Who knew death and disease could be so much fun? When it's happening to you or your loved ones or even people you only kind of know, yeah, it sucks. But when sickness happens to people on the television during a zombie apocalypse? It's fantastic! I'm not sure "Isolation" was itself any better than the first two episodes of The Walking Dead's fourth season, because these first three hours have really felt like one continued story that shouldn't be divided into parts. However, it was the third strong installment in a row of the improved and more complete The Walking Dead. It's almost time to officially declare that the writers have recognized what did and didn't work in the series' previous seasons, and now they're exploiting the positives. I say "almost" because we've been burned before: Season 3 started off like a ravenous zombie in a children's hospital before going kaput in the middle and wandering around in circles with way too much Andrea nonsense.
What I love about Season 4 so far is that it's not just about life and death. And no, it's not UNdeath that's the additional cool thing. Good zombie stories deal with the undefinable stage between life and death, the painful and drawn-out part where life is fading and death is imminent, and Season 4 has really focused on that. Remember that scene when Ryan was dying and Lizzy and Mika had to come in and say goodbye to their dad? That was amazing, and that's what I'm talking about. Not only was Ryan dying, he also had to be killed again after he died. When you die in a zombie apocalypse, you don't just go away, you come back. In our normal lives, death is the final explosion of the time bomb that is life. In the world of The Walking Dead, death is just the lighting of the fuse, and the BOOM is someone you once knew chewing on your arm.
The introduction of a deadly virus (is it a mutation of the zombie virus, or just a bad case of pig flu?) extends the cool "between period" not just to those who've fallen ill, but to everyone in the area. All the people in the prison camp are literally a shared straw away from dying, and that has amplified the sense of looming death that powers The Walking Dead. The paranoia and claustrophobia that that took root in "Infection" came to a full bloom in "Isolation," and the series is so much better for it. People be acting desperate and crazy!
The greatest thing this outbreak has done is blow up the group while keeping them all together and forcing each individual into action. That creates character. "Isolation" was a perfect episode title; everyone on the show is in a unique and defined headspace. There's no Opinion A vs. Opinion B with squabbling over which side to pick, something that crippled The Walking Dead in previous seasons. Shane's right! Shane's wrong! We stay on the farm! We leave the farm! We attack Woodbury! We stay at the prison! Things aren't bipartisan any longer, they're individual. Just take a look where everyone is:
These characters aren't interchangeable like they were before, and their conversations have real bite instead of happening for the sake of showing two sides of an argument. I didn't mind Rick talking to Tyreese about finding Extra Crispy Karen's murderer. I didn't mind the small council talking about how to handle the sick. And I certainly didn't mind Hershel's speech about doing what he could to help, which should go down as one of the greatest monologues in the series' history. Heck, after listening to Hershel say, "The only thing you can choose is what you're risking [your life] for," I nearly hugged a hippie. There were moments when "Isolation" retreated toward being an overly talky episode, but unlike the Great Farm Blabber of 2011, thee stakes were high and immediate and most importantly, worth talking about.
That's all a roundabout way of saying—provided you like the virus storyline, and I suspect some may not—that The Walking Dead is on fire right now thanks to its new approach. And that new approach includes some dangling mysteries for compelling mini-arcs, some of which were solved quickly and some of which are still open. We still don't know who was feeding rats to the zombies and weakening the perimeter fence (I remain fastidious in thinking it was Bob, because "never trust the new guy" is a staple horror rule), but the case of Krispy Karen came to a shocking and awesome conclusion in "Isolation." TYREESE MAD over Karen's death, and he let everyone know how mad he was by punching them. I love this Tyreese so much, you guys. Finally a personality to match that hulking frame of his. I do question whether Rick would be able to stand up after those sledgehammers he took in the face, though. And then Rick kicked his ass? Whoa.
