[This is a review of The Walking Dead season 4, episode 14. There will be SPOILERS.]
Over the past few weeks, The Walking Dead has been on something of an upswing, in terms of finding a better balance in its overall tone and in the characterization department. There has been the purposeful nature of the incredibly welcome, but sadly little-seen Abraham Ford to shine a bit of a light on things. Then there was the seemingly inextinguishable optimism and pro-togetherness of Bob, a recovering alcoholic who had given up his days of sipping NyQuil - while pointlessly staring at the dead - so that he could walk with the living, find purpose (there's that word again) in maintaining a group, and possibly wind up in Terminus - where things will either be better or, in keeping with the show's relentlessly nihilistic past, a whole lot worse.
As it turns out, all that supposed positivity and sense of intent was apparently in preparation for 'The Grove', an episode that, given its content, a lot of people will likely have a very strong reaction towards, one way or another.
The episode is no doubt a very heavy and dramatic one that focuses the entire hour on Carol, Tyreese, and the two young sisters in their care, Lizzie and Mika. (Judith is there, too, but aside from being a tragedy waiting to happen, her participation is fairly minimal.) Much of the story takes place a few days walk from Terminus – or so Tyreese and Carol seem to think. Tyreese is suffering from an infection from a cut on his arm, while Carol's busy keeping three young kids alive in the wilderness. As folks on The Walking Dead are wont to do, the group stops at a semi-secluded house in the woods, so they can rest for a few days. But after clearing the house with minimal fuss, its relatively plentiful supply of pecans and clean water, and seemingly abundant deer in the area have them all thinking about setting up shop for the time being.
As far as plots go, it's fairly standard stuff for The Walking Dead, and Tyreese and Carol were certainly two characters deserving of some screen time. The only problem is, 'The Grove' so clearly wanted to (or had to, given what little time has actually been spent with Lizzie and Mika) set up its climactic Of Mice and Men-style ending that it became one of the most hackneyed and strained episodes in recent memory.
Perhaps a great deal of that has to do with the limits of the child actors, as that can always be a problem when it comes to delivering material intended to draw out a strong emotional response. And it does deliver a strong emotional response – if there's anything about this episode that will likely come closest to reaching a consensus, it will almost certainly be that. Unfortunately, when you stop to consider the lack of work that's been put in beforehand, the episode just doesn't earn it. Lizzie's sudden vocal objections to the killing of zombies felt like too far a jump in terms of her character's established pro-walker stance. Meanwhile, Mika spent most of the episode talking to Carol about her moral objections to killing with a verbal dexterity slightly below that of a mildly inebriated first-year philosophy major. In other words: the show simply hadn't given the characters enough time to arrive at the place they were emotionally and developmentally for most of the episode.
But it is somewhat difficult material to discuss, so let's be clear: the issues addressed in this review aren't necessarily over the content of the episode; The Walking Dead is what it is, and there'll frequently be uncomfortable deaths to look at (or not) and analyze, as part of the endless stream of horrors these characters have to deal with in this particular world. The issue with the episode stems from the deliberately manipulative way in which 'The Grove' arrives at its two most resonant moments.
The thing is, creating a scenario that's guaranteed to elicit such tremendous feelings is one thing, but it needs to be earned; it needs to come from a place where the end result doesn't feel so telegraphed. Moreover, knowing that the climax of a story is going to cause a strong reaction in no way excuses the sheer amount of overwrought dialogue and overt handholding Scott Gimple put in to first reminding everyone of Carol's deceased daughter, and then drawing a parallel between that and her inability to protect another girl without "a mean bone in her body," when Lizzie kills Mika.
Now that doesn't mean that 'The Grove' is without its powerful moments, or its great performances, because Melissa McBride and Chad L. Coleman are both terrific here. Carol's ultimate decision to kill Lizzie, because the child's mental state has her unable to "be around other people," and Tyreese's offer to forgive Carol for murdering the woman he cared for, wind up being two of the most impressive scenes this season that also happen to stand far above the more obvious content here.
Ultimately though, all anyone's going to really take away or remember from the episode is that two young girls died, and one of them was by the hand of a woman who was her ostensibly her surrogate mother. It's resonant to be sure, but it was all delivered in such an unsubtle, deliberately manipulative way, you could all but see Gimple handing out the tissues, just in case someone needed to dab their eyes. Maybe if the season had spent more time with Lizzie and Mika, 'The Grove' would feel different, but in the end, it's just the show dictating what the audience should be feeling, rather than giving them an honest reason to feel anything at all.
The Walking Dead continues next Sunday with 'Us' @9pm on AMC. Check out a sneak peek below: