The Walking Dead: Too Soon?
After a harrowing mid-season finale, the show bids a bloody farewell to a fan favorite.
Every week for the fifth season of AMC's post-apocalyptic drama The Walking Dead, David Sims and Lenika Cruz will discuss the latest threat—human, zombie, or otherwise—to the show's increasingly hardened band of survivors.
Sims: For much of this episode, I thought I had The Walking Dead figured out: After 2014’s mid-season finale and Beth’s death, the first episode back would give the group some time to grieve and decompress, maybe find a new direction to head in, and set a course for the latter half of season five. "What's Happened and What's Going On" opened with a montage of funereal digging, and the image of blood pooling on some picturesque watercolor. A little cheesy, maybe, but the show can do good things with cheese, and while Beth was never a character very close to my heart, it’s always good to lend some focus to the weight of things going forward.
Then Tyreese got bit on the arm. Welp. How quickly did you guess that this episode was going to serve as a sendoff, rather than further general plot development, Lenika? Initially I thought that Tyreese would just have to go armless for the rest of his time on the show, but once he started getting tortured by visions of the dead, and the show kept tying into those images it had led off with (his blood pooling on the picture, etc.) it seemed like this was it for Chad Coleman, one of the show’s best additions in these recent seasons. There was no ambiguity, no cliffhanger: We watched through his eyes as he expired, and realized the burial glimpsed at the beginning was for him. The Walking Dead is a show that often excels at killing off its characters out of nowhere and with little fanfare, but Tyreese deserved the attention he got here, I think.
Still, it’s kind of a wacky move, in one sense. Why cap your mid-season finale with Beth dying—who, I’m sorry Lenika, I did not shed one tear for—if you’re planning to knock off a much more beloved member of the crew one episode later? From a plot perspective, it makes sense that Beth died at the hospital, but just in terms of the emotional gut punch, this hit way harder. Like many a character on The Walking Dead, Tyreese bit the dust due to someone’s general foolishness—Noah leading them to his former settlement, which had been overrun and zombified, and his refusing to leave his family home despite Tyreese’s insistence. No one saw the zombie kid in the closet, he lunged out, and boom, that was that.
Obviously the biggest impact here is on the group’s mental health at large, particularly Rick, who seems more and more besieged by survivor’s guilt as comrades die on his watch. Tyreese had somewhat outlived his status as a character crucial to the story—he felt a bit adrift in the last batch of episodes, although Coleman always did fine work with whatever material he had. So it’s not insane that he’s gone, but I’m still genuinely bummed. How about you, Lenika? And what did you make of his dying visions, including the ghostly return of the Governor and the two creepy kids?
Cruz: The two creepy kids have names, David: Lizzie and Mika, whose deaths were honestly the last that made me cry before Tyreese’s. But Lizzie and Mika’s sendoff episode (“The Grove,” written by fantastic showrunner Scott Gimple) had much in common with this one (also Gimple-written): Both were beautiful, surreally shot contemplations on forgiveness and tragedy that unexpectedly ended in blood. And both managed to give us more than just another unfortunate, but ultimately forgettable, death.
While summoning the literal ghosts from Tyreese’s past could've felt hackneyed, these apparitions managed to help cement in our minds what had made him such a special, beloved character for the last couple years. We’ve seen him consumed by anger, grief, and compassion, and have watched him, like so many others on the show, get pulled away from the edge, time and again. But his unimpeachable will to live (to the point where he forced his own bitten arm into the mouth of a biter in order to kill the biter) and his defiant declaration of his own humanity didn’t feel at all trite. It felt earned.
Compare that to this episode’s slightly more frustrating predecessor, “Hounded,” in which a gone-loopy Rick talks to several of those who died in season one (and his wife, Lori) on a phone in the prison. “What’s Happened and What’s Going On” improves on the hallucinatory-convo-with-the-past approach, partly because of its steady-handedness and artful manipulation of the audience’s sense of security. Rick’s conversation instead felt like a detour; his overall detachment from the living, including his poor son and newborn daughter, didn’t help matters. But with Tyreese, there was enough emotional breathing room to let the moments land, linger, and fade away the way they need to.
