Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson review The Walking Dead each week in a series of letters.
Cards on the table: That was one of the most poetic and moving Walking Dead episodes I’ve ever seen. The whole hallucinatory aspect really worked for me, and I think if you’re going to make the big choice to take away a character like Tyreese, this is how to do it—with art, ambiguity and a sense of what it means when the suffering of life comes to an end.
“What Happened and What’s Going On,” the ninth episode of Season Five and the first since the mid-season break, represented a huge stylistic shift for the show. It had a lot in common with another episode you and I talk about quite a bit, “Live Bait,” which followed the Governor on his sojourn after the fall of Woodbury, and was a strange and atmospheric character study that they undermined the very next week as the Governor reverted to a hyperbolic villain—a sort of tease about what the show could be, if it wasn’t a zombie thriller ratings juggernaut. Unlike “Live Bait,” though, last night’s episode tied a bow on itself with Tyreese’s death, and became a self-contained piece of art in the sea of whatever else they decide to do this season. In other words, they can’t take this one away from us.
At times, this felt almost like watching a Terrence Malick film, and the cinematic vibe persisted for the full hour. Visual cues defined the episode—the spade in the dirt, the blood pooling over the idyllic painting, the picture of Noah and his twin, the railroad tracks disappearing into the forest, the grass growing through the skeleton. They appeared at the beginning, in the midst of the action, and once again at the end, almost as symbols of the process Tyreese was enduring. Even more than these images, though, I’m left with a memory of voices. The metaphor at the heart of the plot is something Tyreese first mentions to Noah as they’re driving to a promised land, of sorts, in Richmond: His father used to make them listen to the radio, and hear the bad news from around the world, as a way to keep their eyes open and “pay the high cost of living.” To Tyreese, this awareness is everything, and it’s his way of conceptualizing the need to endure the extreme hardships he’s faced. By listening, and staying tuned, he managed to survive long enough to save Judith, even while he held on to the remnants of his idealism.
When he gets bit, though, the voices change—now the radio is blaring, just as in his childhood, with news from an unidentified conflict where people are committing unspeakable atrocities on each other in the kind of hellscape that reminded me of the nightmarish conflict stories I’ve read about from places like Rwanda. He’s forced to listen, all while dead voices from the past are visiting him as he tries to hold on to life. Martin tells him that it could all have been avoided if he had faced the facts and killed him when he had the chance, and the Governor scolds him for not understanding the price of life. But the others—Bob Stookey, the girls, and Beth—tell him that things happened how they were meant to happen, and that where he might be headed was free of the pain he had suffered for so long. Beth even sings an old Jimmy Cliff song: “You’re a struggling man, and it’s time to move on.”
What I really admired about this episode is that there’s truth in every perspective, and the writers don’t try to force an ultimate meaning on the narrative. That’s the ambiguity I was talking about, along with the way they strung out the possibility of his death and even allowed us, momentarily, to believe in his survival. At the final moment, whatever else we choose to believe, it’s Beth, and the girls, and Bob, who are driving him, and who give him permission to turn the radio off. There’s relief there—we don’t know exactly what it means, or what comes next, but the heavy burden is gone.
I can’t say enough about this episode, Josh, and I’m anxious for your thoughts. I really think that it’s my favorite, and my only complaint is that I thought it ended a scene too late—it would’ve been especially beautiful if our last image was the shot of the group in the distance, taking his body from the car, their reactions muted, from our hearing, but ringing with the clarity of those whose suffering is not yet at its end.
Beth’s death may have been the more shocking after two episodes that primarily focused on her, but Tyrese’s was the more emotional for me. He’s been the moral idealist of the group, through one horrific circumstance after another. He was the tenderhearted giant, shedding hordes of zombies like a defensive end knocking aside blockers one minute, caring for Judith the next. His humanity survived the murder of his girlfriend, the death of two little girls in his care and a moment of mercy that came back to haunt him.
I agree that the hallucinations worked for the most part, but the producers were a little too in love with some of the shots, showing the skeleton with weeds coming up through his bones on three separate occasions. I don’t think Malick would have allowed that. Still, before The Walking Dead I would have never expected a zombie show to look so lovely at times. It fit the mood tonight.
