The Walking Dead: Ethics in War

Note: mild spoilers for the March 10, 2013 episode of The Walking Dead, ‘Arrows on the Doorpost’ below. I avoided names and details as much as possible.

I’m a big fan of finding ways to use pop culture in the classroom.  There are lots of reasons for this–including that it can keep students interested–but honestly, there are two main rationales for why I do it.  The first is that it taps into their prexisting knowledge and thus lowers the stakes in a discussion about politics.  Students who may not feel comfortable entering into a debate about India and Pakistan or Republicans and Democrats may eagerly engage in a discussion of zombies or Tina Fey as Sarah Palin.

The second reason is that it helps demonstrate the idea that politics is not limited to the political sphere, but is embedded in their daily lives and interactions.  Showing them how political ideas are reflected in current tv, movies, books, and music creates buy-in for them to learn the more ‘real-world’ ideas we discuss in class.

I teach a course on politics in film and fiction (also games, and I’m considering adding theater after reading an excellent paper on the subject at TLC), but I’m always on the lookout for small clips and moments to bring into any class. I keep a running list on the notepad on my phone of ideas.

This week, I was watching the most recent episode of the Walking Dead, ‘Arrows on the Doorpost’ and jotted down the note, ‘WD 3/10/13–laws of war’.  In the episode (which you should only show up till the commercial break around minute 40–see below** for the reason why), the leaders of two different groups meet–maybe to resolve their differences, maybe to call a truce, or maybe for some other nefarious purpose.  Their lieutanants, meanwhile, are first in a standoff, but eventually a shared threat–the zombies–show up, and they start communicating and finding common ground and shared experiences.  Now this series in general is excellent for discussing in-group and out-group conflict, democracy v. authoritarianism, and testing the adage that ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’.  The entire episode is worth showing, particularly as it would be relatively easy for non-viewers to understand what is going on.  One moment I quite liked is when a character, taking notes in a small journal, explains that he’s recording history–that people are going to be around in the future and will want to know what happened. That is quite a symbol of optimism in the face of the zombie apocalypse.

There is a small scene though, that struck me as potentially being quite useful in the classroom.  Back at the camp of one of the groups, someone recommends that they go and kill the leader of the other group–thanks to the meeting, they know where he is.  This character make an excellent argument for doing so, given what we know of the behavior of that leader. The others object–but not due to fear of retaliation or the ethics of the situation or any understanding of the traditional ‘laws of war’–but because of the orders of their own leader.  Another scene later on helps build on the idea of ethics in war.  In their negotiations, one leader offers a deal: he will leave the other group alone if they give up one of their members who injured him in a previous episode.  This person only just joined the group, and as recently as the previous episode the leader of the group indicated his lack of trust of this person. The scene cuts to commercial before the leader gives an answer, allowing a perfect opportunity for discussion: if it means ending this conflict that could destroy both groups, which include a number of innocent people and children, should the leader give up this group member for punishment?

The first scene is only a minute or two and is quite early in the episode, and thus could work very well if you want just a short prompt.  If you have more time, the second scene is quite intense and occurs about 40 minutes in.  It would be worthwhile showing them the entire episode to that point if you are discussing the ethics and laws of war.  **I would definitely stop it at this point regardless though, as there is a fairly graphic sex scene not long after that commercial break!