Things go from bad to worse for the prison crew on The Walking Dead. But while things totally suck for them, the show’s renewed quality stays strong, both in the realms of delivering much-needed character development and strong thematic consistency. Out of the three episodes we’ve seen thus far this season, Isolation is easily the slowest of the three. It’s light on zombie-related violence (not a single human character even dies in this episode), but easily makes up for it by proving its competence (at times, even excellence) in the area that has been Walking Dead‘s weakest for the past two seasons: characters. Although the new group of Woodbury citizens has largely been zombie-fodder, Isolation gives us the time to get to know some of the newbies a little better. Larry Gilliard’s Bob Stookey is settling into his role as the competent and well-intentioned non-badass (it’s been quite awhile since we last met a person who isn’t a stone-cold zombie killing machine), and we’re given some time to get to know Tyreese and Sasha a little better too. Up until this point, Tyreese has simply been a sweet, level-headed guy whose primary function on the show was to be “good”. Isolation changes our understanding of his character a great deal by cracking open his calm exterior and giving us a frightening look at some seriously deep-seated rage issues he’s got lurking inside of him.

Rick is off on his own yet again (it seems his plot lines over the past few seasons have very little to do with human interaction), having now taken on the role of “Detective Rick” in order to solve the murders of Karen and David. The revelation in the episodes final few moments, that Carol is the killer, is a gut punch that makes a frightening amount of sense. Thus far, season four’s main running theme has been the exploration of the long-term effects this zombie apocalypse has had on these survivors. And Carol’s transformation from timid, abused housewife into a ruthlessly pragmatic survivor is by far the most powerful example of this. In last week’s review I stated that the show was no longer about trying to “survive”, it’s about trying to live. But I think a better description would be that it’s about the conflict between those who are trying to survive at all costs and those who are trying live with their humanity intact. Carol has fully embraced the former. She has rejected her sense of compassion in favor of an ends-justify-the-means policy. Keeping the majority of the people breathing is her goal, first and foremost, no matter the toll it takes on her soul.

On the flip side, we have Hershel, who selflessly exposed himself to the virus for the sake of showing compassion to the sick and dying. The “good deeds get repaid in punishment” motif that has been recurring takes an interesting and powerful turn through Hershel’s actions. Unlike Rick, Hershel embraces the punishment his kindness has brought upon him. To Hershel, showing compassion to other people is worth the price he pays for it. And his example is a source of unexpected hope in the overbearing grimness of his circumstance. In a world where the literal personification of death is your enemy, perhaps making one’s primary goal the avoidance of death is not the way to really live. Hershel is at peace with himself, not by frantically grasping at life that’s on the verge of disappearing at any given moment, but by coming to terms with his reality, and defying it’s attempts to take his humanity away from him.

This change in outlook has infused The Walking Dead with the sense of hope I had been waiting for these past two episodes. Perhaps the ultimate salvation for these characters won’t come in the form of a cure or a safe haven after all. Perhaps the greatest source of light in this dark and violent world is clinging to one’s humanity, as opposed to one’s life. What’s the point of finding safety and security if you’ve sacrificed your compassion and kindness in the process? Scott Gimple’s apparent fascination with this very conflict is the kind of thematic struggle that this show has needed all along. The Walking Dead has never really been about zombies. It’s been about people trying to find peace with themselves in the midst of hell-on-earth. Now, finally, we can see that struggle play itself out loud and clear onscreen. And that’s the way it should be.

Grade: A-
Other Thoughts
I’m honestly having a seriously hard time telling whether Lizzie is a sociopath or if the girl playing her is just an awful actress.
Bob’s lack of walker-killing proficiency has me questioning his supposed story of surviving by himself prior to getting to the prison. If I had to guess, I’d say The Governor is somehow pulling the strings here.
That being said, I really like Bob. He’s kind, and friendly. I like kind and friendly. It’s refreshing to see when every other character is either a wreck or is constantly flaunting how much of a badass they are.
Speaking of which, Tyreese goes ham on a group of walkers in this episode. Unfortunately, there was an even bigger mass of the flesh eaters right nearby. I’m actually really hoping that the group eventually ends up running into this mega horde. The visual of that many walkers all at one time was a jaw-dropper.
In other news, Marilyn Manson made a profound fool of himself on Talking Dead by being an incoherent, mysognistic jag-off. His apparent love of hearing himself talk didn’t help things much either. The moral of the story? Don’t do drugs kids… Also, if you’re going through an intense emo/goth phase, for the love of God grow out of it.
Andrew Allen is a television (and occasionally film) writer for Action A Go Go. He is an aspiring screenwriter and director who is currently studying at the University of Miami. You can check him out on Tumblr @andrewballen and follow him on Twitter @A_B_Allen.