Well damn. The other day Andrew Lincoln, who plays Rick Grimes on AMC’s zombie hit The Walking Dead, promised the first two episodes back from their hiatus were going to be brutal, and he wasn’t lying. The second half of season 5 just kicked off with “What Happened and What’s Going On,” and not only does it pile tragedy on the already abused group of survivors, it’s also likely the most stylized episode in the show’s entire run. We don’t know about the next episode, but if it’s in the same ballpark as this one, it’s going to be a rough go for fans, as the midseason premiere delivers a stout gut punch.
If you haven’t watched tonight’s episode yet, seriously stop reading, there are SPOILERS beyond this point.
Directed by special effects guru, and general Jack-of-all-trades, Greg Nicotero, “What Happened and What’s Going On” starts with mourning, with a burial, with a eulogy. After the events of “Coda,” the midseason finale, you think you know what’s going on. You think the group is grieving over the loss of Beth (Emily Kinney) at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta. They certainly are dealing with that, but that’s not explicitly the case, as tonight’s episode sees Tyreese (Chad L. Coleman) added to the ever-growing list of casualties.
This beginning is a misdirect, and the whole episode is one long, looping affair, full of startling images, thick with metaphor and meaning, not always told in sequence, and featuring flashbacks, dreams, and hallucinations. You see the group, burdened, broken, desperate, and you watch them move forward, or more accurately, try to figure out how to keep moving forward. But they do, because that’s what they’ve always done, and it’s all they have.
To honor Beth’s memory, Rick decides to make sure Noah (Tyler James Williams) gets home to his walled community. Beth wanted to get him there, and the only way Rick can think to pay tribute to her is to fulfill her wish. And if it happens that they find a place where the rest of them can lay their heads, all the better, but it’s more for her. Now that Washington DC is off the table—thanks a lot, Eugene—this serves as their next concrete goal.
But this is The Walking Dead we’re talking about after all, and nothing is ever that easy. Overrun by walkers, it’s gone, all gone. They travelled hundreds of miles, left Georgia for Virginia, and it’s all a wash. To make matters worse, Tyreese catches a bite taking Noah to explore the ruins of his home. But that’s not the end, it’s just a beginning. As the plague takes over his body, as he shuts down, he sees visions of the dead, both friend and foe, running over and over in his mind the choices he made, and whether or not it was all worth it.
Beth is there, as are Bob (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.) and Mika (Kyla Kenedy) and Lizzie (Brighton Sharbino), the two young girls he saved after the prison. They represent the it-was-all-worth-it side, the girls assuring him it’s better now, and Bob adding, "It went the way it had to, it went the way it was going to. Just like this."
On the other side, you have the doubting and the suspicion and the skepticism. Tyreese sees Martin (Chris Coy), who he let live and who led the cannibals from Terminus after them. And there’s another familiar face you didn’t expect to see ever again, as David Morrissey shows up at the Governor, reminding Tyreese that he once agreed to do anything to earn his keep. This seems to tie into things Tyreese said earlier in the episode about his father, but it’s kind of vague, so you’re never sure.
It’s sad and difficult to watch this internal struggle play out, to witness his demons go to war. He’s been through hell, a couple of times, but he, more than just about anyone else, has always done his best to keep a grip on his humanity and his sense of identity, of who he is. It hasn’t always been easy, especially after losing Karen and what happened with the girls, but he’s always been steadfast in trying not to lose himself. He, like Beth, had a good, kind heart and spirit, and the two of them dying back to back like this is going to be tough for the group to take.
But this is more than just the episode where Tyreese dies. Tense an ominous, “What Happened and What’s Going On” is, stylistically, a drastic departure for The Walking Dead. The looping narrative repeats motifs, adding new layers of meaning and understanding each time they come back around. It doesn’t always hit the mark, but it’s a bold choice, one pulled off well enough to largely be effective. Visually, they play with dreamy imagery, slow motion (there are ample opportunities for slo-mo zombie head explosions for all you gore hounds), and depth of field to create the most distinctive looking episode to date.
In the struggle against hopelessness—the group ends the episode even more beaten and brutalized than they began—that isn’t to say the episode is entirely without hope and possibility. DC is back on the table, though in a very different way, and you see the survivors turn towards each other for help, for support, giving each other a reason to continue, to not let the weight crush them. It’s not going to be easy—Sasha (Sonequa Martin Green) and Maggie (Lauren Cohan) are going to have an especially rough go, both losing siblings, but you can’t help but feel like they’re not going to let this break them.
And you can’t help but wonder what the hell is going on at Noah’s place. There’s some weird stuff in play. By the breach in the wall, dismembered sets of legs and limbs litter the ground and it looks like the retaining wall has been deliberately wrecked. Later on, you see where the rest of the bodies went, as they clip a truck and armless, still-undead torsos spill out. My first reaction to all of this is Neegan, one of the villains from the comics fans suspect is on the way. This is all very deliberate, someone went through a lot of trouble, and it seems like something that sick bastard might do. It might be, it might not be. We’ll have to wait and see what comes of this, but it’s a startling, striking image, and one that you know will pay off later.
But for now, we mourn Tyreese, he provided a moral center, and we wonder how they’ll continue to move on. He’ll be missed.