Things get worse for the survivors, but Walking Dead just gets betterS

OH MY GOD THE WALKING DEAD HAS BEEN GREAT FOR THREE WHOLE EPISODES IN A ROW WHAT IS HAPPENING AND HOLY SHIT CAROL.

That’s the short version of my recap of “Isolation,” the turkey of the season, by which I mean the bowling term for three strikes in a row. The longer version is as follows:

Tyreese is upset that his ladyfriend and the other guy were burned alive. He takes it out on Rick, who pretty much explodes and beats the hell out of Tyreese until Daryl pulls him off (note: Daryl is, by far, the most level-headed person on the show now, which is phenomenal). Rick is horrified with himself for losing control, but a pep talk from Herschel forces him to acknowledge he can’t wallow in his failure, but has to keep trying to be good. If Herschel had said “All that stuff you did in seasons 2 and 3? Don’t do that,” it couldn’t have been more beautiful.

Meanwhile, everybody is getting sick, by which I mean a shit-ton of Woodburyians, Tyreese’s sister Sasha, the little kid who lost her dad last episode and who Carol kind of befriended, and even Glenn! Oh no! And then characters start responding to this increasingly dire situation in a lot of ways in interesting but totally reasonable ways! Tyreese decides to go on a run with Michonne, Bob and Daryl to a veterinary hospital that may have antibiotics and may not have been raided. Maggie tries to prepare herself for Glenn’s death. Carol tosses the little girl in the sick room with all the other sickies, but not without some emotional distress on her part. And Herschel goes out into the woods to pick some elderberry leaves, which is a natural flu remedy, and then ventures into the quarantine to administer it — getting a face full of sick person blood for his troubles. Meanwhile, Rick investigates the murders, old-school policeman-style.

And then more interesting things result from these decisions. Carl refuses to let Herschel go into the woods unprotected, so he escorts him, and comes across a walker with her leg in a trap; although it takes a word from Herschel, Carl does not needlessly kill the zombie, showing his clear mental improvement from last season. On the way to the vet, Daryl et al. run into perhaps the biggest goddamn herd of zombies that has even been featured on the show — they try to back out in their car, but hit so many zombies they pile up and the car wheels lose traction on all the gore. They have to escape and run into the nearby woods, but the already troubled Tyreese decides it’s Hammer Time, and does his best Oldboy impression, killing dozens of zombies as they swarm him (he manages to escape, because Tyreese is a badass).

And Rick solves the murders, but not before the show reveals to the audience who it is. I knew it right when Carol said to Tyreese, “What happened to your friends… I’m so sorry.” Because Carol has become increasingly pragmatic — to the point where if she sees a danger to the group, she will destroy that danger, even if it means setting living people on fire so that hopefully the illness doesn’t spread.

This is a character development that makes so much sense, and is fascinating to see. Carol started coming into her own when her shitty abusive husband died in season one, and then went into wailing mother mode when Sofia went missing in season 2. Sofia died, and the show didn’t really know what to do with her in season 3. But now she’s season 4’s breakout character. It’s too painful for her to care for individuals after Sofia, so she transfers her affection to the group; and likewise after Sofia, she’s come to care far more about survival than humanity. Survival vs. humanity — This is the question that season 3 wanted to ask us, but never managed to do effectively because Rick was looney tunes most of the time. But having Carol turn out to be a killer — for the survival of the group — is going to be so much more interesting because we care about Carol, she’s one of the original survivors, and if nothing else Daryl likes her, and Daryl’s awesome.

I assumed that I was being smart by figuring out Carol did it, after watching her post-Tyreese apology meltdown, but I figured it would take at least an episode — or more — or if ever — Rick figured it out. But Rick investigates the crime scene and watches Carol make a mad run outside the prison fence to clear the water pipe, and realizes she’s the only one so obsessed with the group’s survival that she's be willing to kill the people threatening it. And he asks her if she did it. And Carol just says yes, and walks away.

That was awesome. Not just because it was a great plot development, not just because it was a great scene, but because this means The Walking Dead truly has plenty of story to tell, and they have no need of dawdling anymore. Shit happens, plots move, characters reveal things about themselves and do things and change and oh my god if this is just a long fluke of good episodes TWD is legitimately going to break my heart.

Assorted Musings:

• It was another dialogue-light episode — really, the biggest bit was Herschel’s speech, which is like a bizarre funhouse mirror of Carol’s actions. Herschel’s willing to sacrifice himself for the rest of the group, while Carol’s willing to sacrifice others.

• Another psychological victim of the apocalypse: Beth, who tries to ignore all the dangers her friends and loved ones are in, and focus on her “job.” Looks like PTSD to me.

• Zombie Kill of the Week: All the zombies that got pureed on the car’s wheel. That was gross and awesome.

• I don’t know if this great new direction show is going also means we’re less likely to have major characters die — I don’t know why it would — but in any case the show’s track record of killing its cast has me legitimately worried about Glenn.

• That weird biccyle noise-maker that kept the zombies distracted while she cleaned the pipe? Another wonderful symbol that our band of survivors are 1) not morons and 2) have truly made the prison their home.

• Go back and watch the scene where Beth is talking to Maggie on the other side of the door, and then look at baby Judith. That is the face of a baby who is completely pissed off she was born during the zombie apocalypse.