Over and over again, The Walking Dead’s characters are fleetingly enticed by the idea of a better future, one that doesn’t involve scavenging to survive. They even allow themselves a few moments to consider settling down in lieu of trudging forward toward unknown futures. We’ve seen Rick, Michonne, and Carl consider it a few episodes back, then Beth and Daryl in last week’s “Alone.” Sunday night’s episode, “The Grove,” draws up a similar scenario for Tyreese (Chad L. Coleman) and Carol (Melissa McBride), who find refuge in a home near the railroad they march on toward Terminus and are tempted to call it their own. There, the two young sisters, Lizzie (Brighton Sharbino) and Mika (Kyla Kenedy), play with dolls and Judith sleeps inside a crib. At night, they all sit by the candlelight and wonder how it must feel to live without the constant threat of death. For a moment it seems as if all their fears subside, but in the aftermath of the episode’s devastating developments, Carol and Tyreese accept that carrying on is all that they can do.
“The Grove” importantly settles the question of who baited walkers toward the prison fences earlier in the season. Convinced that walkers are people, Lizzie has been feeding them along her journey and even considers allowing herself to be bit so as to prove her point. This revelation is an extension of the second-season development that Hershel and his family had been stockpiling walkers in the barn because he was convinced they were still human. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that Carol finds herself tied to both conflicts. Whereas her daughter’s emergence from the barn years ago introduced her to the harsh new realities of survival, now she finds herself having to deal with the consequences of her response to that tragedy. In teaching Lizzie and Mika to bury their childlike feelings and pull the proverbial trigger in order to survive in this world, she essentially gave Lizzie the tools to kill her own sister. Carol had no control or responsibility in shaping Lizzie’s troubled mental state, but her cold focus on rearing these children for survival nonetheless cultivated the conditions by which Lizzie discerned no other way of expressing herself than with violence.
At the core of the episode, though, is how Carol’s decision to kill Lizzie also compels her to finally admit to Tyreese that she killed his girlfriend, Karen, in order to stop further spread of the disease that swept the prison compound. Until this point, Carol hasn’t processed the emotional implications of taking a life. She saw only what she felt needed to be done. But this changes when she kills Lizzie, as evidenced by the range of conflicted feelings that McBride beautifully conveys just before Carol pulls the trigger. And it’s what propels her to finally come clean to Tyreese. Handing over a gun, she tells him to “do what he has to do.” Offering him a choice to kill her is in some way a reflection of how the tough decisions she’s made have affected her. But more importantly, while she doesn’t feel any differently about the necessity of the killings, she now seems to have reached a place where she understands that moral imperatives still exist even in this new world. (As a side note, the scene in which she kills Lizzie bears some resemblances to a key moment from season two, when Rick killed Shane in order to protect himself and the group. Interestingly, Rick banished Carol from the group this season upon learning that she killed Karen, which will no doubt heighten the drama when he learns that she’s been caring for his child.)
As the past several episodes have made clear in no uncertain terms, hope is a requisite for survival in this post-apocalyptic milieu, even if that hope isn’t tangible. Despite being separated after the prison’s destruction, all of the surviving characters have found themselves on the same path (via the railroad) toward the same vague notion of hope promised by Terminus, where, as signs have indicated, “all who arrive survive.” But things rarely turn out rosy for this group of survivors, all of whom you’d expect at this point would know better. And yet, they continue to find hope in that which lies ahead of them, perhaps never to recognize that the brighter future they envision will always be out of reach, driving them to continue on against the harder truth that there’s no good end for any of them. Thus, the horrifying portrait of life for these characters that “The Grove” paints—particularly that the decision to take a life is no longer a matter of moral wrangling but of sheer calculation—seems to suggest something that The Walking Dead nor its characters have really dealt with to this point: that survival may just not be worth the pain of living.
Ted Pigeon is author of the blog The Cinematic Art. He also contributed to the book Cinephilia in the Age of Digital Reproduction: Film, Pleasure and Digital Culture, Vol. 2. Follow his updates on Twitter.