Even in the absence of a belief system, God still speaks to people. His voice is Beauty, Goodness, and Truth. Down through the ages, you can see ancient people responding to the Divine in these concepts, and The Walking Dead shows that even post- apocalyptic people still seek them out.
“The Grove” opens on a scene of beauty and goodness, in sharp contrast to the last two week’s cold opens. We’re in a country kitchen, a pot of water boiling on the stove, the signs of baked bread and other good things to eat spread out around us. Through gauze curtains, gently waving in a breeze, we see two happy little girls, playing in the carefree manner that, combined with the signs of domesticity, lead you to believe you’re glimpsing a flashback to Happier Times.
Then, the sounds of the girls’ laughter is drowned out by the shrill whistle of the tea kettle on the stove- things, we are aurally told, are about to come to a boil.
I haven’t read The Walking Dead comic books yet, but I saw somewhere that the group followed this week: Carol, Tyreese, Judith, Lizzy and Mika, are either a TV-only construct (like our beloved Daryl), or are dead already at this point in the narrative arc. The point being that the show’s writers can do whatever they want with this particular survivor group, since they’re not required to further future plot points.
And the writers did some heartbreaking, absolutely amazing things this week.
After our dreamy open is cut short by the pot whistle, we find ourselves back on the Tracks to Terminus. Carol and Lizzy are keeping watch in the darkness, while Tyreese and the other two girls rest. It’s hard to look at Lizzy- after her attempt to murder baby Judith, I can’t look at her without a guilty wrestling of twin thoughts: I want this child dead, and what kind of a person wants a child dead? Brilliantly, the writers have manipulated me into the exact same emotional and moral corner the characters will face later in the show. For the rest of the episode, I will be feeling the genuine emotions of Carol and Tyreese in the final few moments.
Lizzie talks psycho talk in the dark, while Carol, Cheshire-like, listens. When the Ghost of Sophia is predictably invoked, Carol sums her up as someone who “didn’t have a mean bone in her body”. Sophia, in other words, was too good to survive in this new world.
As I discussed previously, the God Question is rarely dealt with face-on in The Walking Dead, but it is constantly there, buzzing in the air. God Himself, in the form of traditional organized religion, is regarded warily, and best avoided. But God in Beauty, Goodness, and Truth is arguably the heart of the show.
Each character’s understanding of, and relationship to Goodness is significant. In the dark, Carol’s brief description of her dead daughter reveals that she thinks there is little room for Goodness (and by extension, God) in this new world, and what Goodness you can’t remove from yourself, you have to keep in check with an iron fist.
It’s this worldview that shapes Carol’s conversation with Tyreese the next day. While treating Tyreese’s arm wound, she talks about the character flaws in Lizzy and Mika. Tyreese (whose body you begin to suspect also doesn’t have mean bone) is blind to the girls’ faults, and is astounded when Carol points out that Lizzy “is confused” about the nature of the walkers. She doesn’t understand that they’re dangerous. She doesn’t understand that they’re not human. But, in Carol’s mind, this barely registers as anything other than an amusing twitch in the face of Mika’s goodness. Mika, like poor doomed Sophia, doesn’t have a mean bone in her body, and to Carol, this is not acceptable.
The next scene, the travelers are back on the road to their doom-er-Terminus, and a snippet of charmingly mundane conversation is overheard. Mika had been assigned Tom Sawyer in school, but the pesky zombiepocalypse had prevented her from finishing it. The group chats about the book for a few moments, until an off-handed comment about Lizzy “not even being grossed out by dead rabbits” ends the conversation as Psycho Lizzy shoots her sister the stink eye.
While we, the audience, are still struggling with the growing sense of dread about this episode’s outcome, the group splits up to find water. Tyreese, Judith (alternatively played by a giant-headed human baby, or a hilariously shaped fake baby, whip corded onto Tyreese’s back), and Lizzy are waiting on the tracks when a walker is seen shambling its way toward them. As Tyreese approaches to kill it, the thing falls and is rendered immobile. No dummy, Tyreese prepares to follow through with the killing stroke, but Lizzy hysterically puts herself between the two. She pleads with him not to kill it, in the exact same pitch and intensity as one would imagine a nice, non-psychopathic little girl begging someone to spare the life of a small furry creature. Like a rabbit.
Meanwhile, Carol and Mika are searching for water. Lol, nope. They’re really out there so Carol can attempt to drive out the Goodness in Mika, by “helpfully” explaining that it will get her killed. Mika, sweet, good Mika, is not an idiot. She brushes aside Carol’s message, telling her that she has no problem killing walkers. She can run, and she can protect herself from zombies, unlike her “messed up” sister. But she cannot bring herself to kill living people, because it’s wrong.
The subject of absolute truth is something the show doesn’t treat very seriously. So there, in a pecan grove (that’s “p-cahn” to you Yankees. In the words of my mother-in-law, a “pee-can” is something you bring with you on a boat) Carol is gobsmacked and irritated that an absolute truth- killing people is wrong- should rear its ugly head. Note- it is the character that is marked as “too good” who would insist that there is still such a thing as capital-T Truth, which reminds me of this quote from Fr. Barron:
Even when Carol tries to press Mika into an ethical corner, asking her about the people who attacked the prison, and killed their friends, the girl responds simply, “I feel sorry for them.”
