The Walking Dead returned on Sunday with “What Happened and What’s Going On,” written by showrunner Scott Gimple. The episode delivered an emotionally powerful (if not manipulative) hour that saw the survivors finally make their way out of Georgia, and ended with the demise of yet another character – only this time it was the group’s moral center.
The episode opened with everyone at a grave site, leading us to believe, of course, that they were burying Beth. The group decides – after all this time – to finally leave Georgia for Richmond, Virginia, where Noah is hopeful the compound that was set up before he left is still standing. Now, it was pretty obvious from the melancholic score and the flashes of places and times past (though some were unfamiliar to viewers) that this episode would be a downer. But when Mika and Lizzie showed up out of nowhere, I knew that something very bad was going to go down. I must admit, though, that seeing their faces flash briefly on the screen left me intrigued.
As Rick, Glenn, Tyreese, Michonne, and Noah arrive in Richmond (Carol and the others are a little farther behind in another vehicle) they quickly learn Shirewilt Estates (Noah’s hometown) fell to the zombies, reinforcing the already done-to-death notion that the only people in the country (or perhaps the world) who seem to be capable of surviving as a collective unit are Rick’s gang. That is of course, until we find another equally – and uniquely- resilient group in LA for the spin off.
This brings up another bothersome point: In many episodes, for many seasons, the group couldn’t pass roads a few miles away because they were always blocked by burned-out cars and hordes of walkers. Now they can cover over 500 miles from Georgia to Virginia, with enough gas for the trip and without incident? Sure, we can say they may have taken care of any trouble they encountered off camera, but the ability to travel that far at will changes the situation these people are in significantly, which really effects the entire survival story.
At the estates, Noah grieves for his mother and twin brothers (who were also in the town) while Rick, Glenn, and Michonne sweep the place for supplies. Glenn asks Rick if he thought the compound would still be there, but Rick says it doesn’t matter – he made the trip because it was what Beth would have wanted. Glenn, however, can’t see past losing Beth and the discovery that the Washington trip was built on a lie. He is lower than we’ve ever seen him before. He reveals if he had it to do over again, he wouldn’t have stopped to save the people trapped in the boxcar at Terminus. Michonne doesn’t like what she’s hearing, and warns them that they could all be out there too long.
Meanwhile, Tyreese tries to console Noah by explaining how he felt like dying after he lost loved ones, finding himself in the midst of walkers, waiting until they took him out. But then he decided to keep going. He says, “…And then later, I was there for Judith when she needed me. I saved her. I brought her back to her dad. That wouldn’t have happened if I had just given up. If I hadn’t chosen to live. Noah…Noah, this isn’t the end.” It was a powerful speech, and it was delivered beautifully by Chad Coleman. The words even seemed to represent a turning point for Tyreese, who in past episodes, seemed hesitant to do that which would ensure his and others’ survival. His encouragement to Noah that life does and should go on felt important. That made it all the harder to watch what would happen next.
When Noah runs to his house because he has to see what ultimately happened (why do characters always have to see it? There is no closure in The Walking Dead) Tyreese keeps a watchful eye over things. But it’s when he enters Noah’s brother’s room, and gazes at the innocent faces in the pictures a moment too long, that he lets his guard down – just long enough for one of the twin walkers to lunge at him from behind, taking a chunk out of his arm.
The rest of the episode focuses on Tyreese’s final moments: In a strange “This is Your Life” montage of the dead, Martin, Bob, Lizzie, Mika, Beth (singing, no less), and even The Governor show up to tell a hallucinating Tyreese about how things are, or how they turned out because of Tyreese’s past actions. All the while, radio reports filled with terrible news stories Tyreese’s dad made him listen to as a child (being informed was “paying the high cost of living) also mysteriously fill the air.
