Season four of The Walking Dead, AMC’s television adaptation of the Eisner Award-winning Image Comics series launched by Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore and now drawn by Charlie Adlard, is well into its second half, and the despair has been turned up to eleven. ComicsAlliance’s John Parker is back again to see who lives, who dies, and oh my god the horror.

This week on The Walking Dead: nothing. Nothing happens. Carol and Tyreese and all three kids just have a nice, chilled-out episode where they point out shapes in the clouds and stuff. Literally nothing at all happens, so we can talk about something else now. Something pleasant and uplifting, like Darfur, or terminal cancer.

First of all, if there’s a better name for this episode than “The Grove,” I’d be interested to hear it. It’s one of those pleasant words that sounds funeral, that connotes a nice relaxing day in the sun and the inevitability of death all at once. You had to have had a bad feeling about this one as soon as you heard what the title was – an ambiguous term that implies calmness and serenity and flat-out horror at the same time.

The cold opening continues the ambiguous theme, pulling plays right out of coach Gilligan’s Breaking Bad playbook. While what look like two girls play outside the windows of a pre-war Southern home, warped old-timey music about loss plays from somewhere inside. As things slow down very slightly, the teakettle on the stove whistles, sending all the hairs on the back of your head up like antennae. It’s clearly a flash-forward, and one that takes the serene and quickly turns it morbid, laying sepia-toned layers on our expectations of what will really be happening whenever that scene rolls around. It’s a nice opening, but not quite as clever as the type of thing Vince Gilligan and co. pulled off on a weekly basis. We know the characters involved in the episode, and we know what slowed-down old-timey music plus steaming teapot and creepy drone means: one of those kids running around outside is a walker.

While Carol and Lizzie take night-watch over Tyreese, Mika and Judith, they quickly delve into Lizzie’s strange condition and Carol’s attempts to correct it. For those behind, for some reason Lizzie thinks walkers are normal people, just a little different – she doesn’t see the difference between an animated corpse with sloughed-off skin and a healthy, rosy-cheeked human being. Is that somewhere on the spectrum? If you have Asperger’s and can’t comprehend emotions, are you therefore also unable to discern between the living and the dead? I am so ******.


Though Lizzie has this strange problem, she’s actually a tough kid. She’s already killed a few walkers – she just thought they were normal people, which is even more impressive/horrifying – and Carol sees strength in Lizzie that was never there in Sophie. But her admission that Sophie was unable to take care of herself isn’t a diss on her undead daughter, it’s an admission of her own weakness. Sophie wasn’t able to survive on her own because Carol couldn’t teach her anything; Carol was a frail thing who couldn’t survive on her own. Carol sees a toughness in Lizzie that she likes, a meanness in her that will keep her alive, and hopefully save Carol the experience of burying another daughter. But Mika, Lizzie’s younger sister, is just like Sophie: a smart girl who knows the difference between living flesh and rotting meat, but just doesn’t have the stones to survive.

She tries to impress upon Tyreese just how each girl needs to be handled. Throughout the episode, Tyreese is dealing with an infection, and weakly depending upon Carol, but you get the sense that Carol is tougher than Tyreese anyway. She’d have to be, if she’s the type of person to kill and murder two victims of the swine flu, one of whom was Karen, the love of Tyreese’s life. Once the battered woman who couldn’t even keep herself alive, Carol is a fount of resolve, and even after being cast out by Rick, she’s still a leader, taking control of her screwed-up nuclear family and guiding them towards Terminus. But she has a lot to deal with, and juggles three complicated relationships: keeping Tyreese alive while struggling with the reality of what she did, trying to toughen up Mika, and wondering what the hell you can do with a problem like Lizzie. Who, by the way, gets creepier and creepier.

Brighton Sharbino, the young actress who plays Lizzie, and whose parents are obviously upper-class white people who think they’re reeeaaalllly cool to name their kid Brighton, exudes a weird energy that’s a mix of intense mental distress and total innocence at the same time. Sure, she skins rabbits for no good reason, and murders rats for art projects and stuff, but when it comes to walkers, she’s actually trying to convince others that there’s no reason to get so violent. When a walker gets caught on the railroad tracks, she stops Tyreese from killing it, even though Tyreese is the adult with the hammer.

While Carol and Mika going scouting for food, Carol tries to convince Mika that as much as she needs to be able to kill walkers, Mika needs to be ready to kill people just as easily. Real people, which Mika understands as a concept. It’s almost like Carol is King Lear, trying to deal with three daughters, who have some of the abilities needed to survive in the world, but not all. (Judith’s conundrum is that she’s a baby, but she uses her cuteness and her ability to stay quiet to her advantage.) She even has a kingdom now.

On the way to Terminus, they come across an idyllic little grove just off the tracks. A prewar house nestled in a bucolic grove, this place could represent a new beginning for the impromptu family. But the graves in the grove aren’t a good sign. And the Cherokee Roses blooming here and there indicate that this will be another landmark in Carol’s history of loss. Plus that giant pillar of smoke a ways off couldn’t possibly be a good sign.

Lizzie freaks out after Mika shows some of the toughness that Carol was hoping for and shoots a walker in the head. (And again, I can suspend my disbelief for reasonable things like zombies, but I have a hard time with a girl Mika’s size being an awesome shot. Is that sexist of me? Probably.) That night, though, it seems like everybody is willing to call this Terminus thing a day, and stay in the quaint little house on the precipice of doom. The next day, though Lizzie freaks out even more, when the flash-forward we were shown at the beginning comes to pass.

It turns out that dumb**** Lizzie is playing with a loose zombie like it’s a puppy she just found. When Carol realizes what she’s looking at, she bolts outside and slams a knife into the walker’s head, and the limits of Lizzie’s insanity become fully clear. As she breaks down at Carol for not understanding that the zombie was her friend, she screams “What if I killed you!?” And it’s actually pretty damn bone-chilling. In that moment, we know that Lizzie is capable of killing a living person just to make a point, and we know Carol is going to have to seriously consider doing something drastic about it.


It gets even worse when Mika finds Lizzie feeding rats to the walker stuck in the train tracks. Seriously, what is up with this kid? This seems like a really specific mental affliction to have in a post-apocalyptic world. Is she the only child in the world like this, or is it one in every 150 or something? Lizzie tries to explain to Mika that even though they’re dead, they’re still people, and she can understand them. (What if she’s right? What if she just has to feed them, and she can train them to do their bidding, like Willard?) She feels a kinship with them, and wonders what it would be like to be one of them is seems totally unafraid of them. Until an army of charred, smoking walkers from the giant fire show up. Then she runs like a bitch.

For a moment there, they’re one big, happy family. They stand side-by-side and pick off the crispy critters, each of them pitching in – even each of the girls take down a few zombies, something Carol wondered if they were really capable of doing. But it’s too frightening to be triumphant. And Lizzie makes it worse by being even weirder that night. When Lizzie says “I know. I know what I have to do now,” Carol thinks she’s learned her lesson, but she fails to notice just how much Lizzie dials up the eerie in the mix.

If Frick and Frack weren’t enough – and oh yeah, the baby – Carol finds it harder to keep the truth from Tyreese. Tyreese has approached normal, jovial Tyreese-ness for the first time since Karen was set ablaze. He’s looking forward to a new life in the obviously-doomed little palace. He trusts Carol. He shares his pain with her, and it almost breaks her down to the point where she admits what she’s done. Instead, she tells him that in this world, everyone is going to go nuts here and there, and everybody is capable of change.

And then Lizzie kills Mika. Remember? Or did you block it out? Returning from their talk, and just after an awesome joke, Carol and Tyreese come back to the grove to find Lizzie standing over a dead Mika, with blood on her hands and a smile on her face. She wanted to prove that walkers are still just people, and the best way to do that would be to kill her little sister. And she was just about to kill Judith. Carol has to bury another daughter, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that by the time the episode ends, she’s going to have to bury another.

With Lizzie locked up in her room, Tyreese and Carol discuss their options, but it seems inevitable. We’ve seen that look on Carol’s face. We’ve seen the Cherokee Roses, and the pillar of ruin looming over us the whole episode. As Tyreese watches through the window – an echo of the flash-forward – Carol leads Lizzie to the grove, calling up shades of Miller’s Crossing and Of Mice and Men in a heart-punching climax.

There will be debates about whether Carol – and by association, the creative staff of the show – was right or wrong. Personally, I couldn’t care less. What matters is that it was artfully done; it made sense. It was genuinely emotionally jarring, and it managed to do so without being over-the-top. It wasn’t sensational, and it arrived at conclusions that were ultimately inevitable in surprising ways. And in what may actually be the darkest episode of the entire series, the crew really nailed the perfect mix of shocking sadness with a gentler hand than ever before, with an understated performance by Melissa McBride. Though The Walking Dead is notoriously lingering and maudlin, “The Grove” avoided all the typical traps and delivered easily the best episode of the second half of the season.

After burying Lizzie and Mika, Carol confesses what she’s done to Tyreese. Tyreese seems ready to kill Carol, even though they’re not even done with that puzzle. But since Tyreese just let Carol kill a little girl, he understands what it means to make difficult choices. Finding the strength within himself to contain his rage, he forgives her, but can never forget. Ignoring the walker on the tracks, they get back on the tracks to Terminus, Tyreese, Carol, and Judith, Carol's last chance to get it right.

Great job, TWD. If you have to be somber and soul-wrenching, more like this, please.