The Walking Dead: 509 “What Happened and What’s Going On” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
The Walking Dead left screens back in December with a few of the most miserable scenes the show has served up as of yet – Beth, the subject of a four episode long rescue mission, carried out of the hospital with a bullet in her head as the group mourned her untimely and slightly confusing death. Having killed off a fan favourite series regular in such dramatic fashion the previous episode, surely The Walking Dead’s 2015 return would be a little more optimistic? The answer: absolutely not.
The mid-season premiere, bluntly titled What Happened and What’s Going On, began with an intriguingly trippy, off-kilter montage of previous sanctuaries such as the prison and Woodbury, out of context images such as blood dripping onto a picture frame, and shots of the group deciding to take a trip to Noah’s gated neighbourhood to honour Beth. It’s the sort of jarring, disorientating opener The Walking Dead usually strays away from – but in this case, the opening montage (and the episode itself) had a welcome feel of genuine uniqueness, with an artier style than we’re used to (which, as we’d learn, had a very specific reason). Greg Nicotero’s direction of the episode was excellent, with the mix of off-kilter images and a few slices of innovative action (an almost artfully disgusting slow-motion sequence from Tyreese’s POV a highlight, if you can call it that) adding to the episode’s unique visual style. Nicotero has been a stalwart director for the show, and his work here only adds to his impressive portfolio.
What Happened and What’s Going On largely revolved around a scouting trip up to Shirewilt Estates (a take on the comic book’s Wiltshire Estates), Noah’s former home. Wiltshire initially appeared fairly appetizing to the survivors in the comics before the walkers streamed in – but here, Shirewilt is revealed as being abandoned and filled with walkers very early on. It somewhat fits the nihilistic tone of the episode, but the brisk reveal of the walkers and the burned homes does somewhat squander an opportunity for a more suspenseful take on the gated neighbourhood (though we may just have a somewhat friendlier gated sanctuary later this season).
A positive, however, was the sensible move of cutting down the cast for this episode – allowing a greater study of each character without falling into the often dull nature that The Walking Dead’s bottle episodes have. Michonne, for example, had a couple of notable moments in the limelight as she pressed for the group to go to Washington – Michonne was fairly quiet in the first half of season five, so it’s pleasing to see a generally strong character emerge into the limelight again here. Michonne’s hopeful speech managed to take some of the more overly depressing edges off of the episode, adding a sense of hope and possibility that will hopefully carry though into the following episodes.
However, despite a strong moment from Michonne, the mid-season premiere was all about Tyreese. Tyreese hasn’t been one of The Walking Dead’s great success stories – his pacifistic nature often feeling a little grating at times – but the character’s different outlook did at least allow Tyreese the chance to stand out from the (extremely large) pack. Tyreese has always been, unlike some of the regular characters, a good man, untainted by the horrific nature of the apocalypse (while Rick bites throats out and hacks people to death with machetes). That made him weak – so it was fairly inevitable that the character would meet his maker sooner or later; but I’m not sure many people expected the character to die straight off the back of another devastating loss. This close proximity to Beth’s death made Tyreese’s walker bite a genuine shock – with most characters seeming fairly safe for the time being, it was an effectively jolting surprise to see Tyreese claimed by a walker.
Unlike Beth’s purposefully abrupt, accidental death, however, Tyreese did not go gently – bleeding out for roughly half the episode’s screentime. This allowed for a trope not used for a few seasons in TWD – hallucinations of the dead, as a surprisingly large assortment of deceased characters appeared in Tyreese’s mind. The hallucinations were executed rather well here, as good and evil old faces berated and encouraged Tyreese for his refusal to give in to the brutality of the post-apocalyptic world. Some characters were more welcome than others – but there was a strong thematic depth to the hallucinatory scenes.
The idea that being a good person gets you killed is a fairly depressing one, but it was well represented by the villainous returning characters such as the Governor (a welcome return from the always-great David Morrissey) and Martin (a not so welcome return), and Tyreese’s refusal to give into these thoughts allowed the character’s final moments to feel appropriately heroic; he even managed to take out a walker with one arm already bitten.
Likewise, the friendlier faces such as Bob, Lizzie (I still shudder) and Mika allowed Tyreese to contemplate the idea that death is actually better than living, and that Tyreese’s forgival of Carol showed his strength. These battling elements of Tyreese’s psyche were extremely interesting to watch, and allowed for a well-executed peek into the character’s motivations and backstory (though I’m not quite sure what those radio messages were about), allowing the character a satisfying and emotionally solid conclusion.
However, Tyreese’s passing (despite Rick’s best efforts to pull the old ‘amputate the limb’ trick that worked a treat with Hershel) does beg the question – was it too depressing? Killing off two regulars in two episodes is certainly brutal; and while the double-whammy allowed for a clever fake-out at the start of the episode as Tyreese’s funeral was made to look like Beth’s funeral, it might make death a little cheaper on The Walking Dead. Character deaths should be rare to maximize the impact – if TWD continues to kill off characters in this fashion, it may make characters’ deaths less shocking and more eye-rolling – more for cheap shock value than true storytelling sense.
The Walking Dead has often been depressing, but never quite as nihilistic as it has been in these past two episodes. Michonne’s speech was a step in the right direction, but even that moment was eventually overshadowed by Tyreese. The apocalypse is obviously a brutal and nasty place – but does it need to be this brutal?
Brave, emotional and unique in both structure and visual style, What Happened and What’s Going On was an impressive return for The Walking Dead, even if the episode did come across as overly depressing at points.
Scene of the Episode: To Live and Die in Shirewilt – Tyreese is confronted by ghosts of the past, both friendly and not so friendly, as he lies bleeding out from a walker bite.