A young girl with a moral compass showing adults the way? The Walking Dead’s Judith is a hero for our times.
This Walking Dead article comes from Den of Geek UK.
Before you saw the girl, you saw the sword on her back and the gun in her hand. Even before that, you’d witnessed what she was capable of. Five clean headshots felling five snapping zombies, creating an escape route for a group of overwhelmed strangers.
“Come on, this way,” she shouts. “It’s clear.” They run towards the sound of her voice and are saved. “You got names?” she asks, picking up her Stetson and placing it on her head, cool as any cowboy. They tell her and ask for hers in return. “Judith,” she says, James Bond-style, “Judith Grimes.”
The Walking Dead season nine time jump was a slick bit of storytelling that gave Rick Grimes’ aged-up step-daughter a fitting reintroduction. No longer a grinning pre-schooler, Judith was now a crack-shot badass. Armed with her mother’s sword, her father’s gun, and an instinctive sense of right and wrong. The apocalypse had itself a new kind of hero.
The apocalypse wasn’t the only one. In fiction and reality, young girls are increasingly the heroes of now. Pakistani female education activist Malala (like Madonna, she needs no surname) rose to global prominence after surviving a Taliban assassination attempt at age 15. She’ll soon have a PPE degree from Oxford to add to her Nobel Peace Prize. Last month, 16-year-old Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg addressed the UN Climate Action Summit with a blistering speech that pilloried leader inaction. Standing up to levels of hostility that would flatten lesser mortals, these extraordinary girls are taking their position on the world stage.
Obvious dickheads aside, most of us can’t get enough. We are, to adopt the modern parlance, here for it. Powerful young girls showing grown-ups the way is our new fav. We cheer them on through the power of the Like button and dance to the clear ringing bell of their conscience as sampled by Fatboy Slim. We spent all of last year telling anyone who’d listen that we want to be Lyanna Mormont when we grow up. (In all the disgruntlement over Game of Thrones’ final season, that the ten-year-old ruler of Bear Island as #lifegoals was the one thing on which everybody could agree.)
Pint-sized, badass, and wise, Judith Grimes (as well as “woman of Judea,” the name literally translates as “she will be praised.” Quite right) is the latest product of this new heroism.
“Keep it, it’ll help you find your way.”
The Walking Dead rarely troubling itself with the “sub” of the text, Judith Grimes not only comes with a functioning moral compass, but also a literal compass. It’s worn on a chain and marked with her initials, and when villain Negan broke out of his prison cell and escaped, he took it with him as a talisman of little girl wisdom. The compass, and Judith’s sage words that “there’s nothing out there” for him, are what brought Negan back to Alexandria. His adventure outside of the walls proved her right.
When Michonne discovered Judith’s friendship with Negan, she was outraged and called him a monster. “He’s not,” Judith told her, “he’s a human being.” Judith’s belief in Negan’s humanity is responsible for his gradual rehabilitation. Her instinctive goodness is so powerful that it’s working its magic, turning him slowly from murderous tyrant to real boy. If anyone who stopped watching the show after Negan giggled his way through bashing in the brains of two much-loved characters were told that season nine culminated in him risking his life to save a little girl and her dog, they’d have a hard time believing it.
What’s truly remarkable about these developments is how enjoyable they are to watch. Traditionally, the late-introduced child in a long-running drama is teeth-grindingly irritating. The cuter they are, the worse it becomes. Not Judith. Thanks in no small part to actor Cailey Fleming (who also played young Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens), her scenes are highlights and Judith’s friendship with Negan is one of many satisfying emotional threads in the post-Rick Grimes world.
“Our friends need our help.”
Negan’s not the only one whose morals have needed a defibrillating shock from Judith. Following a sequence of events so traumatic that it seems incredible it was ever shown on television (picture a heavily pregnant woman forced to murder a bunch of young kids in hand-to-hand combat — wait, you don’t have to), Judith’s adopted mother Michonne had turned isolationist. It took Judith’s clear-eyed insistence that Alexandria should help its friends rather than stand alone to convince Michonne to thaw relations.
“You’re my mom. You chose to be.”
Judith’s not only inspiring for what she does, but what she represents. Her family life in The Walking Dead carries a message of real solace to many in the real world: families can be chosen; they’re not just a matter of shared genes.
Biologically speaking, Judith’s dad isn’t her father (that was Shane, who died in season two), nor is Michonne her mother (that was Lori, who died in season three). Only one of her brothers is a biological half-sibling (he’s dead too now — this poor kid has all the luck), but none of that matters because Judith’s family, and its extended relations of Daryl, Carol, and the others, chose each other. “She’s my daughter, but she isn’t mine,” Rick said before he was flown off in a helicopter, “I had to accept that, I did. So I could keep her.”
The same applies to Carol and Ezekiel, who were Henry’s parents before he died, and to Rosita’s new daughter Coco, who’s being raised by her non-biological father Gabriel, her biological father Siddiq, and Eugene, a kind of post-apocalyptic Nanny McPhee. Forget biology, says The Walking Dead, we can choose who we are and love who we love.
One of the most satisfying things about Judith Grimes is how The Walking Dead’s camera takes her and her power seriously. Take the episode nine scene directed by Greg Nicotero in which she, making good on her promise, shoots Negan off his motorcycle. Filmed from behind, she steps into frame, her arm ending in a gun. In the next shot, she’s dead center as the camera rushes towards her – a dead still marksman with her target in her sights. This isn’t done to be cute. It’s not an ironic “look at the widdle baby playing grown-up” gag. Time and again, this little girl is framed like an action hero, because that’s exactly what she is.
Earlier that episode, when Judith points her gun at Negan and answers his “How ‘bout I go my way, you go yours and we never see each other again?” with an entirely unfazed “How ‘bout no?” it was a minor moment, but one that reflects exchanges we’re seeing play out in our own world. “How ‘bout no?” is the spirit of this new heroism. It’s defiance on moral grounds – the stance of youth sizing up those in power, finding them lacking, and rejecting their bullshit. Marching blindly towards climate catastrophe? How ‘bout no? Denying girls education under the Taliban? How ‘bout no?
“Just look at her and tell me the world isn’t going to change.”
Judith Grimes is hardly the only or the first powerful little girl on TV with things to teach us. She’s part of a growing gang (Lisa Simpson’s the founding member, obviously, Stranger Things’ Eleven is the muscle). These girls and their real-world counterparts are here with lessons to teach us, and mostly, we’re all ears.
That’s for two reasons. One is the attractive simplicity of their perspectives. Help friends, see the best in people, listen to scientists … These clear-hearted messages make an instinctive sense that cuts through the muddying complexities piled on by experience, selfishness, and cynicism.
And secondly: who else is left to listen to? You’ve seen our political leaders. The age of venerable wisdom is over. The old heroes have disgraced themselves; they’re all in low-security prisons, available only on supervised visitation day-release, where they still can’t be trusted not to rub themselves up against the furniture. The reputation of authority figures is shot, so now we need kids to show us the way.
In the letter Carl wrote to Judith before he died, he told her that he hadn’t beaten this world as their mother predicted, but he knew that she would. Well, she’d better, someone has to. Take these new heroes seriously and act on their messages, and maybe we all will.