It’s not often that a popular television series really succeeds at delivering a truly moving and important episode without also delivering exhaustive melodrama and over-hyping itself. The common fashion for a series that is really trying to be edgy or controversial in an episode is to do so during a sweeps week and to over-hype what is coming from the episode. Once the episode has come and gone what’s left is usually not as groundbreaking as promised, it’s usually just a bunch of overacted formulaic drama. On some occasions a series will get it right though. This episode of The Walking Dead titled “The Grove” is one of those few instances of success. Credit goes to the marketing team behind the show for not over-hyping the episode and spoiling it with an overabundance of hyperbole. This is not so much a review as it is an examination, and also my need to vomit all over the digital page after soaking in what may be one of the very best episodes of the series so far. With that said there will be spoilers so read on with caution if you haven’t viewed the episode yet.
The Grove is the culmination of two important storylines that have been running through this season and the last act of last season. I wasn’t necessarily excited to see that the episode would focus exclusively on Tyreese, Carol, and the kids but by the end of this one I believe I may have had an emotional breakdown. The episode was both subtle and overtly dramatic, and it was one of the most tragic episodes of the entire series. Outside of the obvious story the episode considers the fact that some people just can’t adjust to the new reality of the world these characters live in. Often that sort of observation is lost on these sorts of shows because they are supposed to be about the people that can adapt and find ways to survive. The truth is some people just wouldn’t be able to make it physically or mentally. The story shows both sides of the coin; we have Carol who may have over adapted to the new world, and Lizzie who just couldn’t come to terms with the walkers and what they really are. These two kids played a part in the demise of the prison home the group had established. Even if the governor never came back it’s easy to believe that if the girls were left unabated they would have been responsible for bringing down the zombie apocalypse on everyone in the prison. These girls, it was revealed, were responsible for feeding the walkers rats they caught inside the prison. They had apparently been making pets out of the walkers but the feedings of course caused frenzy in the walkers that eventually led to a walker prison invasion. This amazing misdirect was only the first of a few powerful ones that completed the story in this episode. Another subtle, almost easy to overlook story element that has been playing out in the background is that Lizzie seemed to be in a state of shock at the world she has been forced to live in. Her younger sister seemed to be dealing with it all just a bit better; probably because she was younger her mind wasn’t dealing with the bigger picture of what has happened and what the walkers are. Lizzie’s mind has been trying to process all of these bigger questions; what are the walkers and what is truly right and wrong. In her mind killing the walkers was simply killing sick people and that’s just not right. This little girl and her belief system is almost looking at us, the viewers, and reminding us as we enjoy the blood and guts of it all that these things were people and killing literally hundreds of them in a sitting is still easy to consider murder. Sure it’s generally justified because they want to eat the healthy or living people’s brains. Still her beliefs, no matter how skewed, bring a reality to a show that can be so unreal in the most action packed moments. When the Walking Dead is firing on all cylinders the most horrific moments happen within character moments not zombie attacks, and this episode is a well-oiled machine.
Brighton Sharbino as Lizzie is riveting, as good an actress as any on the show in this episode. She goes toe to toe with Melissa McBride who expertly plays Carol throughout the series and in this episode in particular. Kyla Kenedy as the younger and innocent minded Mika is also fantastic, she offers hope for a future generation to still have potential to be good people even under this adversity, which makes this episode all the more powerful. When Carol is forced to kill a walker that Lizzie calls “her friend” it’s the last straw for Lizzie and her mind again subtly snaps. Later in an argument with Mika Lizzie tries to convince her that the walkers are still people, that they just need help. She goes so far as to put her hand in front of the walker threatening to let it bite her so she can prove that the person that once was is still inside the walking dead. Soon a montage of walker killing begins and Lizzie pronounces that she knows now what she must do. This misdirect began the final act of the episode and led to some of the most challenging television viewing of the last decade. Lizzie didn’t let the walker bite her; she instead killed her sister pronouncing that Mika would come back fine because her brain wasn’t damaged in the murder. Lizzie apparently clearly understood that if anyone dies they will indeed come back as a walker. She pointed her gun at Tyreese and Carol trying to force them to wait for Mika to come back so they would see that Mika is still in the body that awakens. Did Lizzie believe that these people’s souls still exist within the sludge that the walkers become? You might believe that this sort of thinking is too deep for this little girl but it’s precisely these sorts of questions that her broken mind has been trying to process. The two girls were caring for the baby when Lizzie killed Mika and almost off handedly we learn that Carol and Tyreese just happened to walk up on them before Lizzie had a chance to kill the baby so it would come back and further prove that these walkers were still humans. That revelation was so off the cuff from Lizzie as she stood there covered in her sister’s blood that it literally pulled the breath right out of me. Carol had to convince her that it wouldn’t be right to do that to baby Judith because she can’t even walk yet. Lizzie simply agrees almost relieved that Carol and Tyreese were starting to see things her way. This scene is one of two that is painfully beautiful in its execution. This character moment between Carol and Lizzie is both real and unreal, its drama not melodrama, and it’s tragic. It’s not just good television is great television and it’s awe inspiring and tear inducing, difficult to watch and impossible to look away from.