Zooming out a bit, I have to applaud this show for tricking us into thinking we’d spend 42 minutes (or at least the cold open) mourning Beth. Instead, we found ourselves unwitting guests at a funeral for a character we didn’t expect to lose so soon. And so, yes, The Walking Dead delivered us yet another senseless, avoidable death (why are walkers only as loud-or-quiet/slow-or-fast as the story requires?!). But this gorgeous and lovingly directed episode helped atone a bit for the cruelty of that world, mending our hearts a bit even as it broke them.
Sims: While Lizzie and Mika's send-off episode was nicely done, I mostly enjoyed the characters for the old school horror-movie cliche and the surreal black humor of their actual deaths. I hated “Hounded,” which indeed had the similar mystery trope that was just so easy to guess. It’s hard to remember how bad this show used to be, but boy, it really was bad. It’s also important to remember what a knife-edge we’re still operating on here. If this half-season strings a few bad episodes together, or meanders around without a plot focus or destination, it could easily feel like The Walking Dead is in decline again. Even this week, I murmured grumpily at the beginning of the episode as the gang split up for no good reason to walk towards almost-certain doom.
That’s why I’m hoping that this episode is the final coda for recent horrors and that next week we get into whatever the long-term goal of the group should be. They were heading to DC, but obviously that’s been scuttled. We know Morgan (Lennie James) is walking around somewhere, but we’re still waiting on that tying in with the main plot. I enjoyed the “soft open” feel of this episode, but I'm always wary of The Walking Dead slowing down too much. What really worked last year was its breakneck forward momentum, but it was helped by the multiple story strands it had to work with. Right now, everyone’s basically together, so there’s a necessity for some kind of catalyzing event.
That’s why I’m a little concerned with hints about Rick’s descent into deep depression. Cast turnover is important for this show—it’s how it’s managed to keep itself fresh and find new story angles in the same desperate apocalypse-world. But I also get the impulse of depicting the toll this turnover takes on everyone. Let’s just steer clear of wallowing too deep in the misery, I guess. Lenika, what is the next step for the gang? With no obvious villain to take out or city to travel to, are we destined for some road tripping or another attempt to settle down in a secure-seeming location? Either will, of course, be fraught with peril.
Cruz: Well, before Tyreese's death (can I just briefly celebrate the fact that we had three former Wire cast members appear this week?), Michonne and Rick seemed to agree on trekking to Washington, D.C. even though Eugene deceived them into believing a cure existed. He's a liar, they figure, but he's not an idiot, meaning he must have chosen Washington as a straw location for a reason, mainly because they'd all have the best chances of survival. But I'm wondering if the rest of the gang will be on board with this, or if Tyreese's death changes anything. Currently the entire group, especially Noah, Sasha, Maggie, Glen, and Rick, is newly raw from the recent losses. As we know, trauma always alters the group dynamics, whether the pain simmers or explodes. I bet new emotional lines will harden as we head into the final stretch of the season.
If it seems a bit forced to immediately wonder about the next long-term destination/goal no sooner than one's been reached/accomplished, we just have to remember two words: Hershel's farm. I think Walking Dead fans hope to avoid that kind of season-two inertia at all costs. David, you and I both took breaks from this show when it was at its lowest point, and season five has rewarded our reluctant optimism with virtually unprecedented consistency and dynamite storytelling. The mid-season break doesn't seem to have spoiled the show's new high, and I have a feeling Gimple and his team won't let well-trodden material like crippling existential crises (especially for Rick) get in the way of exploring new, compelling angles. On that note, I'd say, expect some hint of that "catalyzing event" you spoke of to make itself known soon, maybe as early as next week's episode, "Them."