After a very adult "My bad, bro" conversation between Rick and Tyreese, Rick became a cop again and hunted down the murderer. It was when Tyreese asked Carol to look after Karen while he was gone that I realized it was Carol who did it; she was too stone-faced, like she was hiding something. And when Rick stopped her at the end of the episode and asked her directly if she killed Karen and David and set them on fire, her response was perfect. "Yes," she said, and walked away. She did it to try to prevent the spread of the virus, which opens up the debate about whether she was right in doing so. And in keeping with the recent development of the character, it made total sense. The first two episodes of Season 4 pushed Carol to places we'd never seen her go before. She's now the at-whatever-costs member of the group, teaching kids how to use sharp objects and reprimanding them for not being jerky enough to survive this apocalypse. Maybe it's a result of that time she spent lost in the tombs during Season 3, or maybe new showrunner Scott Gimple thought, "You know what? We need to do something with Carol." Either way, Carol is now the unsuspecting monster of the group. Most people won't know what she's capable of, and that's awesome. Now Rick has to decide whether or not he tells Tyreese (and everybody else) what happened, because if Rick reveals the truth, Tyreese is likely to rip Carol limb from limb and drink from the stumps.
Sasha and Glenn also picked up the sickness, and while I really don't care about Sasha a whole lot, my heart aches for Glenn. Sasha's a goner because someone sort-of main needs to die from this, but there's no way Glenn's getting killed by the flu, right? As he said, "After everything, I'm getting taken out by a glorified cold." Stop talking like that, Glenn! This show is just trying to scare us. Glenn is not dying. He's not. Even if he dies, I'm going to pretend he's still alive like one of those mothers who carry their dead babies around.
But even with all the new focus on character, The Walking Dead still knows what sells the tickets: the mass murder of zombies. And the interrupted road trip of Daryl, Michonne, Bob, and Tyreese may be one of the series' best zombie massacres to date. I usually frantically take notes while watching screeners, but during this glorious romp all I could do was stare and giggle. First, that horde of zombies! How many were there, thousands? Tens of thousands? A hundred thousand? Was it a Million-Zombie March for zombie rights? Daryl slammed the car in reverse but spun the tires in a pile of zombie corpses, and if The Walking Dead was just hours of spinning tires creating Jackson Pollock paintings with splashes of zombie goo, I would be okay with that.
With nowhere to go, the foursome had to fight through the tip of the swarm and the carnage was amazing. Even in the most visceral and bloody portion of the episode, the characters' behavior was completely unique. Michonne was almost poetic with her swift katana strikes, halving heads with the grace of a Benihana chef attacking some teriyaki chicken. Maybe next time she'll flip the top half of a zombie head into her shirt pocket. Daryl displayed leadership and confidence with his succinct orders and precise headshots. And his endless supply of crossbow bolts. Bob showed that he's still new to this, flailing about with his gun while calling to Tyreese. And Tyreese, oh man, Tyreese. He rained the Hammer of God down upon the swarm with short, compact, mechanical blows, a therapeutic exercise for his struggles in coping with Karen's loss. If you're voting on the episode MVP and you're not handing it to Tyreese, then I don't know what you're thinking.
Can we all pray to our respective gods that The Walking Dead keeps this up? Because "Isolation" was another solid episode of a series that badly needs a strong season. I was prepared to be content with zombie slaughter, but if The Walking Dead wants to add some legitimately good drama to the mix, then that's even better.
– Why couldn't T-Dog be around for this era? He would've been the best!!!
– Carl, stay in the house! But no, he had to play Hall Monitor and go with Hershel. I still don't understand Carl's reason for NEEDING to go with Hershel, other than he has an overinflated sense of responsibility, but at least he didn't screw anything up and got back on his own.
– I was a big fan of tree hugger zombie. He/she had moss growing on his/her arms! One with nature, be at peace, Zombie of the Forest.
– Michonne, on not being worried about being in close quarters with Daryl: "He's already given me fleas." Every time Michonne tells a joke it catches me off guard. Gimple started off her standup routine back in "Clear," and it's clear he wants to keep that up with her. I approve. Hershel is also turning into quite the yukster. The writers are judiciously spreading out the comedy to help characters that need it, and that's great.
– It's easy to question why Carol was outside the fence cleaning out the water line by herself and to say that she was stupid, but I prefer to think of it this way: She's badass. She carries brass knuckles now, people. Carol can do what she wants.
– Haha, Lizzy is sick. Yes! Go virus!!! I love how Carol just shoved her into A-Block, too. I think I'm in love with Carol!
– I feel bad for Dr. S getting sick, but I guess that was inevitable. And now Hershel is taking facefuls of contaminated blood.