I can think of few grimmer opening shots than one of a group of friends, drenched in the sweat of heat and exhaustion, digging graves for the ones they’ve lost. It was an opening that did a marvelous job of setting the tone for the relentlessly dreary third episode of this fourth season of The Walking Dead. Ever since the first hint of a cough, the mood and atmosphere of the show has taken a steep decline, and ‘Isolation’ continues that devastatingly maudlin trend. This week’s outing also continues the (albeit short) streak of very good episodes, although I would posit that this week’s has been the weakest so far. That’s still faint criticism, considering how great the first two were.
After the gravedigging, we’re brought to the scene of last week’s crime, as Rick, Daryl, Carol and Tyrese face the smoking corpses of their friends. Rick’s development has been steady and well-rendered these past few weeks, and while the turn that he took here as sharp, snapping in rage after Tyrese’s grief overtook him, it was done with a certain sense of inevitability. Rick as the gentle soul, content to cultivate plants and raise pigs, has never been a sustainable option and while he’s never been a psychotic, his capacity for violence has always been a part of him. There was a sense of release, of catharsis, that came with that outburst, and despite its brutality, it felt right.
Tyrese, on the other hand, was a character arc that didn’t play out quite as well. Chad Coleman has been given an odd part to pay — in Season Three, his character was shy and accommodating, almost to the point of obsequious. Season Four, with a group of writers determined to right some past wrongs, has brought him into the forefront of the group, but there are some growing pains. This week, Tyrese was a ball of uncontrolled fury, and when it worked, it felt legitimate. He’s a man who is having everything stripped from him by invisible forces, and he is breaking under the strain of the weight born by those losses. Yet it also felt forced at times, as if his anger was almost overwrought and veering into melodrama. His second confrontation with Rick, his obstinate barking at Carol, all felt a bit too deliberate, as if you could feel the scene being directed, instead of it seeming natural and organic.
‘Isolation’ was an episode where little actually happened. Instead, it was more a chance to see how the stress and strain of the outbreak is affecting each of the major players, and in that sense it was an interesting, if not necessarily always engaging episode. The scenes with Beth and Maggie were quite good, and actually something that there should probably be more of — it feels like it’s been so long that they’ve been on screen together that I’d forgotten that they’re actually siblings. Similarly, Hershel was very good here, even though his stubbornness was a little frustrating at times. I particularly enjoyed his outing with Carl, mostly for the unexpectedly levelheaded and firm grasp on the situation that Carl displayed. Carl 2.0 has been a revelation, and it’s refreshing to no longer have to roll one’s eyes whenever he steps into view.
The highlight — action-wise — is the quest for medicine, as Daryl, Michonne, Tyrese and Stookie (for some reason, I feel strange just calling him Bob) depart to the veterinary hospital. It’s interesting for a few reasons — the increased interaction between Daryl and Michonne has been welcome, for one. They’re easily two of strongest characters on the show (this season, at least), and there’s a certain commonality there that makes for a pair of unique perspectives. It’s also interesting how they keep discussing the Governor, without ever directly actually saying it. He’s become almost mythic to them, a bogeyman to be either feared or hunted.
Of course, chaos erupts quickly, as they find themselves in the midst of an absolute horde of walkers. And watching Michonne and Daryl work their way through with vicious efficiency was a breathtaking, stunning exercise. There’s a certain grace and economy of movement that both Reedus and Gurira seem to have, and it makes their characters appear much more lethal, and when set loose on a crowd, they fall somewhere between ballet and buzzsaw. Yet the depiction of Tyrese never quite resonated with me — first he inexplicably freezes up in the car, and then he charges like a raging, wounded bear into the thick of it. Surrounded by walkers on all sides, there’s a suicidal fury to his actions that almost worked, yet ultimately collapsed under the weight of its excess. And that final shot of him bursting through the woods was the final straw. It’s one thing to believe that two skilled soldiers can move with quickness and dispatch the walkers with a harried-yet-skilled sense of ease. It’s another to believe that a man can be buried beneath a mob of walkers and escape unharmed, thanks only to a knife and his own rage.
But really, it’s Carol that we should be talking about the most, because Melissa McBride is skyrocketing to the top of my list of favorite performers on the show. There’s a glint of reluctant steel in every look of hers now, and while it’s still tempered by the sense of kindness that pervades her actions, Carol has becomes something else entirely. Whoever she’s dealing with — Tyrese, the young girl who catches the sickness — there’s a kind of softness that feels like it’s wrapped around a core of stone. There was something chilling about her plaintive “yes” as she answered Rick’s question, as if she has resigned herself to becoming something harsh and unyielding out of necessity.
‘Isolation’ worked in fits and starts, but it felt like part of what held it back was just that — there were so many shifts and each vignette was so brief that at times it felt like no single scene was around long enough to find its footing. When you consider the almost languid pace of the episode — up until the end, it was simply a long series of scenes of tragedy — that kind of rapid fire scene-cutting ultimately didn’t work in its favor. That said, The Walking Dead is also being held to a higher standard now — this was still a solid episode, it just paled in comparison to the first two. For the first time in a long time, I feel like I can have a bit of faith. The wheels are turning and trouble has gone past brewing — it’s now boiling over and threatening to burn everything that they’ve fought so hard for. Now, each day brings more death and horror, and the future is perhaps darker than ever. Just when they think they’ve found their place in the order of things, a new, silent terror finds them, proving that once again, there is no safety, no sanctuary, no matter how strong your walls are.