By the time The Walking Dead‘s opening credits had run, it was clear to me that this was going to be a good one. Whenever we get showrunner/writer Scott M. Gimple teaming up with producer/effects guru/director Greg Nicotero we get something special. Whenever one name or the other pops up, you can guarantee it’s going to be a good episode, but when they’re together, magic happens. And our first episode back from the winter break, “What Happened and What’s Going On” is no exception. The Walking Dead has always been a show that pushed the envelope with gore and bleak nihilism, but has traditionally been pretty conservative — and let’s face it, sometimes just downright pedestrian — when it comes to the actual storytelling. We get the occasional bit of directorial flair here and there, but the show really relies on beautiful cinematography and a mostly linear narrative to tell its stories. At its worst, the actors can usually make something out of nothing. Since Gimple became showrunner, though, more often than not, the scripts are relying less and less on exposition, and more and more on the strength of the performances — but the narratives are still pretty traditional. You don’t get to be the Number One scripted show on television by scaring off casual viewers with strange storytelling approaches. This week, however, we got off to a flashy, more experimental cold open with stutter cuts, color filters, images of the dead, scenes from the road, and finally a static shot of blood pouring onto a framed drawing of somebody’s home. It was shocking, really, forcing viewers to try to make sense of what they were seeing without any real frame of reference. Nicotero has always had a confident hand behind the camera, but this was a completely different feel for The Walking Dead. Especially coming back from the brutally harsh, slow motion realism of Beth’s murder that set off the winter break. It’s almost as though Nicotero and Gimple wanted to make sure we were off-balance as the back half of Season Five began. In that opening minute or two, they threw down a gauntlet, letting us know that some crazy shit was on the way; that we shouldn’t get comfortable. The story for “What Happened and What’s Going On” is a classic Gimple approach. Separate the cast into small groups — when possible break those groups up even smaller — and let them act through some emotions with as little actual dialogue as possible. And when someone gets a speech, make it count. For this week’s episode, we had Rick (Andrew Lincoln), Michonne (Danai Gurira), Tyreese (Chad L. Coleman), and Glenn (Steven Yeun), accompanying Noah (Tyler James Williams) back to his home, Shirewilt Estates in Richmond Virginia, in the hopes that the sanctuary still stands and the group might find a temporary shelter. This echoes a storyline from the comics, so if you’re in the know, there’s a bit of hope that maybe this would work out… for a while, at least. But there was that opening… …that we get another flash of before our heroes arrive at Shirewilt. As expected, the place is empty, a few walkers here and there, but also with houses burnt out, graffiti saying “WOLVES NOT FAR,” and the grisly discovery of a field of corpses — the lower halves of corpses, anyway, and loads of severed arms. We have to wait until the end of the episode to find out where the armless torsos have disappeared to — and see that some have “W” carved into them. What that means, we’ll have to wait and see. In the meantime, while Rick, Michonne, and Glenn go off to scavenge, Tyreese stays with an emotionally broken Noah, allowing for two plots to develop and two sets of thematic devastation to emerge. Michonne urges a push for Washington, despite knowing that there’s no cure, and things are so freaking bleak for everyone that Rick agrees it’s worth a shot. Glenn silently agrees after he and Rick bond over the acceptance that righteous murder is okay. That’s all fine and good, but the real power of the episode is with Tyreese and Noah — especially after Noah makes a break for his home in order to see for himself that his mother and brothers (the twins) are dead. And boy, are they. In one of the most heartbreaking discovery scenes in the show’s history (yeah, I said it), Noah finds his mother’s corpse, skull bashed in, on her living room floor. If there was ever a visual metaphor for this show, there you have it. Sadly, in a scene reminiscent of Daryl and Carol at the women’s shelter, Tyreese discovers one of the twins is still mobile — seemingly locked in a back room — and the other twin lies rotting in his bed. Tyreese then finds himself transfixed by photos of the twins, and you can see it in his eyes: he’s breaking inside. He’s immediately confronted with a physical memory of Lizzie (Brighton Sharbino) and Mika (Kyla Kenedy). We aren’t told this explicitly, but Coleman makes it plain through just his reactions that this, or something very similar, is going on behind his eyes. Back in my review for “Crossed” I said: And I’m a little worried about Tyreese. The moral gatekeepers don’t have a great survival track record on this show. I was being a little facetious at