iZombie’s Lessons in Empathy

Screenshot from iZombie.

I’m not a very empathetic person.

There, I said it.

I mean, I’m a not robot, but other people’s emotions have always made me uncomfortable (I have a strict “no crying in my office” rule for my students).  I have difficulty relating to other people’s experiences because I have trouble seeing the world through their eyes, their feelings. I think I can be sympathetic, feeling pity or sorrow for another’s misfortunes, but empathy is much, much harder for me. And it’s my own struggle with empathy that makes The CW’s iZombie such an interesting show.

For the uninitiated, iZombie is a unique spin on the traditional zombie narrative: zombies exist but can (mostly) pass in regular society if they feed on brains. Brains not only prevent zombies from becoming the mindless instruments of death we all know and love, they also transfer the memories and disposition of the former owner to the zombie. When Liv Moore is infected, she takes a job in the city morgue to have a steady supply of brains. She uses these memories of murder victims to help the police solve crimes, all the while trying to uncover a larger zombie conspiracy. As ridiculous as this premise sounds, the show’s strength is in its exploration of larger issues.

Liv’s decision to avoid her friends is based on what she considered best, and fails to take into account the other people’s wants and needs.

In the pilot, when Liv realizes that she’s a zombie, her first course of action is to remove herself from her various relationships for the safety of her friends and family. Liv’s motivations are largely altruistic: she no longer thinks of herself as human, she doesn’t feel like she is safe to be around, and isolating herself is the best way she knows to keep the people she loves away from harm. So, without explaining what has happened, she breaks up with her fiancée and keeps her distance from her family and friends. Although these estrangements cause pain, Liv deems her actions (and silence) necessary and justifies it accordingly. It’s for the best, she thinks, concluding that to appear harsh and uncaring is better than trying to explain what has happened to her; however, this decision is not without considerable emotional pain and a number of assumptions on Liv’s part. Liv’s decision, however good intentioned, lacks empathy. It’s based on what she considered best, but fails to take into account the other people’s wants and needs.

As the seasons progress, Liv’s decision to isolate herself provides an interesting juxtaposition with her own empathetic journey. As she eats brains in order to stay normal, the memories and feelings she lives as a result of eating those brains makes her connect to humanity in a profound way. To have empathy for someone else is to understand another’s condition from their own perspective.

Being a zombie makes Liv feel like she needs to pull out of society, but being a zombie also makes Liv more human because, week in and week out, she comes to know something of how others see the world – even characters with few redeeming characteristics are shown to be worthy of empathy. When Liv’s “under the influence” of a misogynist jerk or ditzy party girl, the show resists the superficial or easy jokes. Sure, there can be moments of humour, but more importantly, there is ultimately an attempt at understanding: “I might not see the world the same way as you; I may disagree with everything you believe, but I need to try and see things from your perspective.”

One of the things I like most about iZombie is the foregrounding of such fundamentally human problems—our desire for connection and our need to attempt to recognize the individuality of the other. In part, as I said before, it’s my own empathetic fumbling that draws me into Liv’s struggles with deciding what’s best for another without considering their input. iZombie explores trying to see the world through someone else’s eyes, and I recognize the importance of trying to comprehend the perspectives of another in order to understanding them. I just don’t want to eat brains to achieve it.

Michael Boyce

Michael Boyce

Contributing Writer at Area of Effect
Michael W. Boyce is afflicted with severe boredom because he has a brain the size of a planet and he seldom gets the chance to use it at its full capacity. He boasts of a Ravenclaw education and we consider him to be our Yoda.

Michael teaches English Literature and Film Studies. He is a professor at Booth University College in Winnipeg and his other publications are scholarly works. He's published on Hitchcock, Alec Guinness and James Bond. He likes coffee. A lot. And Jonah Ray follows him on Twitter.
Michael Boyce