The Walking Dead: "What Happened and What's Going on" (Season 5, Episode 9) Recap/Analysis | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
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The Walking Dead: “What Happened and What’s Going on” (Season 5, Episode 9) Recap/Analysis

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Feb 12, 2015 Web Exclusive
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[Spoiler Alert: If you haven't seen the latest episode of The Walking Dead, the season finale, "A," then read no further.]

For a show where character deaths drive much of the plot, The Walking Dead doesn't linger long on the actual dying process. Some characters get to say goodbyes (Lori, Andrea), some drift away in peace (Bob) but most don't get to say anything at all (Beth, Hershel, Dale, Merle). You'd have to go all the way back to when Jim (remember him?) was bitten in season one to find an episode that focused as much on the anguish of someone who knows he's slipping into the clutches of the zombie fever. With "What Happened and What's Going On," The Walking Dead have delivered their most poetic examination of death yet, updating the show's thesis in the process.

From its first moments-an elegiac montage of someone shoveling dirt into a grave, people crying, and a eulogy-it was obvious this Greg Nicotero-directed episode was going to assume a more elliptical form than is typical for show. None of those first images were surprising; we expected the group to be mourning Beth's death. But then we see flashes of photos of two little boys, a bloodied painting of a house, and an eerie shot of dead sisters Lizzie and Mika, and the tone shifts. We hear snippets of conversation and learn the group has decided to travel 500 miles to Richmond, Virginia, to take Noah home to be reunited with his mother and twin brothers in Shirewilt Estates. It's what Beth would have wanted, after all, and it might provide the group a new home. It's not like they have any better options at the moment.

By the time they arrive, Shirewilt Estates is rubble, and we soon learn that the opening images are part of the dying hallucinations of Tyreese, the hammer-wielding teddy bear who in recent episodes has struggled to rally the strength to kill walkers let alone other humans. As the architect of the hostage swap that ended with Beth's death, he appears torn by the realities of that outcome. One moment he says the botched swap "went the way it had to, the way it always was going to," the next he's regretting that he hadn't been willing to see the world as it was. His father had taught him to keep up with the daily news, no matter how terrible, he says. Doing so was "paying the high cost of living." For Tyreese, the rent is about to come due.

Fittingly, Tyreese is undone by his own innate decency. Staring at photos of Noah's twin brothers (one who is now a snarling zombie behind a locked door), he appears to be filled with disgust, overwhelmed with emotion while looking at the boys in better times. In this one moment, we see just how much Tyreese still hasn't accepted the realities of the world in which he now lives, and this time it costs him. He's so distracted that he doesn't notice that the second zombified twin has come out of the corner of the room to take a man-sized bite out of his arm. The message seems clear enough: Tyreese couldn't adjust to this world, so he couldn't survive in it, either.

Or maybe not.

What follows is some of the most thought-provoking (not to mention genuinely frightening) writing the show has featured, the resulting conversations cutting right to the core of the themes the show has explored over the past five seasons. Slowly succumbing to blood loss, Tyreese begins to hear a news broadcast coming out of a nearby radio, talk of a group of roaming marauders who are killing and cannibalizing those in their path. Soon he is confronted by a cast of characters who have died over the past two seasons, each ostensibly representing a different part of his conscience. We see Martin, the smug gum-chomping soldier from Terminus who Tyreese couldn't kill when he had the chance, an act which set off a chain of events that allowed Gareth and his group to make another attack. Mocking Tyreese as "the man who saves babies," Martin says all of the group's current turmoil could have been avoided if only Tyreese had been willing to do what the situation dictated, to allow himself to be as brutal as those who would do him harm. This, it would appear, is Tyreese's conscience pushing out the guilt he feels for not doing everything that was necessary to eliminate threats to his friends.

Next up is Bob, who reassures Tyreese that nothing could have been changed. If this is a court case to determine Tyreese's guilt, Bob is his defense attorney, reassuring him that it's pointless to worry about what could have been. The Governor, back in all his terrifying glory, is the prosecution. He reminds Tyreese that he once promised to do whatever was necessary to earn his keep at Woodbury, a promise he broke by refusing to join The Governor's attack on the prison. "The bill has to be paid," The Governor repeats, a statement which doubles as an indictment of Tyreese's inability to follow his father's "high cost of living" mandate. Fate, regret, redemption-this is when The Walking Dead is at its best, and no episode has probed these themes quite as effectively as this one.