Carol, complicated, tough, deeply sad Carol doesn’t know what to say, and luckily the pair stumble on a cabin, so the conversation is tabled.
Carol and Mika get Tyreese, Judith, and Lil’Psycho, and the adults go check out the building. Lizzy’s holding Judith (STAAAAHP!), and staring at what appears to be a baby’s grave, while Mika tries to explain to her murderous sister that walkers are not people. Lizzy is still eyeing the baby’s grave, and insisting that everyone is wrong, when a walker comes out of a side building and attacks the girls. Mika manages to kill the walker, which brings the adults running from the house in time to see Lizzy launching herself into a frothing rage over the unjust, shocking murder of that poor innocent walker.
With the movements of someone who has done this a time or two, Mika sets Lizzy on a bench, and calmly orders her to “look at the flowers like you’re supposed to”. Judging by her clinical reaction, Mika’s seen Lizzy Lose Her Shit before.
What’s Carol’s and Tyreese’s reaction to all this? Oh, a totally logical, “Nothing to see here, move along” response. Oh, that Lizzy. Such a cut-up. Ha ha ha.
The next scene brings us back to the opening: country kitchen, kettle on the stove, curtains gently moving in the breeze. Except now we’re so full of loathing and anxiety that when we realize the two girls playing in the yard are not Lizzy and Mika, but rather Lizzy and a zombiegirl, we aren’t even surprised. Of course Lizzy is frolicking with a zombie. Of course.
Carol runs out, kills the zombie, and is treated to a full on display of Lizzy’s crazy. ”YOU KILLED HER! YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND! SHE WAS MY FRIEND! WHAT IF I KILLED YOU? WHAT IF I KILLED YOU!” And there, we know, for absolute certainty, there is no way out of this episode that doesn’t involve Very Bad Things.
Once again Carol and Tyreese look the other way, nothing to see here, let’s move along, and Carol takes Mika out on a hunting trip because, you know, it’s Mika who needs more Carolchism. Still trying to get Mika to lock up that Goodness into a Carol-approved size lead box, the girl still resists.
As Fr. Barron noted, it’s best to lead with Beauty, and in The Walking Dead, our visual shorthand for Beauty has taken several different forms. Once, it was Hershel’s farm. Sometimes, it’s (annoying) Beth’s (annoying) singing/piano skillz. Twice, it’s been a deer.
In Season Two, the image of deer as stand in for Beauty ended badly, with Carl being accidentally shot. In this episode, the deer reappears in a pecan grove, with Carol and Mika as witness. Carol, not shockingly, only sees meat. Mika, Goodness itself, recognizes the deer as Beauty and can’t shoot. ”We have pecans and peaches,” she says cheerfully to a crestfallen Carol.
There is no more church in this world. Sunday school is over. If you’ve got a Bible, chances are it’s got bloodstains on it. But we see how the trancendentals, God’s triple language of Beauty, Goodness, and Truth is still spoken, and it recognizes and responds to the world still. The goodness in Mika recognized the beauty in the deer, and her unwillingness to kill the animal is in stark contrast to Lizzy’s enthusiasm for animal butchery.
Animal butchery is the lede for the next scene, as Mika spots Lizzy running off with something in her hands. That something turns out to be a mouse, which Lizzy tenderly and delightedly feeds to the zombie still stuck on the tracks. Mika, ever the dutiful (if exasperated) sister, tries to reason with Crazy. But the thing is, you can’t reason with crazy. Lizzy is not simply an enthusiastic graduate of Carol’s Zombie Survival Academy for Little Tykes, Lizzy is someone who suffered from specific mental illnesses before the plague, and has lived in a world that only triggered that illness over and over again.
Lizzy, because of the cross-wiring of her brain, is the ultimate product of Carol’s philosophy. She responds to Walkers because she knows there is no goodness in them. There is no weakness. There is no sweetness of vulnerability. That’s why this girl had no problems butchering rabbits or attempting to snuff the life out of Judith, but threatened to kill Carol after dispatching the her zombie tag partner. Rabbits and babies are sweet and vulnerable, therefore they are objects to be dominated through murder. Zombies are neither sweet nor vulnerable, and so their power is something to be admired and courted.
We see Lizzy inching closer and closer to the abyss when she holds her hand just inches from the zombie’s mouth, musing that maybe she should change. Maybe it’s time to shed that last bit of vulnerability and become one of the all-powerful.
At this moment, several zombies, clearly victims of the fire the group’s been distantly monitoring for days, burst from the woods. They’re still smoking, and their flesh is charred. It’s enough to start Lizzy out of her bloody reverie, and she and Mika ran back to the house. At the property fence, Mika falls, her leg gets grabbed by a walker, and Lizzy pulls her to safety. Carol, Tyreese, Mika and Lizzy form a line, and fire on the walkers, until they’re all dead, and Carol notes with relief that even Lizzy took part in the shooting.
