[Warning: Massive Spoilers for The Walking Dead S4 Episode 14.]
Within the first five minutes of “Days Gone By”, the pilot episode of The Walking Dead, the show announced that it would treat children precociously – as an unnamed police officer (later revealed to be Rick Grimes) faced down a charging small child whose hand was still clasping a stuffed white bear, her face bloody, pale, and rotted away to perpetually reveal her brace-clad teeth.
That girl’s humanity had been replaced by the drum beat of hunger, and fearing for his life, Rick Grimes shot her – we were not spared the sight of it. Frank Darabont (the director of that episode and the show’s original showrunner) even slowed down her fall to the harsh pavement.
Was it shocking? Yes, but Darabont was telling a tale about the apocalypse and the moments after society’s rules had begun to lose the electric in their fence. Of course he had to make us uncomfortable from the outset. Of course, he had to make us gasp and repulse us with this impactful opening scene, simultaneously causing us to inch forward toward the screen just a little bit.
Through four seasons, The Walking Dead has had other moments with children that have been similarly jarring – perhaps too many of them, using the device as a crutch to shock us. Carl has endured the bulk of these, killing both his mother and a zombified Shane. Sometimes, it feels like this is Carl’s story, since by the end of it, no one will be more changed by the broken world of The Walking Dead than he will be. However, so far, Carl seems to be mostly alright with his quick transition away from childhood innocence and obliviousness.
Lizzie, who along with her sister Mika have been mostly peripheral characters this season, has not been alright. The girl saw zombies as people, humanizing one to the point that she named him “Nick” while at the prison. Later, there were hints that she had tortured small animals, and there was a horrifying moment where she attempted to suffocate baby Judith.
Last night, Lizzie went further than most of us ever imagined she would – further than we thought this show would or could go – when she went from throwing a tantrum over the death of a walker that she had been playing with, to the moment where she tried to let a walker “change her,” to the shocking death of Mika at her hands.
The Walking Dead comic book is notorious for shocking moments. On the show – which vacillates between being a mostly faithful adaptation and its own beast quite often – some events are dialed back or fully scraped, while others swap different characters into these situations. In this instance, Carl is the one who must do what Carol does on the show – eliminating a child who has grown into a monster, after Ben kills his brother with a knife, turning to Andrea (his surrogate mother) to reassure her by saying: “Don’t worry, he’s going to come back. I didn’t hurt his brains.”
Those words are nearly identical to the ones that Lizzie utters while standing over Mika’s lifeless body, blood splattered on her face, same as it is on Lizzie’s face. As a reader/viewer, we both arrive at and pivot away from these points in vastly different ways, but the sameness of those moments allows us to really compare these two mediums.
As a storytelling device, comic books are limited by their lack of dimension as well as the reader’s imagination; the latter of which resembles the way that a computer game is limited by the internal firepower of the computer that it’s being played on. The trade-off is that in comics, the creator’s own imagination serves as a boundless playground (within reason, this is still a commercial endeavor that is beholden to the marketplace), whereas in TV and film, budgets and network standards must be respected, often leading to adaptations that mirror the spirit but not the impact of these stories.
From a visceral standpoint, one panel of a mouth-agape Andrea in a comic doesn’t compare to seeing the shock and fear on Carol and Tyrese’s faces when they find Lizzie – it doesn’t compare to seeing Carol doubled over in pain as she wordlessly conveys her guilt over failing those girls, and it doesn’t compare to hearing the tremble in her voice as she tells Lizzie to “look at the flowers” before putting her down.
From a story standpoint, though, such a successful adaptation is rare because far too often, the moving image is constricted by the fretful artist and all those pre-conceived notions about what will and won’t play well with audiences.
The Walking Dead airs on AMC Sunday @9PM