Great big honking spoilers for “The Grove” ahead.
“The Walking Dead” creator Robert Kirkman warned in advance that Sunday’s episode would be “a big one,” and indeed it was, with 11-year-old Lizzie (Brighton Sharbino) fatally stabbed her little sister and was subsequently put down by a stoic Carol (Melissa McBride). It’s not the first time “The Walking Dead” has killed a child: the series’ defining moment was when, after devoting the first half of its second season to the search for Carol’s daughter, Sophia, it revealed that she’d been dead for weeks, cooped in in a barn with a herd of mindless walkers. Nor is it the first time a child has killed: As Carol warned Mika (Kyla Kennedy) shortly before she was murdered by her older sister, the world they live in is not one where you can afford to let your guard down, nor hesitate in your own defense. But it was the first time we’ve seen a child kill for no reason: not for self-preservation, or out of instinct, as the walkers do, but because she’d lost her grip on the difference between life and death.
For most of the episode, as Lizzie played keep-away with one hungry walker or fed mice to another, she seemed more likely to get herself killed than anyone else, and perhaps that’s one way of looking at the events of “The Grove”: Lizzie killed the only person connecting her to the person she once was, effectively terminating her humanity before Carol ended her life. That certainly seems to be the interpretation the show’s pushing, and which a surprising number of viewers have signed onto. The response to the Hollywood Reporter’s “Did Carol Do the Right Thing?” question hovers at 86 percent “Yes,” which is reasonably speaking about as high as you can expect the execution of a child to poll.
For the Reporter’s Tim Goodman, “The Grove” is proof that “The Walking Dead” is as complex as the prestige dramas on which critics lavish their attention:
That Mika was killed by her sister completely fits into the worldview that “The Walking Dead” has constructed. That Carol realizes Lizzie “can’t be around other people” (and certainly not baby Judith) created a moral quandary that was as heavy as any you’ll see on television. You don’t just randomly have an adult shoot a kid dead on television. But it was believable and even felt like the right thing to do based on how hard the series has worked to earn that payoff.
Indeed, “The Walking Dead” has worked to get its audience to a place where Lizzie’s death is acceptable, even admirable. The Wall Street Journal‘s Paul Vigna meant it as a compliment when he said “this was one of the sickest episodes” yet: “It’s hard to imagine any other show on television would go that dark. You really have a build an audience up for it, because it’s not an easy thing to swallow at all.” And in the Los Angeles Times, Patrick Kevin Day discussed the episode’s climax as proof of Carol’s conversion to a hardened badass:
If Lizzie was this episode’s Lennie, then Carol was the George. We knew she had enough inner steel to take down critically ill adults who posed a threat to the well-being of the group, but would she handle one extremely mentally ill preteen? Oh yes, absolutely. Faced with the prospect of traveling with the murderous Lizzie and the innocent baby Judith, Carol did what she had to do. She took Lizzie out, asked her to look at some flowers for her dead sister, and then shot her in the head.
But is this really proof of “The Walking Dead’s” complexity, or just the extent to which it’s willing to follow its nihilistic worldview to ever-grimmer lengths? The A.V. Club’s Zack Handlen found himself laughing unexpectedly. The show had crossed in a line, and not in a good way.
The writers took a risk, and threw out another shock to catch us off guard: this time, it was a little girl so convinced that the zombies were her best friends that she murdered her sister. It should be horrifying, and if the episode worked for you, I’m sure it was. It didn’t work for me, though, and the sight of Lizzie standing over that corpse made for a clean break in my mind. The whole situation became too ludicrously morbid, too absurdly grim to take seriously.
It may seem an odd complaint, but in a sense, “The Grove” was too easy, not in terms of its horrific imagery, but in the clear path it laid towards Carol’s fatal choice. Of course she had to kill Lizzie: She had baby Judith to protect, after all. But on a better show, one that posed difficult questions to its audience rather than simply increasing their tolerance for bloodshed the murder of an 11-year-old girl should be something we wrestle. “The Walking Dead” didn’t ask us to debate Lizzie’s execution; it challenged us to accept it.