'The Walking Dead' recap: 'What Happened and What's Going On'
Noah leads the Grimes Gang to possible shelter. Things don't go well.
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
And suddenly, with zero fanfare, The Walking Dead leaves Georgia behind. Captain Rick assembles one of the most high-powered Away Teams in the history of the Grimes Gang: Glenn, Tyreese, Michonne. They carry their signature weapons: Michonne’s sword; Tyreese’s hammer; Glenn’s rueful frown. Noah is on hand, still stumble-walking from his tumble in Atlanta: an easy mark for Redshirt of the Week. “Hey Carol?” radios Rick. “We’re halfway there.” Carol is this week’s designated Spock, keeping the ship warm for the captain. “We made it 500 miles,” he says. “Maybe this can be the easy part.” (“The easy part” is another beautiful dream in the Walking Dead-verse, like ice cream sundaes or pillows or the possibility of seeing what the world looks like one year from now.)
Noah and Tyreese have a man-to-man talk. Noah wants Tyreese to know that the trade at the hospital was the right way. “It worked, it did work,” says Noah. “it’s just… something else happened after.” I like how Noah’s comments seemed to be leaning into just how strange Beth’s final act was: You can feel that what happened between Beth and Dawn was something only Beth and Dawn could really understand; they’re both dead now, so there’s nobody left to explain.
“Went the way it had to,” says Tyreese. “Way it was always going to.” This leads into a bit of idle road-trip chatter: Tyreese’s memories wander back to his father, who always insisted that his children listen to the news. “There were always these stories on the radio. Something happens, a thousand miles away, or down the block. Some kind of horror I couldn’t even wrap my head around.” His dad wouldn’t turn off the news—insisted his kids listen, in fact. “He called it Paying the High Cost of Living,” says Tyreese.
The Walking Dead used to be a show that asked a lot of heavy questions, usually coming up with rote answers. (“What’s the point of living? He talked about the deer!”) That version of the show is long gone now. In a few moments in this episode, we learn a lot about Tyreese—and we learn something about his outlook on life. Before the apocalypse, you imagine that a lot of our characters were living pretty happy lives—that they were the kind of people who would turn off the TV when the news got too depressing. Not Tyreese: Here’s a guy who keeps up with The Situation In [fill in the war-torn country]. Not because he thinks he can do anything about it; maybe because he knows he can’t do anything about it; maybe because he figures that all he can do is know about it. You can be a human being living a good life, but if you don’t know What’s Happening, and you don’t know What’s Going On, then what the hell kind of life are you leading, anyhow?
The Away Team prepare themselves mentally. (ASIDE: There was a brief shot of Glenn cracking a CD in half—a moment which I think was a reference to something, but I haven’t had a chance to rewatch the last half-season yet, so I welcome your input. Also: Hello, I’m recapping The Walking Dead again, after an extended sabbatical in the Ryan Murphy-verse! END OF ASIDE.) They park their cars in the trees, next to a car wreck. We see that zombie in the car, trapped in the driver’s seat for god knows how long. The car covered in so many bullet holes that you have to figure somebody in Virginia found themselves a chaingun. We see that skeleton in the forest. The team finds a perimeter set up with steel wire and crawls through to a road.
On the road: carrion, ambient gore, a grandfather clock left in the middle of the road. There was a time when the freakiest thing about the land of The Walking Dead was how empty it was, like everyone just disappeared and left their houses behind, no worse for the wear beyond a few broken windows; now, though, the land of Dead feels more surreal, with flotsam like the grandfather clock just appearing. (It’s like the island in Myst: Less a real place than a patchwork quilt of things left behind by people who might be dead.)
They get to a gate, closed. Glenn climbs over, gives it a stare, gives it a shake of the head. Noah climbs over, and finds one more ruin. A single zombie walks down the street—not even scary, just a sad remnant of whatever used to be there. There are some signs of old life—graffiti in the background says, I think, “Wolves Not Far,” which could indicate that the place fell victim to a nasty crew of people, or maybe someone in the Walking Dead writers’ room grabbed the marker and wrote “Season 6 = Werewolves?” on the whiteboard.
Tyreese stays with the mourning Noah, while Rick and his badass squad make a sweep. Michonne grabs a clean shirt and some garbage bags. Rick talks to Glenn, swearing that this whole trip is for Beth. “She wanted to get him back home,” he says. “This was for her. And it could’ve been for us, too.” Rick wants Glenn to understand something: He wanted Dawn dead, even though he knew that killing Beth was a mistake. But Glenn has his own internal struggles. “I was thinking about that guy in the storage container, back in Terminus,” he says. “How I made it stop.”
It’s getting easier to kill people who aren’t dead yet. “We need to stop,” says Michonne. “You can be out here too long.” There’s a light self-awareness to all this talk. The Walking Dead has been “out here” ever since the prison fell. How much longer can the characters live this life, just trying to survive another day?
