I’ve long been one of those Walking Dead fans who thinks the show is at its best when it’s just pushing the envelope on how many ways they can find to blow off the heads of zombies. There are some very good actors on the show, but there are also actors who aren’t as good, and the latter seem to be featured about as often as the former. This leads to a problem whenever they stop to take a breather and address personal conflicts and the philosophical issues that arise in a post-apocalyptic world. The Walking Dead is great television when it does that material justice; Season Two, on the other hand, came to a stop from which I, at least, almost didn’t return.
But last weekend’s episode, “The Grove”, was arguably the best in the show’s four seasons. (I say “arguably” because at least one person disagrees.) The most obvious way The Walking Dead gets away with so much violence is that the victims are usually not people … zombies are dead. When a still-living human dies on the show, the emotional impact is greater, or should be. The show (I refer to “the show” rather than singling out particular creators because The Walking Dead has already been through several show runners) goes so far over the top with zombie killings that it turns scenes of massive destruction of zombies into something of a running joke. Zombie-on-human killing is different, especially when the victim is a character we’ve come to know. (Again, it helps when it’s a character we are interested in … the characterizations are erratic enough that I find myself wishing at times for this or that character to get eaten.) When humans kill humans, it is usually due to power struggles between nominal good guys and bad guys, and that’s the kind of killing we’re used to from other shows and books and movies. There have been a few instances where humans killing humans fall outside of that scenario, though, and those scenes are wrenching. Perhaps the worst of these came when Lori died giving birth, after which her son Carl shot her to ensure she didn’t come back as a zombie.
But “The Grove” went beyond all of this, crossing taboos, presenting us with the unthinkable, yet also letting us see why it had to happen. And part of why the episode carried such a jolt is that The Walking Dead has spent four seasons laying the foundation for what happened there. The good scenes and the bad ones, the boring philosophical discussions and the more interesting conundrums that emerged gradually, all of it came together, and for the first time, I felt like I was watching a great show.
It helped that the episode featured Melissa McBride and Chad L. Coleman, two of the most reliable actors on the show. McBride’s Carol had long been one of the characters that irritated me, but Carol is an example of a character that has been allowed to change over time. Not always in good ways … Carol is not the most likable character on the show … but McBride does well to get us inside the character. Coleman’s Tyreese seemed like a token black character when he first appeared, but he wasn’t killed off after a handful of episodes, and his story is the equal of the others. The performances of the young actresses playing the two sisters, Lizzie and Mika, were variable but largely good enough.
The evolution of the children in the series is important. Most of the show delves into the way the living adults, spending all of their waking hours trying to survive, are as much “walking dead” as the zombies. In the children lies what little hope The Walking Dead offers (and it’s precious little, indeed). The growth in Carl is the most obvious example, although I’m not fond of the character. But Carl is learning how to be a grown up. Lizzie and Mika, secondary characters for the most part, have been tutored by Carol to adapt to the new world, but Carol’s teachings aren’t having the desired effect. Lizzie, in particular, doesn’t understand that the zombies are dead … she thinks they’re just “different” humans, and it’s a scene both lovely and horrifying when Lizzie is found playing with a zombie as if they were friends. In “The Grove”, Lizzie goes over the edge, or rather, we see that she’s been over the edge for a long time. She kills her sister, without hurting her brain so Mika can “come back”. Even in the context of a post-apocalyptic world, the act is shocking, and shows that the people behind The Walking Dead have been serious all along.
It doesn’t end there. Carol and Tyreese realize that Lizzie can no longer be around other people, and there is only one way to prevent that from happening. And so Carol takes Lizzie for a walk, and shoots her in the head.
Paul Vigna wrote, “[T]his was one of the sickest episodes of ‘The Walking Dead’ in its entire run. All the darkest crevices of the human psyche come out … and while it’s one thing when you see a character like the Governor do shocking, demented things, it’s far more upsetting and uncomfortable to see a child, a little girl, doing them. But that’s where this show went tonight. It’s hard to imagine any other show on television would go that dark. You really have a build an audience up for it, because it’s not an easy thing to swallow at all.” It was indeed “sick”. But I didn’t decide it was great because it was sick, not exactly. It’s that in “going that dark”, The Walking Dead plowed past the gleeful destruction of thousands of zombies. It made death matter, and it held hope and its possibilities to the fire. I’d given up on ever saying this, but “The Grove” was an A.