First, trigger warning for child death.
The Walking Dead has always tried to be too many things to too many people. It’s a good old-fashioned zombie gorefest. It’s a post-apocalyptic drama. It’s a soap opera at times. And finally, every once in a while, it is a study of the human character and how people respond to unimaginable horrors. That’s what we saw this week.
The episode begins with a laughing child playing tag as seen from the windows of a mid-20th century kitchen. The Ink Spots are playing, and the house is bathed in warm light. An old fashioned copper kettle is on the stove. It’s idyllic, until you look a little closer and notice that the person the little girl is playing with is somewhat unstable on her feet. She’s lurching…or is that lunging? All of a sudden, it’s clear: the little girl is playing tag with a walker. Cut to opening credits.
After the credits, we cut to Carol and Lizzie talking. They are on the tracks heading to Terminus. It’s nighttime. Carol looks about a thousand years old — she’s bone weary in a way we have never seen her before. Lizzie wants to help, and tells Carol that she killed the woman who was going to kill Tyreese. She asks Carol if she had any children. Carol tells her about Sophia. Carol says Sophia was sweet, and “didn’t have a mean bone in her body.” Lizzie asks if that’s why Sophia isn’t there. Carol flinches slightly, but says yes.
The next day they find a pecan grove. It’s partially protected by a fence. They decide to stay there for a while, catch their breath. The girls can have as many pecans as they can eat, and there is even a playpen for Judith. Ty can’t believe that he is in a family room again. Mika suggests that they stay there, and not look for Terminus. Carol smiles at her fondly, but doesn’t respond.
There are, of course, some moments when sad reality intrudes. There is a grave marked with a cross and tiny bronze baby shoes. A walker crashes off the porch of the house. Lizzie, who is holding Judith, is paralyzed with fear; Mika manages to kill it, which seems to comfort Carol. However, Lizzie is angry and distraught at Mika for killing the walker. Mika soothes Lizzie, urging her to look at the flowers, which is a coping mechanism we’ve seen Lizzie use before, when her father died.
The first sign that something is seriously wrong, however, is when Carol sees Lizzie playing tag with the walker, tackles it, and puts a knife through its skull. Tyreese is watching and sees Lizzie’s subsequent freakout. He is now firmly convinced that Lizzie doesn’t have a good grip on reality, something Carol has already told him.
Later, Carol and Mika try to hunt a deer; this should be easy, since deer love pecans. Carol tells Mika, yet again, she’s going to have to get tougher. When they see a deer, though, Mika says she just can’t do it. Carol looks sad, but she understands. She doesn’t kill the deer either.
Tyreese and Carol talk about remaining at the grove. Meanwhile, Mika is looking for Lizzie, who is happily feeding mice to a walker who is trapped in the train tracks. The two argue, but are interrupted by an influx of charred walkers from a nearby fire (was that the fire that Daryl and Beth set?). They flee back to the grove. Mika gets tangled in the fence, but Lizzie shoots the walker that is about to bite her sister, and joins Carol and Tyreese in shooting the rest of the walkers. Later, Carol praises Lizzie for this, and Lizzie says (terrifyingly to me, although not to Carol) that she understands what she needs to do now.
The next day, Carol and Tyreese are getting water from the well in the grove. He tells her how much he misses Karen, how he dreams of her, and how he wonders about her death. He muses that the people they lose are always with them, until they die. They are all haunted now. (Chad L. Coleman is one of those actors who can rip your heart out and it’s so beautiful that you are almost grateful for it.) Carol is so overcome by guilt and sadness that she can barely speak. Just for a moment, it seems like she is going to tell Tyreese about Karen and David, but she stops. Melissa McBride is such an amazing actor that you can actually see Carol realize that telling him at this point would be selfish and about her, not him. She stammers that maybe the people they lost are not haunting them, they are teaching them, reminding them of why they have to do what they have to do. However, that means the knife is twisted again when Tyreese comforts her for her sadness. This confirms what we all knew, instinctively: Tyreese doesn’t have a mean bone in his body. He’s Mika, grown up.
When they return, though, they see Lizzie standing alone, a bloody knife in her hand. When they get closer, they see Mika’s body behind her. She smiles happily at Carol, and points out that she didn’t hurt Mika’s brain, so she’d come back. Carol approaches Mika, but Lizzie pulls a gun on Carol. Carol and Tyreese are horrified. We see at this point exactly how tough and loving Carol is in equal measure. Fighting every instinct, she manages to calmly and casually suggest that Lizzie and Tyreese head back to the cabin with Judith for some lunch. Lizzie objects that Judith can change, too, she was just about to…Carol cuts her off. Summoning all her self-control, Carol says practically to Lizzie, that Judith can’t even walk (so how could she be a walker, right?). Carol will wait for Mika to turn and will tie Mika up with her shoelaces so once she turns, she won’t leave. Lizzie seems satisfied with that. Tyreese carefully takes the deranged child and the incredibly vulnerable baby into the house, leaving Carol alone with what she must do. Carol is weeping uncontrollably, but she unsheathes her knife. Mercifully, the show cuts away.
The next scene shows Tyreese and Carol in the kitchen. Lizzie is in her room, which Tyreese has swept clean of knives. Ty tells Carol that Lizzie told him that she was the walker feeder and the rat dissector. Could that mean that she killed Karen and David? Carol is quick to dismiss that — Lizzie would have let them turn. Carol and Tyreese debate the options. They can’t sleep with Lizzie and Judith under the same roof. She can’t be talked back, as Tyreese proposes. Carol says Lizzie was always damaged. She castigates herself that she should have seen it. Tyreese looks at her in shock. How could Carol have imagined something so horrible? Tyreese proposes leaving instead, but they both know that without two adults caring for her, Judith will die. They also know that Lizzie can’t be around other people.
Cut to Lizzie and Carol walking in the grove to pick some wildflowers for Mika when she comes back. Lizzie thinks that Carol is angry because Lizzie pulled a gun on her. Carol tells Lizzie she loves her. Then she urges Lizzie to look at the flowers. The camera draws back, and we see Carol lower a gun. Tyreese watches from the window. Carol walks back to the house, and while she does, she spots a deer, probably the same one Mika couldn’t kill.
They bury the two girls. That night, Carol does the only honorable thing she can do: she tells Tyreese that she killed Karen and David. She pushes a gun to him, and tells him to do what he needs to do. She has accepted her fate. Tyreese is overwhelmed by emotion and his hand grazes the gun several times. He asks if Karen knew what was happening or if she was scared. Carol shakes her head. It was quick. Ty tells Carol that he forgives her. He has seen the burden she puts on herself to protect others, and the terrible consequences. He knows why she did it. He won’t forget, and neither will she. She’ll carry it with her now, and so will he.
The next day, the two leave the Grove, heading back to Terminus. They don’t need to stay there. They can’t stay there. They march grimly away, different people than they were, haunted by two more ghosts.
And that, my friends, is The Walking Dead I wait for.
This leaves Carol, the show’s most nuanced character, in a place we’ve seen her before. She has lost two more children. All of her hard work to protect the people she loves has been for nothing. Will she give up? No — she’ll keep going. The last of the women from the first season is still standing, and if we’re lucky (and the writers are smart), they’ll let us watch her come back again.
Now, I’m going to go have some Girl Scout Cookies and some wine.