Note: This review will contain a spoiler for the comic book version of The Walking Dead. Just skip the first paragraph if you want to avoid it.
This is not an episode that one enjoys, but rather one that you endure. It was — quite unexpectedly — one of the most heartbreaking and disturbing episodes to date, and the fact that we were so unprepared for it made it all the worse. Because here’s the thing: in the comic book, Judith died when the governor stormed the prison. It was brutal and shocking and I thought it would be the hardest thing we’d ever see when it comes to The Walking Dead. When the television show’s writers decided to spare her life, I thought that they were pulling their punches, softening the story for TV audiences.
I was wrong. The horrible truth is that they were saving her life so that they could show us a path that was much, much worse. Much like each of the preceding episodes, this was one about contrasts, about darkness and light, hope and despair. And this time, it was heavy on the despair end of the spectrum.
Of all the smaller groups that we’ve been watching, this one has been the most unsteady, the most disconcerting. There’s Lizzie, who seems like an evolving psychopath. Her disregard for human life, her fascination with the walkers, coupled with an eagerness to please makes for a combination that’s downright unsettling. Yet despite all of her strange quirks, Carol doesn’t is still ultimately blind to the damage she’s doing in her quest for a surrogate daughter. Of course, the other side of the coin is the sweet, innocent Mika, the yin to Lizzie’s yang in every way. She knows what the walkers are, and is willing to do what needs to be done, but when it comes to the living, she lacks the fortitude to make the hard choices. And throughout it all, I kept saying to myself that these are children, and they shouldn’t have to make those choices. That Carol is too hard, too cold, too unyielding in her efforts to teach them to be survivors.
But now? Now, I’m not so sure. In a world full of zombies and dangerous humans, having two girls who empathize with each is troublesome. When Carol kills Lizzie’s “friend,” it led to one of the most disturbing and tragic scenes, and my respect for actress Brighton Sharbino skyrocketed. Throughout this episode, she shone, demonstrating a depth that had largely been absent prior to this. But here she was, damaged and crazy and sweet and eager and just so, so wrong in every way. And even when she finally shows her willingness to shoot, she still doesn’t feel right, and her declaration that she knows what she has to do was more chilling than reassuring.
Yet despite all of this, there’s hope to be found. Mika wants to show Carol — and everyone, really — that there’s cause to believe, that life is worth living and cherishing. Tyreese can’t help but be tempted by this makeshift family unit, wanting to stay at the house instead of heading to Terminus. Even Carol, despite being wracked with guilt about Karen, and torn by anxiety about the girls, even she feels like maybe there’s hope to be found in that grove, that life can be rediscovered in that house. And when Tyreese says that “the people who are living are haunted by the dead,” Carol feels it more than anyone, and prays that maybe by bringing them together, by staying and growing and living, she can put that demon to rest.
And then everything comes apart, and we finally see the truth about Lizzie. It’s so much worse than we’d imagined — in a million years, I never would have seen it coming. It’s not that they can’t trust Lizzie. It’s that there is madness bubbling behind those blue eyes, and finally it breaks free, takes over, and she does the unthinkable, something that stunned me perhaps more than anything in this show’s bloody, terrifying history. There hasn’t been anything quite like that horrific scene, Lizzie with hands stained red, Mika with face dead and white, Carol and Tyreese devastated by finding the depths of human darkness in the face of a child. Afterwards, everything is brought to light — now we know who was responsible for feeding the walkers, for dissecting the rabbit. Carol’s guilt sinks to new depths, and there’s only one thing to be done. Lizzie may be sorry for pointing the gun at Carol, but not for killing her sister, and that’s when we know that she can’t come back. So Carol is forced to do something so awful, so heartbreaking that it defies all human instinct. The mother of a dead child must kill another child, the one she thought could fill the hole in her heart.
Carol’s Of Mice And Men moment was one that will always be remembered, and reminded us why Melissa McBride has become so invaluable a performer on this show. It’s no surprise that, in a desperate attempt to numb the pain, she finally admits the truth to Tyreese, hoping that he’ll end her misery and assuage her guilt. With a gun on the table, she finally admits to her sins, practically begging for absolution in the form of a bullet. Yet Tyreese might be the most human of them all, and his forgiveness is unthinkable, yet also perfectly understandable after all they’ve seen and done.
I’ve been saying that these little vignettes, these episodes focusing on smaller groups have been some of the show’s strongest, and it is no more apparent than in “The Grove.” It was the strongest of them all so far, partially because there wasn’t a silly, logic-defying sequence needed to get them where they needed to be. This was a vicious gutpunch of an episode, built up beautifully, giving a sense of hope and change that felt like the beginning of something new and wonderful. But at the end, two children are dead, and souls are laid bare, and everything is worse than ever before. It was a powerful, strangely satisfying episode that ended miserably and brilliantly. Finally, in the end they know they must move on, because all that remains in that house is are reminders of their own tragedies and mistakes.