This morning I was grading some student essays while watching a marathon of Firefly in the background—and I would just like to say that I might have done something right with my life, because my wife turned to me and said “I think I’m getting episodes of this mixed up with episodes of Doctor Who.”
The episode that happened to be playing was the one that got me hooked on watching the entire series because of one particular scene. Don’t worry, this doesn’t spoil any important part of the series:
Now, I’ll save going into detail on why I enjoyed this show so much from that point on for just a minute, because I’d like to compare Mal with the protagonist of another show that I’ve recently been watching faithfully: Rick from The Walking Dead.
* * * Spoilers Beyond this Point if you havn’t seen the last 3 episodes of The Walking Dead * * *
Three weeks ago in The Walking Dead Rick met with the leader of another group of survivors. This said leader had already attempted to kill, hurt, and rape members of Rick’s group, and they were meeting to see if some sort of survival compromise could be worked out so that the two groups wouldn’t have to try and kill each other in the midst of the zombie apocalypse.
During the conversation, the Governor (the leader of the other group) offers the deal that he’ll leave the good guys alone if they turn over one of their members who had blinded him in one eye. In making this deal, he offers the alternative threat: “is she worth the life of your son, or your daughter?”
And Rick has a gun on his hip. That’s an important detail. And they’re alone in a room. And the Governor turns his back on armed-Rick a few minutes later.
Here’s my question: what rational human being does not shoot him then and there?
Is it surprising that I’m advocating murder? Maybe I should back up and expound the principle first. When someone who has already demonstrated to you that they are capable of deadly violence threatens those whom you love and who are your responsibility to care for, their life is forfeit. My immediate reaction, when the Governor threatened Rick’s children was “Oh, you get to kill him now.” And I would be surprised if I’m in the minority here.
Hopefully you can see the parallel to Mal above. The villain in that clip had already shot at Mal and his crew, and was now threatening to kill them. I think that even though the bad guy’s hands were tied behind his back, Mal’s reaction was morally acceptable. Rick shooting the Governor in the back would have been even more so. The man threatened his son and infant daughter.
The problem with Rick is not that he’s merciful. The problem is that he’s operating in Hollywoodworld in which the hero of a story cannot possibly kill a villain unless he is on his back at the edge of the cliff with the villain standing over him and brandishing some sort of weapon. Really, he needs to be in mid-swing. It is a false morality that tries to make the audience feel better so that they don’t have to wrestle with the deep questions of right and wrong. It is a cheap way out: “he had to kill him,” we say, “to save his own life.”
But it’s completely fake, and we all know it. Not only can we see it coming from a mile away, but it substitutes the merely dramatic (we are excited) for the literary (we are excited, but contemplative later).
Rick leaves the meeting seriously thinking about turning over one of his people to the Governor. He leaves with the promise of meeting again to make a deal with the man. It’s absurd. I could understand if he were given some “out,” some convincing reason for still treating the Governor like a man with whom he only has a slight disagreement or misunderstanding, but I never saw one. (If you did, let me know in the comments).
Rick went from an interesting character to hack stereotype in that one episode. I’m still giving The Walking Dead time to redeem him, but I won’t wait past the end of this season. I don’t have anything against flawed characters, characters I hate, or characters I don’t agree with—but when they stop acting human there’s no more interest for me.