“What Happened and What’s Going On” – The Walking Dead Returns

The Walking Dead’s return begins with a series of seemingly-random clips. Shoveling dirt, a distraught Maggie, pictures of twin boys, etc. It all leads to a framed drawing of a house. Blood begins to drip onto the frame, begins to puddle, and then the show’s haunting theme kicks in.

And we’re back.

“What Happened and What’s Going On,” the ninth episode of season five, is a clear example of what the show does at both its best and its worst.

At its best, it tells a gripping, tight story with a clear goal about limited characters, shows character growth and strong emotions, and features just the perfect amount of zombie action for a post-apocalyptic show. As always, accompany this writing with some fantastic direction and cinematography, and you have yourself a recipe for a great episode of The Walking Dead.

At its worst, it tells a story that isn’t quite sure what it wants to be, relies on character stupidity to advance plot, and hopes that the always-excellent zombie action will eclipse its downfalls. And as always, the writing will be accompanied by the now-expected excellent direction and cinematography.

So what happens when you try to mask an “okay” idea inside the usual Walking Dead greatness? Well, you end up with an “okay” episode of The Walking Dead, which is an unfortunate way to say goodbye to Chad Coleman as Tyreese.

Though we’re still reeling from Beth’s death, we quickly learn that our group is on the road and at least one vehicle is going to check out Noah’s hometown. Tyreese gives a short monologue on the merits of listening to the news, something his father taught him, and I begin to realize we are watching a more “special” episode of The Walking Dead.

Noah tells us that he’s a twin, and that’s when the gears start spinning. The Walking Dead is not a particularly subtle show, though it can be if it tries hard enough. We know that the opening image of the blood dripping on the picture is going to come back, and given the show’s structure, it seems likely all opening images will be coming back. Does someone die? Who? Is this from the past or the future?

So when we learn that Noah is a twin, pieces start to fall into place. And this is where I think the episode falls short. Our group of Rick, Glenn, Michonne, Tyreese, and Noah arrive at his hometown to find that it’s, in Rick’s words, “gone.” Noah is naturally distraught, and while Rick, Glenn, and Michonne scavenge around and discuss their future, Noah returns to his home with Tyreese at his side. This is where Tyreese makes the unfortunate mistake of looking at a picture of Noah and his twin for much too long.

Look, I can’t harm the show for wanting to kill off its characters. It can provide for some great storytelling fuel and can affect characters in strong ways. It can even drastically change the show’s direction. It needs to happen to make room for the growing cast, a natural occurrence for such a show.

The problem with Tyreese’s death is two-fold. In the more minor sense, it’s a sad, stupid way for him to go. He knew that there was something moving in the house. What was so fascinating about the picture? Noah had told him he was a twin. It seemed the other twin was on that very bed, beside him. If there was anything to stare at for such a long time, surely it would be the body on the bed that looks remarkably like the living man you just saw.

In a more major way, Tyreese’s death comes at a time when the show’s emotional wheels were already spinning, and lumping him right after Beth’s death doesn’t provide the big punch it might have done otherwise.

On a side note, I can’t fault the show for wanting to bring back some great actors, but the hallucinations of our deceased characters only distracted from Tyreese’s death. I felt as if someone thought: “And then Beth’s there! And she sings! And The Governor’s there! And he says menacing things!”

I understand the theme that ran through the episode, about choosing between life and death, but it all felt as if The Walking Dead were trying to teach filmmaking students about how to write an episode, rather than be what it is at its best. Tyreese’s monologue about the news, his speech to Noah in the middle of the streets, talking about how he was there for Judith when she needed her, and if he hadn’t chosen to live… Then there was the recurring shot of the clock, the news talking about cannibalism, the drops of blood on the picture of home, and the Governor shouting “You have to pay the bill!”

It’s tough to handle hallucinations, and The Walking Dead has never had a great time with them. Remember Merle? Remember Lori? I did think the Shane hallucination was more well-handled, but for the most part, they always feel a little bit awkward.

I will credit the show for how it handled Tyreese after he got bit. I thought it was clever that he realized that his left arm was already gone and that he could therefore use it to his advantage. I also like that they showed the group cutting off his arm and trying to save him, even letting Rick call Carol and tell her to get Sasha and Carl out of there, futile as it ended up being. His final line in the car, saying “turn it off,” was well-done, coming full circle with his earlier monologue about the news.

The episode ends as an acute viewer might expect: the shovelling dirt returns. Of course, the writers must have thought they were clever, disguising this burial at the start of the episode as that of Beth’s, especially considering they masked it with a shot of Maggie crying. Unfortunately, this is the exact kind of subtlety that the show often tries to use, to varying success. Here, I thought it felt awkward, considering how quickly I figured that the opening shots were all going to come back.

Final thoughts:

  • Though Tyreese mentions he loved Karen, she does not get to be one of his hallucinations, no she does not.
  • The cut from Tyreese’s hallucinations to the frenzy of Michonne cutting his arm off was possibly the best moment of the episode. Followed almost directly by the slow-mo shot of Rick shooting a zombie.
  • Emily Kinney has a lovely singing voice, no doubt, but it was always a little shoehorned in, wasn’t it?
  • The zombie torsos falling out of that pickup truck? Both shocking and hilarious.
  • Oh right, the group is headed to Washington, despite the fact that Eugene was lying. And they’re close, suddenly! Let’s see where this goes.
  • Again, big props to the cinematography team. The episode was visually stunning.

Episode grade:B

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