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The Walking Dead: "The Grove"

Illustration for article titled The Walking Dead: "The Grove"
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There are good elements here. The show looks gorgeous; there are some strikingly lovely shots throughout tonight’s episode (like the cold open, effectively unsettling without any clear meaning; or the far away view of Carol and Tyreese embracing, with all that means), and sick as I am of the forest, the contrast between the green of the leaves and the grey-black-red of the walkers is quite striking. The actors, at least the adults, are all on their game. It’s great to have Melissa McBride back, and she makes the most of a sort of impossible storyline. The final big scene between Carol and Tyreese gets fine work out of both performers, and Chad Coleman manages to make his character’s decision to forgive Carol for murdering the woman he loved (or was sort of dating, whatever) pretty much work. There was potential for subtext in “The Grove,” people with secrets and different motivations trying to come to terms with one another, and in a purely theoretical sense, the idea of a child essentially driven mad by the harshness and impossibility of a world full of walking corpses isn’t inherently bad. There’s maybe a universe where all of this worked.

But God help me, when Carol and Tyreese came back to the house to find Lizzie, hands covered in blood, standing over the body of her murdered sister, I laughed.

I laughed again when Carol told Lizzie to the “look at the flowers” before shooting her in the head. Not because these scenes were funny; they weren’t played for any humor whatsover, not even of the blackly comic variety, and the performances committed and (Lizzie aside) far from histrionic. I laughed because it was just too much. The writers took a risk, and threw out another shock to catch us off guard: this time, it was a little girl so convinced that the zombies were her best friends that she murdered her sister. It should be horrifying, and if the episode worked for you, I’m sure it was. It didn’t work for me, though, and the sight of Lizzie standing over that corpse made for a clean break in my mind. The whole situation became too ludicrously morbid, too absurdly grim to take seriously.

This episode was designed to make that twist possible, and before Lizzie decided to get pro-active with her zombie agenda, it was mostly just boring. The main problem were the kids: the hour lives and dies on our investment in them, our need to know if they can survive, and if you don’t care—or if you’re actively rooting for them to expire—the repetitive, reductive characterizations weren’t going to make for gripping cinema. Time and again, this show has approached character work on an episode-by-episode basis. This week, Rick is going to be obsessed with farming. This week, Dale (remember Dale?) is going to be a jackass. This week, Lori is going to be Lady MacBeth for some reason. For so long, there was no real consistency to anything. Character arcs were non-existent; it was more like a series of dots spattered over a graph, the random groups briefly coalescing into shapes before falling apart into emptiness.

This has improved over the course of the past season, and in “The Grove’s” defence, Lizzie’s craziness has come up before. She had a bad habit of trying to get friendly with the zombies back at the prison, and her increasingly deranged attempts this week to show Carol and Tyreese that the walkers really don’t mean them any harm is arguably just an escalation of the original problem. But it still seems weirdly arbitrary, because all of a sudden, she isn’t just reluctant to kill the undead; she’s actively objecting to it, screaming at Carol when Carol kills a walker outside of the house like Carol just committed actual murder. The progression doesn’t play as organic, and the episode’s biggest flaw, the one that makes what should be a pair of devastating reveals into bad comedy, is that Lizzie and Mika are so obviously designed for tragedy. Lizzie’s madness is literally the worst frame of mind for anyone to have in her current situation, and it’s so dangerous that it’s hard to take seriously as a psychological condition. And Mika’s sweetness puts a target on her chest so clearly it’s a wonder she doesn’t walk around carrying a cross.

Still: the dilemma itself has some power to it, and maybe the contrived nature of that dilemma is beside the point. Great drama comes from putting characters in impossible situations and forcing them to choice between two irreconcilable positions, and that’s certainly what happens to poor Carol and Tyreese here. (Although really, this is Carol’s episode, as her investment in the girls, as well as her decision to tell Tyreese the truth, are the emotional fulcrums of the hour. And McBride really does make the most of it.) There are seeds of powerful truths buried in all of this: the fact that sometimes, there are people who just can’t survive in this kind of world, and an acknowledgement of the constant psychological pressure this sort of existence would have on someone, especially a young someone—the way that pressure could warp optimism and warmth and empathy beyond all sane recognition.


But it just doesn’t work. Everything’s too underlined, too absurdly stressed. Not only are we told again and again that Mika is too “nice,” we get to see her refusing to shoot a deer. Not only does Lizzie kill her sister, we get Tyreese explaining how Lizzie was the one at the prison feeding rats to zombies and experimenting on rats in the basement, as if this was some great mystery we couldn’t have pieced together on our own. In case any of this missed us, we even get some voiceover of earlier lines at the end, playing as Tyreese and Carol get back on the tracks to Sanctuary. Everything’s force fed and highlighted, and it’s not like any of this was subtle.

And to what end, really? We’ve had dead kids before. Now we have kids killing kids, and yes, that was a new taboo I did not expect the show to break, so bravo everyone, good job for catching me off guard. But while the script tries to position Carol’s confession as a sort of catharsis for both her and Tyreese, and while their scene plays just fine on its own, it doesn’t really allow us any relief. Once again, we are forced to reckon with the main card The Walking Dead knows how to play, the one it will keep returning to again and again until people stop watching. Here are the new horrors we have to show you. Not because they’re scary or thrilling or even that powerful, but because it will hold your attention until the next big kill. I have no objection to misery and ugliness and violence in art, and I do think the show has been doing a better job of balancing the suffering against hope. But tonight’s episode was just a pair of dolls who got torn up, and we’re supposed to cry over it. No thanks.


Stray observations:

  • You have two kids and a baby, and two adults. Is there any possible reason for the two kids and the baby to ever be left unsupervised that doesn’t begin with “Well, we need to leave Lizzie and Mika alone so Lizzie can-”?
  • Speaking of, I wonder what the hell Lizzie told Mika to get her to hold still long enough to be murdered. Mika was “nice,” but she didn’t seem suicidal.
  • I don’t think I’m ever going to get comfortable with shots little kids firing handguns.
  • Of Mice And Men much?
  • I do like the clever ways the various characters’ stories keep intersecting. Pretty sure the smoke we see here (and the fire that results in a lot of burned zombies) is from the house fire Daryl and Beth started.
  • On the plus side, at least we don’t have to deal with those kids again.