Spoiler Warning: Do not read on unless you’ve seen “The Walking Dead” season five, episode nine, titled “What Happened and What’s Going On.”
“The Walking Dead’s” midseason return was as beautiful as it was senseless; directed with surrealistic artistry by executive producer Greg Nicotero from a script by showrunner Scott Gimple. But while the fevered (and painfully foreboding) flashbacks and flashforwards gave the hour a hallucinatory quality, the poetic direction wasn’t enough to obscure what has become the show’s chief shortcoming — a trigger-happy mentality that continues to erode “TWD’s” dwindling shock factor.
In Variety‘s postmortem with Greg Nicotero, the EP justifies Tyreese’s death as meaningful to the story: “We don’t kill characters just to kill characters, it all plays into where the story is going. Tyreese’s death and Beth’s death being back-to-back like that, the important thing about it is it really affects our group. You’ll see the result of it over the next several episodes — the loss of these people.”
Sadly, it doesn’t feel meaningful — it feels gratuitous. As viewers who have spent five seasons with the show, we’re already fully immersed in the barbarism of “The Walking Dead’s” world, having lost more central characters than we can count, either for the sake of narrative momentum, character development or (whether the producers are willing to admit it or not) purely to elicit an emotional response in the audience. Sometimes — though most writers are loath to admit it — they just want to twist the knife with a “shocking” death. While Hershel’s death strengthened Maggie and Beth as characters (and made narrative sense, since a man with one leg would’ve been left exceedingly vulnerable out on the road after the destruction of the prison, in addition to slowing the group down), Bob’s recent death felt almost incidental — Gareth’s group would’ve continued to hunt Rick’s gang whether they’d managed to capture Bob or not, and eating poor Bob’s leg didn’t even poison the Termites with infected meat, so his bite was simply an unnecessary reminder for the group not to let their guard down.
Tyreese’s death — coming so soon after Beth’s for our gang, even if it’s been two months in real time — will certainly impact the characters, but at this point, the show seems to be piling misery on top of misery. If Tyreese had survived, would it have somehow made Beth’s death less impactful for our group? Is her loss now somehow more meaningful because another one came right after it? Of course not. Cynically speaking, I’m inclined to believe that the writers thought that viewers would be lulled into a false sense of security in the midseason return, thinking that there was no way we could lose another character so soon after Beth’s death, and thus allowing them to prove that they still have the ability to surprise us and maintain narrative tension by killing one of the group’s strongest fighters.
But my reaction when Noah’s brother pounced out of nowhere and took a chunk out of Tyreese’s arm wasn’t a gasp of shock, it was an eyeroll of frustration. After five seasons of murder and mutilation, the most surprising thing “The Walking Dead” could do would be to allow all of its central characters to survive a whole season. They’re all living on borrowed time in this world — that’s the basic conceit of the series — but the hopelessness of their situation is rapidly becoming suffocating.
Tyreese’s death was made even more maddening by Gimple’s mixed signals in the script. The hammer-wielding hero has spent much of this season trying to avoid violence, even when that pacifism almost cost him and Judith their lives, but he was finally starting to embrace the necessity of defending his loved ones again. He spent much of the hour trying to reassure Noah that despite immense loss, life still has meaning: “I wanted to die for what I lost, who I lost. I stepped out into a crowd of those things — just trying to take it all out on them ’til they took me; put ’em all in front of me so I didn’t see anything — but I just kept going. And then later, I was there for Judith when she needed me. I saved her, I brought her back to her dad. And that wouldn’t have happened if I’d just given up, if I hadn’t chosen to live… Noah, this isn’t the end.”
The episode was punctuated with Tyreese’s sepia-toned memories of the prison, The Grove, Woodbury, and visions of some of the show’s most recent causalities — offering an opportunity to bring back Beth, Bob, Martin, Lizzie, Mika and the Governor in an unexpected but effective way. Tyreese also recalled the harrowing news reports his father used to make him listen to on the radio as a child in order to educate him on “what’s happened and what’s going on.” He told Noah that his father taught him, “it was our duty as citizens of the world to keep up with the news. Those stories on the radio — something happens 1000 miles away or down the block, some kind of horror I couldn’t even wrap my head around — he didn’t change the channel, he didn’t turn it off, he just kept listening. You have to face it, keeping your eyes open. My dad always called that ‘paying the high cost of living.'”
Evidently, the hour was designed to illustrate that Tyreese no longer wanted to keep paying that high cost, with the ghosts of comrades and enemies past trying to coax or goad him into giving up, eventually succeeding in luring him into the light, with the smiling faces of Bob, Beth, Lizzie and Mika reassuring him that “it isn’t just okay, it’s better now,” since they’re no longer trapped in such a harsh world. But it felt like an emotional bait-and-switch. First, Tyreese told Noah that there were still things worth fighting for, then told his hallucination of The Governor, “I know who I am, I know what’s happened and what’s going on, you didn’t show me shit. You dead. Everything that you were is dead. And it’s not over; I forgave [Carol] because it’s not over. It’s not over. It’s not over. I didn’t turn away, I kept listening to the news so I could do what I could to help. I’m not giving up, you hear me? I’m not giving up.”
And then, after having his arm cut off, having his loved ones drag him through a horde of zombies and a maze of wires, he gave up. Perhaps we’re supposed to infer that he simply succumbed to his substantial injuries, but by showing his fallen allies encouraging him to let go, that message and its emotional impact was blunted, and his fight (and his surviving friends’ fight on his behalf) was all for nothing. Twisting the knife, instead of propelling the narrative. It also seemed as if Tyreese’s message was directed at the show’s audience as much as at Noah; despite all the horrors that we may struggle to wrap our heads around, we shouldn’t change the channel or turn it off — we have to face it, to put things into perspective. But do we, really?
My frustration over Tyreese’s death at least proves that the writers choose their victims wisely — I certainly wouldn’t be angered by the loss of Sasha, Rosita, Tara, Abraham, Eugene or Gabriel at this point — but knowing how to effectively emotionally manipulate an audience isn’t the same as justifying the act itself. Tyreese has been underutilized over the past couple of seasons, while in the comics he emerged as Rick’s right-hand man and a leader in his own right. He was never allowed to develop to his fullest potential, which is especially infuriating given the power of Chad Coleman’s performance. The actor has always been able to imbue Tyreese with pathos and humanity even when given few lines, and his soulful, harrowing journey in this episode made the hour poignant, if needlessly cruel. It feels like a monumental waste to say goodbye to him so soon.
In losing one of the gang’s last remaining moral compasses, I fear “TWD” will tumble further down its rabbit hole of unending bleakness — even Glenn, formerly one of the group’s most steadfast optimists, admitted to Rick that given all they’ve been through, if he had the chance to do it all over again, he wouldn’t have stopped to try and save the man trapped in the storage container at Terminus, and he would’ve killed Dawn without hesitation. And Michonne, formerly one of the most resilient survivors, seemed to be unraveling this week, trying to convince Rick to stay and build a shelter at Noah’s former sanctuary just to get them off the road, before she returned to Eugene’s original goal of Washington: “What if there are people there? It’s a possibility. It’s a chance. Instead of just being here, instead of just ‘making it.’ Because right now, this is what making it looks like. Don’t you want one more day with a chance?” she asked Rick with obvious desperation, prompting him to agree that they should make the 100 mile journey.
While fans will likely be frustrated that the episode didn’t allow more time to sit with Maggie and Daryl and their grief over Beth, that at least seemed like a logical narrative choice — from the brief flash we saw of Maggie weeping in the grass at the beginning of the hour, it seemed like Rick and Noah’s detour allowed the other characters some breathing room to mourn without bogging down the entire hour with angst. Instead, it seems more likely the group will be back on the road next week with their anguish pushed aside in favor of focusing on survival, which keeps the momentum of the season going — a marked change from last season’s slower, more contemplative pace.
Although “What Happened and What’s Going On” proved infuriating, it was still an undeniably emotional (if heavy-handed) hour, thanks in large part to the actors’ raw performances and Nicotero’s masterful direction. In addition to his foreshadowing flourishes, Nicotero took us inside the action as never before by setting a number of scenes from Tyreese’s hazy perspective — watching the zombies burst through the gates to be dispatched by Rick and company in slow-motion was a particularly thrilling moment. And though it would’ve been far more satisfying to see Tyreese live long enough to discover that the world isn’t as hopeless as it seems, “The Walking Dead” remains adept at eliciting strong reactions (both positive and negative) without losing viewers — which means, love it or hate it, they’re still doing something right.
“The Walking Dead” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on AMC.
What do you think of the decision to kill Tyreese? Are you getting bored of the show’s high body count, or do you believe it raises the stakes for our survivors? Weigh in below!