the time, but I really was worried. Going all the way back to Dale, through Hershel, and then Beth, the characters on this show who demonstrate sympathy and a belief that this new world doesn’t have to change them, inevitably die horribly. Sometimes meaninglessly; sometimes stupidly; sometimes brutally. But they all die. This week marks the first time that a moral gatekeeper has died directly because they couldn’t adapt. And contrary to the sudden end that came to Beth — and each of the other people too good to live in the zombie apocalypse — with this episode, we spent a long time with Tyreese as he slowly, but surely bled out and left the group behind. Chad L. Coleman is the man. And he will be missed. He brought a rarely-seen vulnerability to a character who could easily have been played as a stereotype. But thanks to the magical combination of solid writing and an extremely honest performance, Coleman was able to do something similar to what he did in The Wire, keeping his character from becoming a two-dimensional caricature, humanizing him and making his loss devastating. Tyreese has wanted to die for quite some time now. And the resounding message of his dying hallucinations (he was bitten while transfixed by the pictures of the twins) is that “It’s better this way.” Even the hallucinations that are manifestations of his guilt and insecurities — The Governor (David Morrissey) and Martin (Chris Coy), the man he spared at Terminus who then lead the Termites back to the church — seem to be acknowledging what Tyreese already knows: death is better than this life. The visions of Lizzie, Mika, and Beth (Emily Kinney) are the most viscerally damaging, though, as they calmly and sweetly urge him to give up and die. This is the realization that hits the hardest and hurts the most as a viewer. There is no hope for these people. Their world is dead. There’s no going back to any sense of normalcy. Any peace and comfort they find is transitory and will end in destruction and death. All they can do is struggle to survive from day to day, with the explicit knowledge that there’s no way out. There’s literally nothing they can do to save themselves. They’re dead already. And I can’t help but wonder if that’s part of why this show is so massively popular. There’s a large vocal online contingent that loves to bitch about the show whenever it slows down and lets the characters really suffer and acknowledge the hopelessness of their situations. There’s a cry for more zombies, more kills, more action, more distraction. But people who’ve never cared about horror, about zombies in particular, find themselves drawn to this show. Maybe it’s the soap opera elements that draw viewers in, practically grabbing them by their brains and bitch-slapping the hard-wired need for horrible stories of people being awful to each other. Maybe it’s just the thrill of not knowing what to expect or who’s going to die from week to week. I’m starting to think, however, that it’s because people, no matter how they deny it on the surface, want to be confronted with a storytelling that doesn’t sugarcoat the realities of life. Storytelling that says there’s nothing you can do. You’re all going to die. All you can do is struggle to survive. Struggle to find and hold together family. Sometimes you have to do horrible things to achieve something you can call good. Everything is transitory. Everything is always-already ending. A blunt stripping away of all the bullshit that we distract ourselves with day in and out and the forced consideration that life is meaningless. Or rather, the meaning of life is simply to live; to suffer; to find joy and love where we can; to die. And I think that’s a good thing. For 45 minutes, sixteen times a season, people who ordinarily wouldn’t even consider their own mortality are willingly — ecstatically, sometimes — making themselves experience loss and existential dread. It’s different from the cop shows or hospital shows, forcing the audience into the roles of victims, watching as others come in and save us (while struggling with crippling emotional issues like who’s sleeping with whom). Now that The Walking Dead is really running full force, there’s none of that petty bullshit. This show is about being confronted with our own mortalities and the realization that there’s nothing we can do to keep from dying. And people are eating it up. The Walking Dead 5.09 "What Happened and What's Going On"Paul's Rating5.0Overall ScoreReader Rating: (0 Votes)Share this:TweetShare on TumblrLike this:Like Loading... Related 2 Responses The Walking Dead 5.10 "Them" - Psycho Drive-In February 17, 2015 […] himself “Rest in peace. Now get up and go to war.” This is exactly what I wrote about last week, when I […] Log in to Reply The Walking Dead 6.01 "First Time Again" - Psycho Drive-In October 15, 2015 […] we are guaranteed to reach high points undreamt of in the first few seasons. Last season’s “What Happened and What’s Going On” is the perfect example of this creative team really knowing how to push The Walking Dead into […] Log in to Reply Leave a Reply Cancel ReplyYou must be logged in to post a comment.