Weak and losing blood, Tyreese encounters another walker. And I have to say, it felt a little “in your face” to have Tyreese be bit a second time, like twisting the knife in the viewers’ hearts. I know he was already injured, but even so, he couldn’t hold onto his hammer and fight off one zombie? Tyreese has taken on a whole lot more than that at one time. I know it served a point in the story, but it gets a bit tedious when any group member, who apparently has mad fighting skills beyond those of most people (since whole towns and cities – and even the military, have gotten overrun) gets bit by one walker. It’s a circumstance of convenience, used previously with others, like Bob and Andrea (in Season three), and it takes me out of the story.
Rick, Glenn, and Michonne are making their way back from the sweep, when Michonne, clearly in need of a real safe haven, proposes they still go to Washington, even without the hope of a cure. She wants the chance to really live “instead of just making it.” Rick agrees, but just then the trio hear Noah’s screams for help, and they rush off to save their new friend, unaware Tyreese is in terrible trouble as well.
The last few moments of this episode felt the most manipulative. While Beth, Bob, and the girls tell Tyreese he doesn’t have to be a part of “it,”(AKA life) and Martin and the Governor taunt Tyreese for his forgiving and gentle nature, Tyreese gathers his remaining strength and comes out from behind the desk, standing tall. He tells the Governor he (Tyreese) knows who he is and “It’s not over.” When he sobs, “I’m not giving up. People like me, they can live. Ain’t nobody got to die today,” his resolve to fight seems clear. As Rick and the others take decisive action, cutting off the affected part and dragging Tyreese out of the estates, it feels right to hope that he will actually make it.
But despite Rick and his gang’s pure determination to get Tyreese to the safety of the car, Tyreese wants the radio – that is, all the noise – turned off. Beth, Mika, Lizzie, and Bob beckon Tyreese to the other side, and Tyreese decides, right then and there, that he’s ready to go. Kind of makes you wonder why he went through the trouble of making that impassioned speech about not giving up to the Governor.
The end scene shows the whole group back together, and we learn that the burial at the beginning of the episode was not Beth’s, but Tyreese’s. In the end, all that remains is Tyreese’s signature hat, perched upon the plain wooden cross that marks his grave.
This episode, while emotionally powerful and exquisitely acted by Chad Coleman, was also blatantly manipulative. The story unfolded in such a way that we were supposed to get our hopes up that Tyreese would make it. We were led to believe that despite losing honorable people like Dale and Hershel, someone like Tyreese could survive in this landscape. But then the show mocked us for that hope, telling us how futile and foolish it was, and brutally drove home the point, that no matter what, anybody the group (and by extension, the audience) cares about will most likely be lost. The problem is, that’s a lesson we learned many seasons ago, and one we certainly didn’t need to be reminded of so soon after Beth’s death.
Again, that’s not to take away from how well the episode was done. Between the beautifully shot sequences, to the outstanding performances, to the rich symbolism, this show has proven many times over that it can deliver much more than just zombie action. But as I’ve written in other reviews, why do they go to such great lengths to tell us that no matter what these people do, they’re screwed? How much excitement will viewers be able to muster if the story only becomes who dies next and how? At some point, won’t watching that get very old?
This brings us to the inherent contradiction within the show. On one hand, (as I mentioned before), this group seems more capable than most in terms of surviving and still remaining –at least somewhat – human. On the other hand, the group is constantly losing its members, enduring as a group only by picking up new people along the way (whole towns and cities fall but Father Gabriel makes it alone in a church?). I understand what the show is trying to convey: The zombie apocalypse is very unpredictable – who lives, who dies – but everyone is always at risk.
But what the show shouldn’t forget is the story is only as strong as its characters. We viewers are caught up in the never-ending spiral of coming to care about a character, only to see that character die a horrible death. Look, we all want these stories to make us feel something, but there are other ways to move us besides resorting to killing off yet another person we’ve become attached to. Taking that approach makes it harder to root for the characters at all. Why root for them when they are just going to die? The risk of dying can hang in the air without it being a certainty. So please, show, find another way to build tension with something other than imminent death. Don’t mock me for hoping for these characters. Because if there’s no hope left at all, then the fight to survive – and the struggle to retain some humanity in the process – becomes meaningless. And then so does this show.