The Walking Dead: "Isolation"
B+

The Walking Dead: "Isolation"

B+

The Walking Dead

"Isolation"

Season 4, Episode 3

Tyreese doesn’t take the death of his girlfriend very well. It’s hard to blame him; given the ugliness of the situation, the survivors must, of a necessity, cling to anything that will give them a reason to keep living. People do that in non-zombie-hellscapes, too, but with death literally waiting down the hill to gut anyone with the bad luck to wander in reach, that need for hope must be especially strong. So hugs and kisses and moonlight serenades aren’t just good things; they’re necessary things, and when that affection is taken away, it leaves bad feelings behind. And it’s not like Karen (and David, whom Rick mentions later in the episode sounding like a scriptwriter who suddenly remembered there was another corpse to mourn) were eaten by walkers, or died of natural causes. Someone killed them both and burned their corpses, which means Tyreese’s grief isn’t just sadness—it’s rage. The first scene in “Isolation” between him and Rick, which ends with both men doing their best to beat the shit out of each other, is intense, over-the-top, and insane. It also works, in the sense that frustrated violence must be lurking behind the everyday behavior of so many of these characters. Tyreese’s plotline throughout the episode is clunky in spots, but the driving force for his behavior makes sense, and the pay-off—a brawl with a horde of zombies that nearly kills him—makes sense. Everything in the post-apocalypse matters so much more than it used to. It matters enough to drive you insane.

The reveal that Carol is the one behind those two burnt corpses is less convincing, even if the writers tried to establish in the previous episodes that she’s become a lot more proactive when it comes to facing down death. A caveat: my DVR cut off the last minute or so of the episode, so I had to take a quick Twitter poll to get the details. There may be subtleties I missed. But there was an implication throughout the hour that Carol was the killer (most notably in her scene with Tyreese, where she flipped out for no immediately obvious reason), and viewed from a certain angle, it makes sense. She was lecturing Lizzy last week about not being “weak,” and trying to get proactive against a plague is definitely a not-weak approach. But it seems like a drastic leap for the character, and one that a few conversations about knives isn’t going to cover.

It’s possible to imagine this scenario working. Likeable people making difficult, and morally questionable, decisions under extreme conditions is one of the hallmarks of great drama, and given the threat the plague represents, and the scary fragility of the group’s position, it’s not unreasonable that Carol would’ve felt she had no choice but to make a hard call that no one else would make. But it feels like there are steps missing here, steps that rob the reveal both of plausibility and dramatic effect. Framing the deaths as a mystery was a mistake, an understandable one, but a mistake nonetheless. While it’s great that Carol’s guilt was revealed only an episode after the crime, it still seems like it would’ve made more sense for us to have seen her do it up close; that would’ve resolved the problem of understanding why she would go so far, and it would also make the moment less about a cliffhanger that doesn’t really go anywhere and more about defining what Carol has become. Given how many people there are in the prison, and how little we know most of them, the suspect pool for the killings was both wide and shallow; it could’ve been any of half a dozen strangers. That it wasn’t was a strong choice on the writers’ part, but the framing just doesn’t really work; Carol remains something of a mystery, and now we just have to wait and see if there’s any fallout from this.

Those criticisms aside, this was a generally strong episode. There were plenty of scenes of characters talking sadly to other characters about how sad everything is, but the creation of a quarantine zone helped to give those conversations some much needed novelty. We’ve heard much of this before, but the various visual barriers between people—doors and windows, mostly—helped to drive home the point of, well, isolation. We still don’t have a strong sense of who most of the sick people are, apart from a few ringers (Glenn, and ultimately Herschel, win the “shit gets real” prize as main ensemble characters who could theoretically die from the plague), but the shots of the sick ward are suitably dire. I have no idea if the speed of transmission is “realistic,” but it works as a device, and one that makes Carol’s actions last week palpably absurd as well as horrific. The disease has arrived. Killing off a carrier or two isn’t going to change a damn thing.

The other element “Isolation” has going for it is giving some of our heroes a chance to step and actually be heroic. Rick, after his explosion with Tyreese, plays at being sheriff for a while and even solves the crime. Daryl, Michonne, Tyreese, and Bob make a run to a veterinary school for antibiotics, although they run in to some minor trouble (a huge horde of walkers, seemingly teleporting into view half a second after Daryl hears someone talking on the radio). And Herschel goes out into the woods for berries, and then risks his life to make elderberry tea to help ease the suffering of the afflicted. It’s a small (and potentially fatal) gesture, but the dignity of it, and Herschel’s refusal to back down when everyone else tells him he’s risking his life, is noteworthy. In a way, it’s the exact opposite of Carol’s choice. To her, the only way to keep anyone safe is to keep cutting off the infected bits, be it sick people or simple human kindness. But to Herschel, who has experienced amputation firsthand (or leg), it’s more important to care for people as best, and as long, as you can. He’s not soft, and he’s not weak, exactly. He just recognizes the value of making a choice that has more dignity in it that simply trying to stay alive as long as possible. It’s a rare moment of humanity from a show that too often views such moments as an invitation to disaster.

Stray observations:

  • Of course, Herschel’s gesture does earn him a face full of infected blood, so the standard pattern of “no good deed remains unpunished” continues. But he acknowledged this was the risk he was taking from the start, and went ahead and did it anyway. That seems like the only way to stay sane.
  • Carl has his gun back. He seems very happy about this.
  • The secret to surviving a walker attack: Hang back for a while, and then, when the odds are against you, wade in and start beating on the suckers. It helps if the people you’re with leave you behind for dead, so you can dramatically reveal you are not a few minutes later. (Joking aside, that was cool. I’m assuming he wasn’t bitten?)
  • No one was murdered by a zombie this week.

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