“No matters what happens, we’ll cope. We have to.” (Beth to Maggie)
Never has an episode of The Walking Dead been so accurately titled.
The sense of isolation, never normally in short supply in a hostile apocalyptic landscape where humanity’s remnants are stretched few and far between, is palpable and potent, almost to a catastrophically suffocating degree.
Glenn (Steve Yeun), who is among the people who fall sick and are consigned to an isolation award in Block A, and Maggie (Lauren Cohan) can look but can’t touch (even when digging graves in the cemetery which is surely when you need a sympathetic shoulder to lean on).
Maggie, who remains healthy, and a similarly robust Beth (Emily Kinney), who is sent into quarantine with all the children including Rick’s daughter Judith in the admin block, can only talk through a thick, wooden door.
Tyreese (Chad L. Coleman, angry and shaken to the core, and alternately enervated, and then sucked dry of the ability to move, by his profound grief over the death of Karen (and David; which leads to a nasty bout of fisticuffs between he and Rick), can only say a hopefully temporary goodbye to a gravely ill Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green), who may or may not last till her brother, Bob (Larry Gilliard Jr), Michonne (Danai Gurira) and Darryl (Norman Reedus) return with the vital antibiotics everyone needs.
Rick (Andrew Lincoln), still not quite back far enough from his dark place, and Carl (Chandler Riggs) are separated when the younger Grimes is sent to act as protector to the vulnerable minors in the admin block.
Carol (Melissa McBride), the burden of the small prison world fallen onto her shoulders, her heart ripped to shreds by Lizzie (Brighton Sharbino) succumbing to the virulent illness (though still well alive at episode’s end), and guilt eating at her from the inside out, cut off physically and emotionally from everyone she holds dear.
And Hershel (Scott Wilson), who bravely and selflessly enters the isolation ward with elderberries, a natural remedy apparently for flu-like conditions and the only way some people are going to survive till the pharmaceutical cavalry arrives, cutting himself from his two daughters but not Glenn, to whom he offers pragmatic but comforting words about hanging in there.
People, people everywhere and not a soul within reach.
Everyone is maddeningly, profoundly, awfully alone and there’s nothing to be done about it.
(Ironically, this is one episode where Michonne, usually away from the prison on her endless, lonely quest to track down the Governor, is forced by recent injury to stay close.)
Save of course for following Hershel’s always sage advice and simply getting on with whatever your “job” is.
“There’s so many times we haven’t been able to do anything, change what was happening, what was happening to us. We wished we could but we couldn’t. This time I can. I know I can. So I have to …”
You step outside, you risk your life. You take a drink of water, you risk your life. And nowadays, you breathe and you risk your life. Every moment now you don’t have choice. The only thing you can choose is what you’re risking it for.”(Hershel)
They’re wise words and in the context of a highly emotive episode, in which nothing seems to happen but everything does, they are immensely moving and the sort of call to arms that the group, splintered into a thousand ailing pieces, needs desperately to hear.
Hershel’s rallying cry, delivered softly and with a pragmatic earnestness as he tries to convince Maggie, watched passively by starkly silent Rick (on his own quest to find Karen and David’s killer, a quest in which he succeeds with surprising results), to let him do what she knows must be done, isn’t much to hang onto in one sense, but in a world where succour is hard to come by, and oblivion beckons like an over-eager angel of death, is’s pretty much all you have to cling to.
What are you still alive for? What is the value of your life? And should you keep on living, an even handed proposition with death prevalent within and without the prison, what will your legacy be?
It’s lot to wrestle with but in a episode suffused with amounts of emphatic existential angst so vast that not even troubled world of The Walking Dead has seen its like before, everyone has time to ponder, think and mourn and Hershel’s word are timely.
But it’s not all sorrowful, sackcloth and ashes, moaning and gnashing of teeth (unless you’re a walker in which case, chomp the hell away).
There’s also quite a bit of action what with Carol getting caught outside the wire fence unclogging the water supply, and only saved in the nick of time by a quick thinking and fast moving Rick.
And Darryl, Michonne, Bob and a visibly grieving Tyreese hitting the road to get vitally needed antibiotics from a vet hospital that might not have been raided by people stripping pharmacy and hospital shelves bare, and finding themselves bogged in a great big pile of slushy walkers.
In a truly terrifying scene walkers as far as the eye can see besiege them, and they barely escape into the woods with their lives (Tyreese making good therapeutic walker-killing use of his rage), without their car, and isolated even further from their family and home back at the prison.
Isolation is a theme that repeats and repeats and repeats throughout the episode, a reminder if ever we needed one that life in the apocalypse is about as alone as anyone can get, no matter who’s around you.
But the episode also underscores, in ways big and small, that the only choice is to pull together, do your “job”, play your part and hope that somehow things “end up OK” as Hershel reminds Glenn at one point.
It’s an awful lot to hope for, but with “Isolation” ending on a cliffhanger of sorts, hope is about all they have going for them in a very dark hour indeed.
* Check out the promo and sneak peek at next week’s episode “Indifference” …