The best part of the episode to me was seeing the rescue attempt from the dreamy perspective of Tyreese. Rick, Glen, Noah and Michonne are panicked, but the camera makes the journey seem tranquil. He’s spent the episode coming to terms with how he lived his life. He lived it well. He knows who he is, and no hallucinatory Governor or Martin can take away the good that he did. He didn’t turn away from the hurt around him, though he was sorely tempted time and again. He fought until the end, and when he could no longer fight, he made peace. We’ve seen so much pain in the show lately, from Maggie grieving Beth to Noah grieving his family to Sasha grieving Tyreese at the end. The suffering of this apocalyptic world is what Tyreese is finally escaping, and that makes it a little easier for viewers to deal with such a loss.
Without Tyreese, the group will be searching for its moral center. Glen is too angry right now. Maggie, Noah and Sasha are in mourning. Rick is just trying hold everything together. Surprisingly it looks like Michonne could take up the mantle from Dale, Bob and Tyreese as protector of the group’s Humanity with a capital H. After finally shedding the stoicism she wore like armor alone on the road, she’s tired of just surviving and ready to do some living.
We now have a wide-open slate. The group made it from Atlanta to Richmond in the space of an episode, losing another beloved member along the way. Now Mr. Grimes is about to go to Washington, where either hot showers and military rations or zombiefied senators await. Whatever they face, they’ll now have to do it without Tyreese.
Great point on the moral center, and I think you’re right in that Michonne will be the next in line. I think we saw a key part of the new dynamic play out when she convinced Rick that Washington should be their next destination—she’s the hopeful one, but she also has Rick’s ear, and the power to convince him to make certain moves.
So with Terminus in the rearview, it seems like we’re ready for a new set of strangers, right? I imagine as a reader of the comics, you have a better inkling of what we can expect up in DC, but I’m totally in the dark. More psychopaths? An actual community they can join? Maybe they’ll run into that group that occupied Terminus back when Gareth the Emo Hipster Douche was still an idealist?
There’s also an unresolved question or two from the first half of the season. I think Eugene is okay, from the early flashback in tonight’s episode, but I’m not positive that he retained 100% of his capacities after that haymaker from Abraham. And while it’s great that Abraham wants to live, will he be content to be no. 2 to Rick, or will he essentially wander around in a fugue state, with bouts of mania that the others have to control? And how will Sasha, already sort of an emotional wreck from Bob’s death, transform now that Tyreese is gone? Will she be the new Michonne—a rage-operated killing machine?
Aside from those questions, though, I can’t remember a time when the show felt more wide open. The slate is wiped as clean as it gets, and anything could happen on the way to DC. I, for on, am pretty excited about the new range of possibilities. And I hope to God Morgan finally catches up with the group, though now that they’re in cars and two states north, I’m pessimistic…he was almost there, Josh! Now he’s got to ninja his way up the 85-95 corridor, which seems just as unpleasant in the zombie apocalypse as it is today. I only wish we could have had a small moment when the group reached Petersburg where they celebrated being off I-85 for good.
Love to hear your thoughts on where we’re going next, and what awaits them in the nation’s capital. Have we had our three big deaths for the year, or is it open season on the big guns? Will Eugene do something heroic in DC? Is there a larger survival plan waiting, or just more vicious fighting between rival gangs? And last but not least, Chad Coleman must be doing another project that prevents him from continuing on The Walking Dead, right? Otherwise, I can’t imagine they’d kill such an entertaining character, even if they executed it with style.
It’s indeed wide open right now, and even as a comics reader, I don’t really know what’s next for the TV show. They’ve traveled 500 miles from Atlanta, essentially cutting themselves off from anybody else they’ve encountered—unless, of course, Rick has been leaving a trail for Morgan.
I’d really like to see a D.C. that’s been laid waste to by zombies, and that’s not just my political cynicism talking. I’d just love to see how Robert Kirkman and his co-writers imagine our nation’s capital would have fared in the apocalypse.
Certainly they won’t kill anybody off next week, right? But I have a feeling we’re going to meet another big bad guy soon.
Please don’t die Daryl Dixon (but it’d be cool if you got more lines),
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