TV Show Analysis: Charmed and the Trolley Problem
Charmed (the original series) revolved around three powerful, sister-witches known as the Charmed Ones who use their powers to fight against evil.
While Charmed revolves around the sisters and their use of witchcraft to fight against evil, it’s never been purely around magic. It explores sisterhood, life, mortality, morality and even philosophy. In the season 2 penultimate episode, Apocalypse Not, Charmed explores the philosophical thought experiment known as the Trolley Problem.
Apocalypse Not premise:
Good and evil have to join forces when Prue becomes trapped in a vortex with one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
The Trolley Problem:
The basic premise of the Trolley Problem is as follows:
“There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance away in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side tracks. You have two options:
- Do nothing and allow the trolley to kill the five people on the main tracks.
- Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side tracks where it will kill one person.”*
There are many variations of the Trolley Problem. According to Wikipedia, the original dilemma involved a judge faced with rioters demanding that a culprit be found for a certain crime and threatening otherwise to take their own revenge on a particular section of the community. As the culprit is unknown, the only way the judge can prevent this revenge is to frame an innocent person and have them executed. There is also an example where a pilot whose plane is about to crash is deciding whether to land in an uninhabited area.
More well-known variations include the fat man, which involves throwing a fat man standing next to you onto the bridge to stop the trolley, killing him to save the five lives. Another well-known version is a transplant where a surgeon has five patients in need of organs, each of whom will die without that organ and there are no organs available. However, a healthy traveler passing through the city goes to the surgeon for a check-up and discovers he is a match for all five patients. Does the doctor kill the healthy person to save the five patients?
The popular Netflix TV series, The Good Place, dedicated a whole episode to the Trolley Problem, where Chidi, an ethics professor, is teaching the Trolley Problem to the other three main characters, and demon, Michael. Michael argues that the problem is too theoretical and using his magical powers makes the problem literal, forcing Chidi to make a choice. Chidi is unable to make a choice every time, and Michael also explores the problem using the surgeon variation. In a later episode, he determines that self-sacrifice is the solution to the problem.
Apocalypse Not and the Trolley Problem: How it presents itself to the viewer
The Trolley Problem first presents itself in the episode to the viewer at the beginning of the episode, where Phoebe tells her sisters that she bought a book from her sociology professor that is filled with deep profound questions, which could make for a good bar game at P3. One of the questions in the book, which she poses to her sisters, is a variation of the Trolley Problem, “What if a building was on fire? Do you save five strangers or one sibling?” Prue dismisses the question by telling Phoebe that she thought they were supposed to be hard questions and answers “sibling”, as does Piper and Phoebe.
This scene provides an introduction to the Trolley Problem to foreshadow what will happen in the second half of the episode.
While Piper and Leo are on their way out on a date, they are caught in the middle of a street brawl. When she uses her power to freeze to stop a watermelon going through her car windscreen, the supernatural evil or foe presents itself to Leo and Piper, as well as the viewer—a man in a black suit and green tie who doesn’t freeze like everyone else. They chase after him, however he gets on his horse and disappears.
The sisters cannot correctly identify the evil or foe at play, so they make their best guess, the Demon of Anarchy and make a vanquishing potion based on this guess, meanwhile the Four Horsemen set a trap for the sisters. When Piper sees the Horsemen she saw earlier at another riot scene later that evening, the sisters chase after him, Prue in the lead. When Prue catches up to him and sees the other three Horsemen, she is held hostage by another Horseman, War, which Piper and Phoebe discover when they catch up. Both groups cast their respective spells, which leads to Prue and War being sent into the vortex.
Both groups try to figure out what to do while both Prue and War try to reach their respective groups through the astral plane. It is War who tells his fellow Horsemen that they need to cease fire and co-operate with the sisters. Leo informs the sisters that they need to do the same, via the Elders. Both groups reluctantly agree to work together.
Apocalypse Not and the Trolley Problem: How it presents itself to the sisters
While the Trolley Problem is initially presented to the sisters via Phoebe’s book at the beginning of the episode, the Problem isn’t presented to them first-hand until Leo identifies the Horsemen.
Throughout the episode, Leo is against the sisters’ methods. He is first against their guess at the identity of the Horsemen, which ultimately leads to the situation they are in. He is then against them working with the Horsemen to rescue Prue. Due to the sisters dismissal of his concerns, he goes to the Horsemen’s headquarters to find out for himself who they really are, and he does. When he reveals their identity to the sisters, that is when the Trolley Problem is presented to them and they are starting to live it.
Emotions affecting the Trolley Problem in Apocalypse Not:
As mentioned earlier, there are many variations of the Trolley Problem, which include whether the person pulling the lever knows the one person on the second set of tracks. Apocalypse Not explores this variation when Piper and Phoebe make it clear that they will still work with the Horsemen to get Prue back, even after Leo informs them of their identity and intentions. Leo points out that they are thinking like mortal sisters and they need to think like the Charmed Ones and of their duty to the world. He also points out that when the sisters travelled to the future in an earlier episode, they learnt that sometimes there are more important things than saving your sister. Despite Leo’s valid points, the sisters go ahead with the plan.
Phoebe choosing to save five strangers:
Although Leo does his best to point out the stakes of saving Prue over protecting the greater good, it isn’t until the sisters are made aware of the consequences of choosing that one person on the second set of tracks over the other five people that the Trolley Problem in Apocalypse Not plays out and is resolved.
When Phoebe shakes Strife’s hand, she has a premonition of the impending apocalypse. She knows exactly what will happen and how this Trolley Problem will play out. Although she starts to go through with hers and Piper’s plan, she eventually abandons it. When Piper questions her, she tells her Leo is right, that they can’t rescue Prue and War, and be selfish. Piper reluctantly agrees and stops casting the spell to re-open the vortex. Moments later, the Source of All Evil opens the vortex, using it to vanquish the Horsemen. While this happening, Phoebe and Piper finish casting the spell to hopefully pull Prue out, which they successfully do.
The solution to the Trolley Problem in Apocalypse Not:
As mentioned earlier, The Good Place dedicated a whole episode to the Trolley Problem, with Michael eventually coming up with the solution of self-sacrifice. Apocalypse Not implements the same solution as Piper and Phoebe make the choice not to rescue Prue to save the greater good, and the Source makes the choice to vanquish or sacrifice the Horsemen, as their mission can’t be completed due to the sisters’ self-sacrifice.
What the sisters learnt after their first-hand experience with the Trolley Problem:
The episode ends with the sisters hanging out at P3 and Leo coming to see them after a meeting with the Elders. He tells the sisters that their selflessness stopped the Source’s plan from going forward and that there was too much good in the world for the apocalypse to be successful. Prue has an emotional reaction to this news and the fact that the sisters had to sacrifice her for everything to work out, however she accepts that Piper and Phoebe were doing their jobs.
The final moments of the episode have one of P3’s bartenders bringing Phoebe’s book back to her and asking them the same question Phoebe posed to her sisters at the start of the episode. This time, the sisters answer in unison, “five strangers”. These bookends perfectly illustrates that they have learnt from their own personal Trolley Problem experience that the greater good must come first, by changing their initial answer to a hypothetical and seemingly simple Trolley Problem posed to them at the beginning of the episode.