The Dream Sequence has a somewhat tortured TV history. On a gut level, there is something fundamentally appealing about a dream sequence to a TV writer. It allows you to push your characters outside of their usual comfort zone into an adventurous new plane of reality—which must seem especially fun, after you’ve written a hundred episodes or so and start wondering if, just once, you could put your characters in old-timey clothes, or in space, or just let them sing. This is why non-musical shows do musical episodes; this is why there’s a weirdly long history of contemporary TV shows doing Old Hollywood riffs: One Tree Hill did a Casablanca homage; Bones did a To Catch a Thief homage; last year, Pretty Little Liars did a noir episode, and I swear it was incredible, even if you’ve never seen another episode of Pretty Little Liars; which I have not, because I graduated from high school before Tumblr was invented.
But dream sequences can also serve an important narrative purpose. When David Chase and his staff were breaking the season 2 finale of The Sopranos, Chase knew that he needed Tony to find out something horrible: One of his closest friends was a spy for the feds. There were obvious ways for this to happen—but what if you dramatized that epiphany in a different way? So Chase sent Tony on a bout of food poisoning-assisted semi-lucid dreaming: Tony, wandering along some New Jersey Boardwalk somewhere, battling against his own realization that a member of his family was the enemy.
The Sopranos would further explore Tony’s dreamscape, first in an episode-long surreal odyssey called “The Test Dream” and then in a full-on purgatory story arc in season 6. I love all those episodes, but plenty of people don’t because there is something fundamentally frustrating about a dream sequence to a TV viewer. A dream sequence represents a fundamental break from narrative reality—which means that, on a base level, it can somehow feel unimportant, weightless, a thing that doesn’t really matter. This is why people either love Twin Peaks or hate Twin Peaks, a show that might as well be called Dream Sequence: The Series! This is also why, on a surprisingly frequent basis, the producers of major serialized dramas of the past 10 years have had to promise, over and over again, that their show is not all a dream.
The Walking Dead has a history of dreams, though the show usually prefers the slipstream combination of fantasy and reality. Remember that episode back in season 2, when Daryl fell down a hill and Boogey-Merle taunted him from the cameoverse? Rick had his own flirtation with in-universe hallucinations: A ghost-Lori here, a ghost-Shane there, the occasional phone call from the corner of TV hell reserves for characters too boring to last past the Greene Family Farm. The show got a bit more adventurous a year ago, with an oddball peek into Michonne’s past that blended pre-apocalypse domesticity with post-apocalypse horror.
But that was all prologue for “What Happened and What’s Going On,” an episode that took a deep dive into the barely conscious, barely hinged brain of Tyreese—and in the process, an episode that pushed the show further into its post-prison Renaissance, complete with a series of impressionistic visuals (by episode director/zombie wrangler Greg Nicotero) and a loopty-loop narrative that was both the final statement on a key character and a melancholy postscript to the events of the midseason finale.
“What Happened and What’s Going On” starts off with a series of unlinked images, guaranteed to resonate with longtime Dead viewers—while simultaneously confusing them. A shovel, digging in the ground; the picture of a pretty house; trees moving outside the window of a car; Maggie Greene, crying over the loss of one more family member; Noah, crying; two little boys, identical-or-close twins, and Father Gabriel, delivering a eulogy. “What can be seen is temporary,” he says. “What cannot be seen is eternal. For we know that if the earthly tent is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made from hands, eternal, in the heavens.” The second letter to the Corinthians—a nice thought, especially since it’s been a long time since the Grimes Gang even had an earthly tent to sleep in. (As if in reminder, we see a shot of the Prison—and of Woodbury, two shelters long gone, two more societies wiped off the map.)
“She was gonna come with me,” says Noah. “How far?” asks Rick. “Outside Richmond, Virginia.” That’s over 500 miles and two whole Carolinas away. But Rick makes the pitch: “It was secure. It has a wall, homes, 20 people. It’s a long trip, but if it works out, it’s the last long trip we have to make.” The survivors need a reason to keep moving; they need a reason, period. What would happen if this new place is gone, too? “Then we find a new place,” says Michonne.
For the past two half-seasons, The Walking Dead has been on a daring roll. One of the most popular TV shows in the history of ever, it is also a TV show where there is no actual setting—or maybe it’s more accurate to say that The Walking Dead has become a show where the setting is always just over the horizon, a place where our characters can be safe. Call it Terminus, or call it Washington—or call it Shirewilt Estates, Noah’s promised land, just outside Richmond, Virginia.
Hope? Maybe. We see the silhouette of a zombie in a crashed car—a ruined person in a ruined automobile. A skeleton in a forest. The train tracks that led to Terminus. We hear the shovel, in the ground. We hear the soundtrack—Bear McCreary’s music was practically the co-lead of this episode. And then—holy WHAT—we see two adorable little blond dead girls, the psycho killer and the one who didn’t live long enough to become a psycho killer. “It’s better now,” they promise us. The painting of a house, fallen to the ground; blood pouring onto it, dribble dribble, drop drop.
NEXT: Bye-bye Georgia