The Walking Dead: Season 4, Episode 14–The Grove

“Sometimes we have to kill them. I know that. But sometimes we don’t.”

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(SPOILER WARNING!)

Has The Walking Dead gone too far? It’s always been a show that’s gone to some very dark places, but last night’s ep was probably the darkest of all; so unremittingly grim and bleak in its worldview, and showing us possibly the nastiest conceivable consequences of the post-apocalypse world. It was not easy viewing.

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Gut-wrenching though it was, I had to admire the conviction of a TV show prepared to show such unflinching detail of such an upsetting scenario (though even here, director Michael E. Satrazemis obviously considered some of the specifics too horrible to show). Given the way the show had been building her character up since the beginning of this season, it perhaps wasn’t too much of a surprise the way little Lizzie turned out. But there was no backpedalling on the issue.

Readers of the comic will probably remember the basis for the plotline (which originally involved two little boys rather than two little girls), though the conclusion there was, if anything, even more upsetting. I won’t spoil it for you if you haven’t read it, but then, that’s a niche horror comic, and this is a mainstream TV show. And mainstream TV, however edgy it may get, usually shies away from having children brutally killed – by other children.

The ep set the stall out from the outset, with a truly unnerving cold open – the camera focused through a window, nostalgic music in the background, on a laughing little girl playing in the garden. It looked positively idyllic – until it became clear, as the shriek of the boiling kettle’s whistle steadily rose, that her playmate was actually a shambling Walker.

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Generally, I don’t like the tactic of opening teasers that grab an exciting moment from in the middle of the story, only to open after the credits with “6 hours previously” or some such. This time, though, it worked, giving us clear hints of what we were about to see, and setting a deeply disturbing mood right from the start.

It was no real surprise that Lizzie’s character was heading here, after her previous treatment of the Walkers as ‘pets’ and the implication (here made explicit) that she’d been feeding them dead rats outside the prison wire. The moment a few weeks ago where she was clearly about to suffocate baby Judith was pretty upsetting; this week, Carol’s all-too-accurate assessment summed her up – she couldn’t get her head around the fact that Walkers weren’t “people, just different”. Given that, it’s perhaps a little surprising that the ultra-pragmatic Carol couldn’t see the ultimate logical result of that mindset. But then, when it comes to little girls, perhaps Carol was being wilfully blind after the loss of Sophia, here compared to Myka with the same phrase: “not a bad bone in her body”.

Actually, Carol’s assessment of both little girls was pretty spot on, as she also identified Myka as not having the ruthlessness needed to survive in the new world. That point was seemingly contradicted when she proved perfectly capable of shooting down a Walker that unexpectedly lurched out of the farmhouse the gang were investigating. But still, shooting the living? That Myka couldn’t do, in a firm speech that sounded almost like a conscientious objector to war, and more than a little like the viewpoints of the lamented Dale. Kudos to Kyla Kenedy for holding her own in an ep full of strong performances.

Lizzie, meanwhile, was carrying on her penchant for trying to ‘domesticate’ the living dead, as we saw when she started feeding mice to the one who had collapsed, unable to walk, on the tracks. Given her twisted logic, it was no surprise that she seemed to be mulling over just letting it bite her so she could turn herself; though the arrival of a mini-herd of charred Walkers put an end to that train of thought.

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As Lizzie joined the others in gunning them down, there was a glimmer of hope that she might wake up to the reality of the situation they were in. But when she simply stated, “I know what I have to do now”, it was clear that the script had sealed her fate. And not just hers, but Myka’s too. Nonetheless, the almost casual way the script had Tyreese and Carol (and us) stumble over the post-murder scene still felt like a shock.

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To a child, I suppose it could seem like a logical conclusion – why worry about murder, when the dead just come back? Lizzie was unrepentant, and the script gave her the same chilling line as the equivalent moment in the comic – “Don’t worry. She’ll come back. I didn’t hurt her brain.”