Tyreese is badly wounded from the end battle of last season so much of the dirty work falls on Carol’s shoulders. Carol was an abused wife in the days before the walkers, she lost her daughter to the walkers in season one, and she’s been at the forefront of some of the toughest decision making of the series. At one point in the last season and the beginning of this one I was starting to dislike Carol. She had just become too hardened and I believed her mind had also snapped. She was training children to kill without remorse, to do so with no moral compass whatsoever, including killing walkers and the living. When the sickness broke out she made the decision on her own to kill Karen in an attempt to stop the outbreak I believed Rick was right to send Carol away from the prison. A form of government had been established and there was an agreed upon process to handling the situation. Was Carol right? Yes but a vigilante willing to not work within the civilization of the group was dangerous to everyone. By sending her away Rick also saved her life because he knew Tyreese would eventually find out Carol killed Karen and Tyreese would most definitely pay Carol back by killing her.
So you have to take a minute to consider everything that Carol has been through. As much as she was willing to do the dirty work she never actually did it without remorse the way she tried to teach the kids. Every time we actually saw Carol do something horrible for the greater good you could see it crush her spirit. Now as she convinced Lizzie that they were going to wait for Mika to come back we know that this means Carol will now be forced to put a blade into the little girls head once Lizzie is out of site. Both of these little girls had taken Carol as an adoptive mother and she had in turn taken them as daughters and now she would have to do the unthinkable to make sure that Mika didn’t come back as a walker. It only gets worse. The scene that follows with Carol and Tyreese discussing what to do with Lizzie is simply a build up to the inevitable. The two of them consider splitting up with Carol taking Lizzie away because this little girl can’t be around people. Lizzie would probably try this stunt again, because her mind is gone. Tyreese wouldn’t survive alone being wounded and caring for a baby and the fact is Carol and Lizzie probably wouldn’t survive alone either. When Carol takes Lizzie outside for a talk Lizzie begins to cry, not because she knows what is about to happen and not because she suddenly understands that what she did was wrong, but because she is painfully sad that Carol might be mad at her because she had pointed her gun and Carol and Tyreese. Then Carol raises her gun and puts a bullet in the back of Lizzie’s head with so much pain and exhaustion on her face and in her body language that it’s palpable through the TV screen. Carol is finally done, she has finally had to commit too many terrible acts and she herself is ready to be done. That final scene where she slides the gun in front of Tyreese and admits to him that she killed Karen she is ready for Tyreese to “do what he has to do”. Carol is ready to die, and how could you blame her at this point? Carol’s plan to die fails though because Tyreese has witnessed what Carol has had to do to survive and for the betterment of others. She did what he couldn’t physically and possibly emotionally. So as much as the loss of his love hurt him he now knows it was the right thing to do. In a sense he punishes Carol by not killing her, by forgiving but not forgetting, and by forcing her to live with what she has done.
I was truly emotionally blindsided by what I thought was going to be a filler episode. This episode is a conversation piece as it asks many questions about what is moral and what code should people live by in this new world and it asks us to stop and remember that these killings are necessary and they mean something even if these walkers seem to be simple cannon fodder so often on the show. Pointing a gun at a child is still a pretty taboo thing on television let alone murdering one, and in this case two but it’s not done lightly and for simple shock factor here. The deaths of Mika and Lizzie not only ended a long running story arc they also set a new tone and meaning for the series and I hope the series can rise above the high bar set by this episode. By the episode’s end I was breathless, exhausted, wounded, and in a way exhilarated. I was exhilarated because I didn’t believe that current night time TV had this much power to move in this strong a fashion. Even though this wasn’t a typical review I will score the episode because it deserves a numerical rating for those that don’t read the article and skip to the score: