The Walking Dead Review: 'What Happened and What's Going On'
The Walking Dead writers promised us a back half of the season that was both a stylistic and thematic departure, one that would look and feel like a different show. The midseason premiere, "What Happened and What's Going On" did, in fact, feel like a different show, in the sense that it was much more artistically inclined than usual, but the claim that the show would be "more hopeful" is just a straight-up lie. This was a bleak episode, maybe unnecessarily so, and while I applaud any attempt by a mainstream show to take itself seriously as art, this particular attempt wasn't exactly a success.
MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD!
Tyreese met his maker in this episode, after a long chat with a bunch of ghosts from Walking Dead past. Would-be baby-killer Martin, Lizzie and Mika, the Governor, and then finally, Beth, all made appearances, with extremely mixed results. It was emotionally impactful for any fan to see these characters again, but once again the writing seemed to fall on the side of manipulative rather than affecting. It was somewhat interesting to have Beth stand in as the idealistic songbird (yes, she sings again) who, like Tyreese, wanted something to live for rather than just to survive, and then have the Governor's ruthless survivalism on the other side, but this conflict has been discussed out loud enough times that it didn't justify this somewhat hackneyed detour.
Martin was obviously significant to Tyreese's emotional arc, but his arguments weren't even close to convincing enough for us to be seriously worried that Tyreese would have a change of heart about his morality. Yes, the cannibals ate Bob's leg, but he had already been bitten by a walker. And connecting Tyreese's actions to Beth's death requires so much of a "domino effect" that it's completely meaningless, you could say the same thing about literally any other action taken by any other character.
And then Lizzie and Mika's appearance was sufficiently creepy, but otherwise fell completely flat. They kept smiling those eerie smiles at him and telling him, "It's better now," but it was unclear what they could possibly mean by that. Are we supposed to take it seriously, and think that Tyreese is better off dead, because then he gets to keep his morality? Usually, that would be a perfectly reasonable conclusion to draw on this show, except that the girls sound so creepy it doesn't possibly sound like we're supposed to believe them. And if we are, does that mean we're really supposed to believe that Tyreese's emotional conflict from the events that occurred in "The Grove" (a far superior episode) will culminate in the rote conclusion that "they're in a better place now"? It was entirely unclear, and not in an ambiguous way that's a testament to the writers' subtlety. It just felt like they wanted to hit the viewer in the gut as usual.
And speaking of that lack of subtlety, it was worse than ever in this episode. Every other scene, the writers had the characters explicitly explain all of their psychological motivations when the viewer easily could have figured it out for themselves. "Show, don't tell" might be a cliched criticism, but it's a fitting critique for an episode as cliched as this one. One of the worst offenders might have been Rick stating, "We're doing this for Beth," when that was abundantly clear from the moment Noah said, "She wanted to come with me," but there were examples throughout the episode. And the attempts at symbolism suffered from a similar lack of nuance; again, I think it's great when shows have artistic and cinematic ambitions, but if The Walking Dead wants to get symbolic and artsy, then they're going to have to do a little better than a trite image of blood falling on a farmhouse watercolor and a "dead end" sign on the door when a main character is about to die.
Mostly, Tyreese's death just felt unnecessary, and not just because it reflects an ugly tendency of The Walking Dead to kill off a person of color every time a new one is introduced (Bob lost a death match with Father Gabriel earlier this season, for example). The structure of the season seemed to be that the group fell further and further into despair and cynicism until they reached a nadir with Beth's death, and then they would spend the rest of this season honoring her memory by searching for some kind of hope. Maybe that's where the rest of the season will go, but this episode didn't offer anything new in terms of the show's tone or philosophy. Just as it happened with Beth, Hershel, Dale, etc., the audience is introduced to a character with a strong moral compass, he/she serves as the group's conscience, and he/she is killed because they're too moral and good, and there's no place for goodness in this world. I personally think this is actually a poignant theme, but not a point that needs to be made two episodes in a row. After five seasons, the tone needs to shift a little, or else The Walking Dead is just going to recycle plotlines and kill of major characters whenever they feel that the audience needs an emotional jolt.
-A couple of Easter eggs for readers of the graphic novel: many viewers thought that Glenn picking up a baseball bat may have been foreshadowing for his fate in the comics, and "Shirewilt Estates" was a clear inversion of the "Wiltshire Estates" arc
-First Beth, and now Tyreese, it seems like a bad idea for the writers to continue to make Noah indirectly responsible for major character deaths before the audience gets attached to him in his own right.
..And that's why everybody hates Chris #thewalkingdead— Hannah Prude (@davidhasselhoph) February 9, 2015
-It was strange to have such a grief-soaked episode without really seeing Maggie or Daryl's reactions to Beth's death. I'll reserve judgment on this choice until I see what they do with the characters in future episodes, but for now it just seemed weird.
-SO. MANY. COMMERCIALS.
Really enjoying #TheWalkingDead breaks they are taking in between commercials!!!— Hilary (@HilstreetsTweet) February 9, 2015