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No matter how much you were expecting it, it was a genuinely shocking moment; Lizzie calmly standing in front of her sister’s corpse, bloodied knife in hand, with the very obvious threat to baby Judith just behind her. The camera direction did steer clear of showing too much detail on Myka’s body (we didn’t see the wounds), which hadn’t been a problem with Sophia back in season 2. But then, Sophia’s death as a risen corpse clearly belonged in the realm of fantasy. This was all too real.

As was what followed. In a discussion reminiscent of the ethical wrangling over execution back in season 2, Tyreese tried desperately to come up with some solution to the situation, while Carol’s thoughts kept circling back to one phrase – “she can’t be around other people”. So it was obvious what was going to happen when Carol led her out into the peaceful garden; perhaps even to Lizzie, who started to wretchedly weep, but still without comprehension of what she’d done wrong. The camera stayed discreetly focused on Carol’s tear-stained face as she cocked her gun and pulled the trigger. Once again, this was a bit too real to show in detail; besides, the look on Melissa McBride’s face spoke volumes.

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Child murders are, naturally, a very upsetting topic that TV shows have to handle very carefully. Child murders committed by another child are even more viscerally upsetting. As Carol pointed out, Lizzie may well have been headed that way anyway, apocalypse or no apocalypse; certainly the animal-torturing was a textbook example of how serial killers get started. That didn’t make it any easier to watch, though, especially in a show which already has a relentlessly grim, bleak setting. Too much? Perhaps. Eventually, an excess of dark, depressing material could easily get so OTT it could turn from horror to black farce. For my money though, this ep just sailed the right side of that line.

There was, nonetheless, more meat to this story than that single, shocking aspect. Following the newly established format of the show, Scott Gimple’s script focused on just one of the groups of survivors from the prison assault as they wandered along the railway tracks exploring their angst. Since this week it was the turn of Carol and Tyreese’s party, there was a very big elephant in the room between the two of them, which the script cleverly played with throughout. Tyreese is still haunted by the murder of his lover Karen – but at the outset here, he didn’t know that the person responsible was none other than Carol.

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In contrast to her apparently stoic view (as expressed to Rick previously), here it was clear that Carol’s guilt was eating her up, every discussion with Tyreese a painful reminder of what she’d done. But in typical Carol fashion, the pragmatist won out (at least initially). The group needed her, so she was prepared to suck it up. Until the point where even she couldn’t face what had happened, and confessed all.

It was a tense moment, and possibly the first time I’ve been truly impressed with Chad Coleman’s performance as Tyreese. You could see the warring emotions reflected on his face. Would he take the pistol Carol had slid his way, and kill her as she seemed to plainly want?

You could see he was tempted. But for him, too, pragmatism won out. After all the other horrors of this episode , it was a nice glimmer of hope to see that, while he couldn’t forget, he could forgive. And after all, it’s equally plain that Carol’s got a long way to go before she forgives herself.

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Gore of the week

Perhaps thankfully, the camerawork steered clear of any explicit detail in the deaths of both of the little girls. Elsewhere, the gore was supplied by the usual horde of disposable Walkers. The one whose legs just collapsed under him on the railway track was intriguing; at first I thought he’d fallen down a hole, but it became clear that his legs were just too far gone to support him any more. Again, I found myself wondering if the only real hope our heroes have is for the Walkers to decompose so badly that they’re no longer a threat.

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Still, that wasn’t particularly gory. Perhaps the most gruesome thing in the show was the group of badly burned Walkers that showed up in the woods. We’ve seen chargrilled Walkers before, of course, in the Governor’s Pit; but those were just flopping feebly, while these were fully mobile, still smouldering, and none too pretty.

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This was a harrowing, upsetting episode, precisely because the horror at its core was not fantastic but possible. Did it go too far? Some seem to be saying so. I disagree; I think good horror doesn’t just lie in the fantastic, but in the nasty possibilities of reality too, and horror stories that can tackle both are a cut above. But then, I don’t have kids…

This ep was full of excellent, heartfelt performances, but what sold it was the standout of the uncomprehendingly murderous, seemingly lovable Lizzie, an amazing turn by young Brighton Sharbino. The show’s main plot may not have moved one more iota, but this was a truly horrific vignette from its gruesome new world that had much more impact than the earnest soul-searching of recent weeks.