[This is a review of The Walking Dead season 5, episode 9. There will be SPOILERS.]
You have to hand it to The Walking Dead. Of all the possible storylines and events that the show could have explored in the wake of the hospital and Beth's disappearance and sudden, unexpected death in the midseason finale, the death of yet another character felt a little farther removed from the realm of possibility. And yet that's exactly what the midseason premiere delivered, in a surprisingly affecting episode that said goodbye to Tyreese, while also establishing a new goal for the other survivors.
What sets 'What's Happened and What's Going On' apart from other entries in the series detailing the loss of a major character is the manner in which Tyreese's death was looked at through the lens of the character himself. Normally, the distance between the audience and the character is pretty far, but here, director Greg Nicotero and writer Scott Gimple close that gap dramatically, and the result is a genuine sense of loss, without the usual spectacle to go along with it.
Certainly much of that sense of loss has to do with the likeability of actor Chad L. Coleman. Since his arrival on the show, Coleman brought with him (in addition to other cast members of The Wire) a variation on the emotional state of the usual survivor that the series definitely needed. He was the big, burly man with a soft heart and conscience that seemed to wear him down more so than any of the events he was forced to endure. Tyreese was the antithesis to the increasingly hardened and ruthless Rick; he was, in large part, the group's quiet, reserved moral center.
So, when Tyreese winds up on the business end of a walker who used to be one of Noah's twin brothers, the inevitability of his fate is initially hard to accept. That inability to accept what happened is compounded by the way the episode is structured. There is a scattered, dreamlike quality to the opening moments. The staccato editing of random scenes and images, featuring blood-stained walls, photographs, and the ominous shot of blood dripping onto the a framed painting of a quaint, serene-looking house creates a surreal experience that, as the events of Tyreese's death unfold, instills a sense of doubt in those watching.
That's a tricky game to play with an audience, especially when the episode (and Tyreese) descends into the kind of hallucinatory state it does. But the distinctive structure combined with moments featuring Bob, Lizzie, Mika, Beth, Martin, and the Governor telling Tyreese to let go and move on aren't merely effective for the shock of seeing the dead returned as visions rather than rotting corpses with a hankering for flesh; they're successful for the way they zero in on Tyreese's state of mind and how the sequence walks the audience through his demise from such a personal perspective.
The episode uses point of view in interesting and effective ways. While Tyreese is struggling to stay alive, Rick, Michonne, and Glenn are scavenging the Shirewilt estate debating the group's next move. That removal from the dire situation inside Noah's house generates a palpable tension laced with a shred of hope – after all, it seemed unlikely that Hershel would survive his encounter with a walker, so it wasn't out of the question to think perhaps Tyreese still had a chance.
But Nicotero and Gimple also manage to wring out as much anxiety from the condition of Shirewilt as possible. There's a profound sense of the group being watched, and Rick's reason for dismissing the idea that they stay and turn the estate into a sanctuary only makes it worse. Everything the group picks up, from the clean shirt to the baseball bat, seems to carry some kind of potentially negative connotation. And the bizarre assortment of legs and arms just beyond the shattered wall of the estate – the rest of which are uncovered in the group's hasty getaway – only add to the overwhelming sense of dread looming over the already tense circumstances.
'What's Happened and What's Going On' does a solid job of laying groundwork for the next episode, while remaining focused on saying goodbye to Tyreese. And that farewell is handled smartly by first shifting the POV to the one who is actually dying, and then cutting to a long, steady shot of the group handling the unpleasant but world-specific obligation of preventing his return. The psychic proximity of Tyreese's final moments followed by the relatively far psychic distance of the group's task works to the episode's advantage, allowing the death to build and resonate in a way that's markedly different from the many other deaths doled out over seasons past.
But the episode still manages to set the table for what comes next: a trip to Washington, D.C. that will no doubt be fraught with peril. Nevertheless, it's good to see The Walking Dead give its characters a clear goal, something more than survival. And in the wake of hard-hitting, back-to-back deaths, the team could use an achievable objective and a new sense of purpose to keep them and the audience going.
The Walking Dead continues next Sunday with 'Them' @9pm on AMC. Check out a preview below:
Photos: Gene Page/AMC