets stronger but very damaged at the same time.
Carl, the natural orphan
“I shot my Mom. She was out; hadn’t turned yet. I ended it. It was real” – Carl (Killer Within, 3, 4, AMC, November 4th, 2012)
Thirteen-year-old, Carl Grimes occupies in both the comics (in which he is actually 8 at the beginning) and the TV series a central position in the plot. His father, Rick Grimes often embodies the role of the natural leader in the eyes of the community. His mother Lori Grimes deals with her own demons. She is trapped in a love triangle and eventually becomes pregnant. However, the comic books present Carl as a young boy, watched over by other grown-ups, as Lori and Rick are busy with other matters. With time, Carl learns to be a leader as good as Rick and he gets several opportunities to save his father. Carl learns to use firearms and often adopts a paternalistic look over younger children. Through the series, we can see him wearing his father’s police deputy hat, as a sign of adulthood but also of love and respect for his father. In the TV series, Carl ends up being the only young child in the group. Feeling left alone, he starts to wander on his own, creates dangers for others by accident and accumulates anger within. (Judge, Jury and Executioner, 2, 11, AMC, March 4th, 2012).
Self-education through apocalypse
Even if Carl’s parents are not dead, the boy feels abandoned. Like other survivors, he figuratively feels dead inside and reborn in a world of continuing struggle to live. In the comics, many children lose their natural parents and are naturally fostered by adoptive parents. Carl becomes another person, perhaps too old for his age, with too many responsibilities and not enough game time. Rick and Lori have lost the ability to be true parents to their son. As Carl witnesses the decay of civilization, he insists on being part of the adult world, to take decisions for himself. It is not an act of rebellion but of self-consciousness. Carl must deal with the fact that his parents are no longer capable of assuring their parental responsibilities and keeping the group alive at the same time.
Even though Rick and Lori get on Carl from time to time for getting involved in problems, or causing problems, they encourage this independence. When Carl stole a gun, his father allowed him to keep it for protection (Better For Angels, 2, 12, AMC, March 11th, 2012). Rick and Lori might give orders to Carl for safety, but never check to make sure he had followed their orders. They have given him the room to make his own adjustments. As said above, Carl wears his father’s deputy hat as a distinction he is no longer the child he once was, but a very small adult in the world where the dead are reanimated. His parents are still alive, but he lost them a long time ago. He is an orphan. He is left to take care of himself in an adult world.
Children on Television
“We shouldn’t say things like that anymore. “Good night”. “Have a nice day.” Things will never be “Good” or “Nice” again.” – Carl
Since Carl is the only child survivor left in the TV series, the creators of The Walking Dead do not have to picture the potential death of a child on the small screen. In the comic, children are beheaded. A little boy kills his own brother. He is later executed by Rick. AMC creates quality TV series, such as Breaking Bad, Mad Men and Broken Trail. Quality TV gives the opportunity to writers to break TV rules, instead of only seeking profits through commercials. The audience can today watch explicit scenes on television without being shocked, as they get used to a televisual race for violence and death. With The Walking Dead, AMC can explore a theme rarely shown on TV, children and death. In the second season, Rick must kill Sophia who has turned into a zombie. (Pretty Much Dead Already, 2, 7, AMC November 17th, 2011). The scene is graphically very strong, and it is a climax in the series. The Walking Dead stopped for three months after the airing of this episode. However, as the TV series is based on an adult comic book series, the screen adaptation could be very violent for certain audiences. Television reaches the public more directly than reading, especially today with the possibility of watching shows on the internet. If these types of deaths were shown on TV, audiences, critics and sponsors could complain about how children on The Walking Dead were more likely to be killed by humans than zombies.
Finally, it is interesting to point out that during the comic book story, Carl’s is severely injured in the head. He loses one eye. He later gets amputated. These sequences are quite disturbing, even printed on the paper medium. What can we expect therefore, if the series keeps being aired on AMC? Is the violence against children going to grow harsher and more gruesome? It would be respectful for the authors; however the amount of violence would not be bearable to all audiences.
Series including youngsters can be very challenging for both writers and audiences. Writers must include scenes with children without crossing the lines of killing and easy violence. Moreover, audiences must accept the writers’ choice to get rid of certain characters in order to make the plot progress, or stick to the original text. We can think of Breaking Bad (AMC, January 20th, 2008), another AMC drama, in which, the hero Walter White produces and sells methamphetamine as he also has to take care of his son, who has cerebral palsy. Once again, Quality TV tried to push the boundary of the image of the child on screen. The Walking Dead goes further by showing direct deaths. Fans may complain about the liberties taken from the original comic books, but such graphic scenes are already victories for television producers.