Peaceful, well-stocked and secluded. The remote farmhouse in the woods discovered by Tyreese (Chad L. Coleman), Carol (Melissa McBride), Lizzie (Brighton Sharbino), Mika (Kyla Kenedy) and baby Judith in season 4 episode 14, "The Grove," should've been a safe and welcome respite from the relentless, struggle-plagued journey to find safety.
Unfortunately, their safe haven was quickly destroyed, but not by walkers or villainous humans this time. This time security was destroyed by the truth.
But before delving in to the depths of the episode, I think it important to pay homage to the stellar storytelling that's gone on in these last episodes.
Not only have the plots arced well, the episodes have arced in theme, character development and timeline layering.
That plume of black, then white smoke served as tonight's timeline link between episodes, as we can assume it came from the cabin fire set by Daryl (Norman Reedus) and Beth (Emily Kinney) in episode 12, "Still."
Present in every episode since the prison's demise, that small symbol of how close the survivors are to one another makes the isolation each small faction feels all the more poignant.
We watchers know how close they are to finding each other, and hopefully another home, but the characters remain lost in the dark, with their hope for a reunion dwindling like a smothered flame.
In "The Grove," the story seemed set to provide the audience with an emotional change of pace. Within this small group hope wasn't sputtering out, but blazing bright as the farmhouse safe haven seemed the perfect place to reestablish a home base.
However, this opportunity to let their guard down only exposed the group's dysfunctions present within characters and relationships. The resulting emotional roller coaster raced from hope to anxiety to horror, only to end on bittersweet, uneasy peace.
With relative safety presenting Carol with the opportunity to return to educating the girls, her focus honed in on Mika -- the seemingly weak link given her reluctance to kill walkers and refusal to kill humans, even if they're threatening her life.
Knowing that Carol killed Tyreese's Karen back at the prison with the excuse that her death potentially saved lives, we can't help wondering if Carol is sizing Mika up with the same measuring stick.
Each time Carol and Mika went off alone, we wondered if Carol would decide the young girl was too weak and naive to survive, and kill her in the woods to guard eliminate the vulnerability she brought to the group.
Because of Carol's concerned attention, Mika's life felt in jeopardy throughout the episode. However, not once was there a hint as to who her killer would ultimately be.
Lizzie presented her own paradox, as a killer in the making who valued human life so little, and the animated state of walkers so highly. Until now her strange predilections were known only to the audience and a bit by younger sister Mika, and the episode built the anxiety beautifully as we hoped and prayed Carol and Tyreese would discover the danger lurking within her before it was too late.
Because of that moment in episode 10, "Inmates," when it appeared that Lizzie would suffocate baby Judith -- both to silence her crying that was attracting walkers, and out of a sick desire to end life borne out of the thought of killing her -- it was Judith's life we feared for.
We cringed every time we saw Judith handed off to the little killer by the others.
We even feared when Lizzie toyed with the idea of deliberately becoming a walker herself.
But never once did we suspect she would kill her little sister, with the misguided notion that a walker Mika would show Carol and Tyreese that turning wouldn't be such a bad thing.
Faced with having a pint-sized predator on their hands, Carol skillfully led Tyreese into accepting their only option. To protect Judith and for their own safety, Lizzie had to be eliminated.
And how poignant, too, Carol's execution of the twisted, yet still some how innocent young girl. So reminiscent of George killing the sweet, but dimwitted, accidental murderer Lennie in John Steinbeck's novel "Of Mice and Men."
The only criticism I have of the beautiful way Mika and Lizzie's end was handled is that it was so impactful, that it threatened to overshadow Carol's confession to Tyreese that she was Karen's killer.
A major moment that has been a long time coming.
Structurally, I could see how Mika's murder and Lizzie's execution led to Carol's confession and Tyreese's forgiveness in a way no other event could have accomplished.
Before those children's tragic deaths, there came a moment when Tyreese broke down from missing Karen, and it appeared that Carol was on the brink of confessing. And in that instance we were on the edge of anxiety, praying that she wouldn't.
A confession then would've destroyed the trust between them. Trust needed , as it required the efforts of both to keep three helpless children alive in this world.
Then, when she did confess after their deaths, handing Tyreese Lizzie's execution gun as a symbol of her willingness to be sacrificed to "rightness" if Tyreese deemed it necessary for his own peace of mind.
In the end, we're glad this secret no longer stands between these two, and although the moment was slightly overshadowed, I cannot imagine a better way to have accomplish the soul-shaking story development this episode achieve.
My only question is: Where was Judith as they left the farmhouse?
I can only assume she was supposedly in a blanket-covered papoose strapped to Tyreese's back, but given the jarring deaths of Mika and Lizzie, added to the baby grave already on the property when they arrived, it would've been nice to have some visible evidence that Judith was safe and with them as they left.
Oh well,I suppose I'll just have to look forward to her reunion with Rick and Carl -- which we'll hopefully see in one of these last two episodes.
In fact, I truly hope that ALL of the prison survivors will shortly be reunited, including Daryl who has been absorbed (hopefully temporarily) into that violent band of criminals, and Beth, who I'm guessing was kidnapped by a group of cannibals who had set up that well-stocked funeral home (and maybe even this episode's farmhouse?) as lures to trap their human victims in...