Back and forth they go, battling for Tyreese's soul. Lizzie and Mika show up to assure Tyreese that there's nothing to worry about, that "it's better" where they are in the afterlife. Beth appears to absolve him of guilt, letting him know that his desire to keep his hands and conscience clean was justified. Martin laughs at the preposterousness of it all. "You didn't want to be a part of it, but being a part of it is being now. That's it: open your eyes." Surviving this life is "all there is," The Governor confirms, scornfully reprimanding Tyreese for forgiving Carol for murdering his girlfriend. He showed Tyreese what he needed to do to survive, and he's now paying for turning away from that advice. "I didn't turn away," Tyreese shouts. "I kept listening to the news so I could do what I could to help. I'm not giving up. People like me, they can live."

Of course, Tyreese doesn't live. By the time Rick and the gang meet up with him, he's pretty much gone, and an attempt to save him by cutting off his arm probably only accelerates the dying process. With scenes from the last few months of his life flashing through his mind as he gets closer to dropping off the edge, he's loaded into a van for a last ditch effort to get him somewhere his wound can be cauterized. As they drive, he hears the radio again, with reports of a burning prison and continuing chaos. "Turn it off," Tyreese says weakly, as Beth, Bob, Lizzie, and Mika appear in the van, offering words of encouragement. And as the radio is turned off, Tyreese finally turns away from the horrors of this new world as he departs for the next one.

This much is clear: Tyreese is being presented as a contrast to Rick and Glenn, as the two spent much of the episode debating what their next move should be. As much as Rick has hardened over recent episodes, Glenn seems to be taking an even darker turn. Following the revelation of Eugene's lie and Beth's deflating death, Glenn seemingly has given up hope for any lasting progress. He never believed that Shirewilt Estates would still be standing by the time they arrived, he says, and he's incredulous that Rick could have believed such a thing. When Rick confesses, with some degree of reticence, that he would have wanted to kill Dawn at Grady Hospital had Daryl not done so, Glenn says he would have murdered her without giving it a second thought. Kill her, don't kill her-what does it matter? Nothing they do seems to make any difference anyway.

Existential quandaries aside, the real question is just what message the writers were trying to send with this episode. Was Tyreese a noble soul, an unshakably decent man who accepted the new realities but chose to live and die with his dignity intact? Or was he hopelessly naïve, someone so deluded by his own idealism that he was fundamentally incapable of doing what was necessary for him to endure? Was Martin right, and the only way to survive is to be more brutal than the person who seeks to brutalize you? These are the sorts of questions The Walking Dead is uniquely equipped to ask, and no show asks them better. Even if the answers aren't clear, Robert Kirkman's original vision for using the zombie apocalypse as the backdrop for an examination of human nature has never been more fully realized.

Questions for the Rest of Season Five:

Now that Tyreese is gone, who will become the group's moral compass?

Look for Michonne to pick up that mantle, as this episode positioned her as the group's optimist. As Rick and Glenn debate just how hopeless their situation is, she is busy looking for a glimmer of hope, first wanting to set up camp in the already burned out Shirewilt Estates, then arguing for Washington, D.C., as their next destination. As the rest of the cast seems likely to sink further into despair, expect Michonne to emerge as the group's voice of reason. In so doing, she'll join Dale, Andrea, Hershel, and now Tyreese on the list of those who swam against the current of ugliness in a world gone to hell. We'll see if she can become the first of those not to die in the process.

Speaking of Shirewilt Estates, who ransacked the place?

Obviously, it took some serious manpower to take down the walls and massacre the residents. Not only that, but whoever invaded also mutilated the people there, littering torsos and limbs around the compound. Even more, they apparently filled up a truck with heads and torsos, even carving a "W" on one of the walker heads.

So who would do this? At two different points during the episodes, the words "Wolves Not Far" can be seen spray-painted, first on a barn and then on a wall in the Shirewilt Estates. Could there be a group known as "The Wolves" roaming the countryside, massacring people and carving a warning on their foreheads? Could Tyreese's hallucinations about a roaming group committing atrocities and killing innocent people be foreshadowing this group's arrival? With no clear antagonists left, I have a feeling we'll be introduced to this threat soon.

Will Glenn and Maggie spiral deeper into hopelessness?

Even before Beth died, Maggie was struggling. Still reeling from losing her father, she also appears to be abandoning her faith in God, a potentially powerful symbol of lost identity. But if we assumed Glenn would be her comfort in this time of self-searching, this episode posited the question that he might be in an even worse mental state than she is. He has been on a rather joyless trajectory for some time now, but we've never seen him so bitter and guarded, as if he and Maggie have lost so much that they no longer expect anything to get better. Will they sink into despair together? Could the writers be setting us up for an even more tragic turn in their story?

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