That night, Carol thinks all is well, the policy of “move along” yielded positive results, and she says to Lizzy, “You understand what they are now?” Lizzy says, “I know. I know what I have to do now,” and oh! you just want to shake Carol, because how can she take comfort in that phrase when we all know what’s coming?
The next morning, Carol and Tyreese go hunting for that deer. Tyreese tells Carol about the recurring nightmare he’s been having about Karen’s death at the hands of “some stranger”. As the depth of his grief becomes more and more obvious, Carol’s guilt builds. It was Karen’s death, after all, delivered by Carol herself, that got her kicked out of the prison commune.
I have a confession to make. During this scene, I was mentally willing Carol not to tell Tyreese the truth. To me, it felt like coming clean would be for no other reason than to give Carol relief. What good would come from Tyreese knowing? He’s not a confessional, for Carol to unload her baggage on. Maybe part of her atonement would be having to carry the knowledge of what she did, by herself. Tyreese, good, kind Tyreese, gets the relief from sharing his emotional burden with Carol, but she should not be allowed to have the same.
Carol must have heard my brainwaves, because she didn’t tell Tyreese, and the two walk back to the cabin, where the three girls have been left to their own devices.
Immediately, we see the device Lizzy was left up to was a knife. Carol and Tyreese see Lizzy, blood-splattered Lizzy, standing in front of a motionless, prone Mika, with Judith crawling on a blanket on the ground. ”Don’t worry, she’ll come back. I didn’t hurt the brain,” Lizzy says, shifting from foot to foot, but otherwise not emotionally distraught at all.
And there, spread out on the lawn of a place that had offered the chance of long-term safety and happiness, the depth of Lizzy’s madness is revealed. For a sick mind that views strength and power as beautiful and good, nothing else makes sense other than to join with that source.
Carol talks the knife out of Lizzy’s hand, and she promises to “tie Mika up to the shed so she doesn’t get away”, while Tyreese leads the blood-covered girl up to the house. And then, Carol breaks down, the total, complete breakdown of a woman who realizes, too late, that beauty and goodness are still needed in the world, and that Lizzy’s aren’t the only hands with blood on them.
With Lizzy tucked in bed, Tyreese and Carol try to assess the situation and come up with proper responses. Knowing that Lizzy cannot be trusted around human beings anymore, Carol offers to take her and leave, a sort of walking solitary confinement unit. Tyreese offers to take Judith and head for Terminus, but ultimately, they realize that their chances of survival hinge on two things: sticking together and killing Lizzy.
This whole episode is about as amazing an exploration of the Catholic guidelines on capital punishment as I’ve ever seen, and I’d love to write it more, but this recap is already stretching into absurd lengths (Ken, I know you started skimming long ago). So, briefly put, Carol takes Lizzy out to the grove, and has her count the flowers, while Lizzy, knowing what is coming, thinks only that she is being punished for pointing the gun at Carol. Even up until the end, Lizzy’s worldview is the same- vulnerability is to be exterminated, and the powerful are to be exulted. In Lizzy’s mind, she is being punished by the powerful for a weak moment of emotional outburst.
After executing a child she promised to care for, Carol stumbles back to the cabin, and comes across the deer again. She raises her gun, but in her brokenness, finally realizes that this innocent creature, a ghostly flicker of beauty in a jacked up world, needs to live.
Later that night, Carol and Tyreese talk about the impossibility of staying at the cabin any longer. A puzzle is spread out on the table before them. Judith is sleeping in a crib right by Tyreese’s side. Despite the horror the past few days have brought, despite the sadness carved onto both faces, there is still a sense of peace. It’s bone-wary, and it’s sorrowful, but it’s still peace.
In this moment, having realized the value of beauty and goodness, Carol responds with truth. She pushes her gun across the table, and tells Tyreese that she was the one who killed Karen. Tyreese, obviously and rightfully blindsided, clutches the side of the table in a gesture the writers obviously hoped we would interpret as rage. Tyreese was going to grab that gun and execute Carol in turn.
But he doesn’t. Of course he doesn’t. Tyreese doesn’t have a mean bone in his body, as evidenced by the first thing he says, “Did she suffer? Did she know?” His immediate thoughts were for the quality of Karen’s last ones. Carol tells him that she didn’t suffer, and she didn’t know what was going on, and Tyreese then says something that makes me realize how wrong I was for wanting Carol to continue carrying the knowledge of her sin by herself.
He whispers, “I forgive you. I’m never gonna forget. It happened. You did it. You feel it. I know you do. It’s a part of you now. Me too. But I forgive you,” and in that, I understand why I was wrong. Carol telling Tyreese about the truth of Karen’s death would have given her release from her guilt, yes. But more importantly, it gave Tyreese the chance to forgive. It gave him access to the truth, and like that saying goes, it honestly set him free.
The show closes with the trio walking off the tracks (ostensibly towards Terminus- *sigh*), and a voice over from previously in the season, where Carol councils Lizzy about the necessity of change in this new world. But, as I think the show is fumbling towards, maybe even despite its efforts, even in a nighmare landscape like this zombie-infested Georgia, God is still there to guide that change, using the language of Beauty, Goodness, and Truth.