Bait and switch!
My love/hate relationship – as well as Chase Branch’s complete severing of ties – with The Walking Dead has been well documented. An uneven, often frustrating show with glimmers of innovative storytelling and a strong cast, Dead often suffers from a lack of an endgame. When you aren’t exactly sure where your characters are going, it is difficult to chart a reasonable and exciting story arc. Even though I often admired the writing, directing, and acting, I was frustrated enough to all but give up — especially last season when the show went completely off the rails into exploitative smut. I approached the first half of season five with cautious curiosity – not unlike one craning their neck to observe a train wreck.
I thought – as many did – that the show followed a certain pattern: run from the zombies, find a safe haven, safe haven ends up being house of horrors in one way or another, explosions, zombies, death, run from zombies, etc. So imagine my surprise when Rick and Co. arrived and exited Terminus within the first episode, arrived and exited in the church by midseason, and opted not to spend several episodes taking down the cops at the hospital. The show became surprising, storylines unpredictable, and to Sundays I once again looked forward.
After the shocking and devastating loss of Beth at the midseason point, it would have been easy to spend an episode on the characters dealing with that debilitation, struggling to find what was left of meaning in the apocalypse. Instead, “What Happened and What’s Going On” treated us to a Greg Nicotero-directed fever dream and more shock than any viewer could have ever imagined.
The episode opened on what we all assumed was Beth’s burial (more on that in a moment), a funeral led by faith-struggler Father Gabriel. Quick shots of a house, photographs of young twins we do not know, blood flowing on a framed picture, Maggie crying, Noah struggling, the prison, Woodbury…what are these images? Then we are in a car heading down the road with Rick, Tyreese, Glenn, Michonne, and Noah. The group agrees to head to Shirewilt Estates – Noah’s former home. Rick surmises that they owe it to Beth to at least try to get Noah home. It could be a home for all of them, a chance.
But this is The Walking Dead, after all, and we know that no place is sanctuary – er, least of all Sanctuary! After the small convoy arrives, we see that the town is deserted; all that is left is a few walkers and burned-out buildings. Noah collapses in tears as Rick, Michonne, and Glenn search for supplies, leaving Tyreese to look after the grieving young man. Glenn and Rick discuss the need for the trip, the latter coming off as a broken man that has finally just had enough. Pessimism is overtaking the once eternal optimist. Glenn tells Rick that when he was searching for Maggie, there was a purpose; Eugene’s version of D.C. was a purpose; getting Beth back from the hospital was a purpose – but losing hope and Beth in the same few hours was just too much for Maggie, and too much for Glenn to watch his love suffer.
Speaking of suffering, Noah decides that he has to see what has become of his family, and rushes off to his house. Tyreese tries to stop him, but apparently, the Offensive Tackle-looking teddy bear is no match for a limping Noah, who outpaces him. Once at the house, Tyreese offers to go in and make sure the place is clear. While Noah mourns his mother – a gruesome corpse laid out in the living room – Ty canvasses the rest of the house. That’s when we see the photographs of the twin boys from the opening…and a zombie that straight-up BITES TYREESE in the arm!!!!!!!??????!!!! Cue shocked and screaming Rachel! I could barely contain my grief, my astonishment at the imminent loss of such a staple of not only the show but also the comic. Tyreese’s trajectory in print is quite different from that of the Chad Coleman-played character on the screen, but I will never believe that anyone saw this coming.
Anywho, Tyreese dispatches the zombie and Noah finds him – he rushes to go find help…as he should since THIS IS ALL YOUR FAULT NOAH! This is why Everybody Hates Chris! Still in disbelief, sure that the crew can just cut off Ty’s arm a la Hershel’s leg in a prior episode, I held on to hope. That is, until I realized that Tyreese was being treated to a love letter of an episode – a goodbye. He sees visions of Bob, Martin, Lizzie, Mike, Beth, and the Governor discussing his transition: who has he become? What will it be like if he just lets go? Have all of his decisions led to the deaths of each of these people? We see each of the images from the opening in key points in the episode: the photographs of the twins, the blood on the picture is the zombie bleeding out, Woodbury is where Tyreese could have been like the Governor, the Prison is where he could have killed Carol instead of forgiving her. In the end, even with Rick chopping off the big man’s arm, and the crew attempting to carry him to safety, Tyreese lets go. The funeral from the beginning was not for Beth…TWIST!
Nicotero and Coleman invoked Terrence Malick’s name a few times in discussing the style for the episode; the comparison is definitely there. Varying on moments of effectiveness, the episode ultimately works as a fitting end for a beloved member of the cast, and certainly a character that has been on a significant journey. The show-version of Tyreese is a man torn between the rage he so wants to express and the belief that he cannot allow the horrors of the world to change him. A pacifist at heart, a man like Tyreese will always either die quickly, sacrificing himself for those he loves, or live long enough to see all he loves torn from him. Chad Coleman was brilliant, stealing all the thunder in an episode laden with cameos and gasp-worthy moments. Even though I spent most of Sunday night shouting at my television, The Walking Dead has won me back. At least for now.
A whole episode without Carl helped.