Tyreese tries to comfort Noah. He tells him what it felt like when he lost everything. Has anyone in the history of The Walking Dead had a shorter life but a longer afterlife than Karen? She was a random Woodbury-ite until she was suddenly the love of Tyreese’s life at the start of season 4—an accelerated timeframe that paid off in spades when she was burned to death, a plague victim and a Carol victim. Tyreese tells Noah that he wanted to die, but he didn’t: “I was there for Judith when she needed me. I saved her. Brought her back to her dad. That wouldn’t’ve happened if I had just given up.” Tyreese chose to live, and now Judith is alive: What more reason for living do you need?
Noah stands up and runs for his house. Inside: a body, a chunk of its head missing. It’s difficult at first to tell if it is a man or woman, young or old: As the months have passed in the Walking Dead-verse, corpses look less like bodies and more like ambient gore residue: Rob Bottin fleshforms, like the tentacle-monster human-dog from The Thing.
Tyreese leaves Noah to mourn and wanders back into the house. There is the sound of a walker, a shadow moving under the door. Tyreese leaves it there, the same way they left that zombie behind in the driver’s seat of the crashed car. (Some might say this was a fatal mistake: The Walking Dead rewards meticulous zombie-killers like Michonne or Daryl, who kill walkers with the bored efficiency of a janitor clearing a drainpipe.) Tyreese sees a dead boy on a bed, photos of that boy and his brother. He looks at the photos. You could take a moment and remember just how good Chad Coleman is at being silent: It made him a great presence on The Wire and a weird fit on Walking Dead back in its talkier days, but his wide expressive eyes have been an essential part of the show post-prison.
The camera zooms in on a picture of the twin boys… and then one of those twins bites Tyreese’s arm and probably would have finished the job if Noah didn’t run in and slam his little brother’s skull in.
NEXT: A visit from Walking Dead‘s ghosts
At least 68 citizens of the Republic have been killed in four deadly attacks along the main coastal district. The group has continued their campaign of random violence, moving across the countryside unfettered, with the republic’s military forces in disarray.
Tyreese is on the floor, his arm bleeding zombie poison. He is listening to the radio—to an announcer who sounds like he could’ve been on the BBC in the blitz, describing the latest events in a place you wouldn’t want to visit.
…Terrorizing the village by night, carrying out revenge attacks involving hacking innocents with machetes, and in some cases, setting them on fire.
Is this a special report from Walking Dead America—from some “Republic” in a “coastal district,” maybe a little closer to Richmond? (It sounded to me a little bit like NBC’s Revolution, a.k.a. The Walking Dead Minus The Walking Dead.) More likely, this is Tyreese’s hallucinating mind—a possibility given further credence by the sudden appearance of Martin, the Bad Man in the Baseball Cap, playing the role of Tyreese’s guilty conscience. “You think Gareth would’ve been able to follow you guys if you’d just put a bullet in my brain?” he asks. “Or cut me like your sister did?” Maybe, if Tyreese had killed Martin, the cannibals would have left Bob alone. “Maybe something about that would’ve changed things with Beth,” he teases. “Domino shit.”
But a dying man can receive a visit from the good people, too. So there is Bob, speaking his own truth: “I got bit at the food bank!” he says. “It went the way it had to, the way it was always going to.” (Tyreese said these same exact words earlier in the episode—evidence that these weren’t “real” ghosts, that they were “just in Tyreese’s mind,” if you’re feeling finicky.) There in the corner of the room, the door opens, lightning crashes, an old mother cries, and there is The Governor reborn. “The bill has to be paid,” he declares. “You told me you’d do whatever you had to do to earn your keep. Remember that?” The little blond girls are there, blood on their face, smiling: “It’s better now, Tyreese.” The Governor disagrees. “It’s not better now! You know damn well it’s noBWAAUUUGHHHH” and he is a zombie. Fight on, Tyreese, fight on! No doubt figuring that his arm is already lost to time, Tyreese feeds his wrist to the zombie and takes out the walker’s brain.
Outside, Rick and Michonne and Glenn have a pow-wow. Could they stay here, in the ruins of Noah’s old safe place? The place is surrounded by a forest; there are no sight lines; that was the problem before, back in the prison, remember? (How long has the Grimes Gang wandered through this magic terror forest? It’s like the Hebrews of the Old Testament wandered into the woods of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.) They check one side of the gate, which looks like it was demolished by some kind of vehicle. There are large tire marks in the grass, and there are zombies splayed all around, chopped in half so cleanly that you have to figure there was a chainsaw involved. It was impossible to tell exactly what happened there; my working theory is that the colony was attacked by Sweet Tooth from Twisted Metal.
Michonne advocated for a return to Plan A: Go to Washington. There could be people there, safety; they could visit the Washington Monument, maybe take up residency in the White House. “We’re 100 miles away,” says Michonne. Why not? Old Man Grimes agrees—so perhaps the plot of this half-season is Mr. Rick Goes to Washington. Right about then is when they hear Noah, screaming.
In a room full of ghosts, Tyreese hears somebody singing. “Every man has a right to live,” she sings. “Love is all that we have to give.” It’s an old Jimmy Cliff song, “Struggling Man.” I could pretend to know anything at all about Jimmy Cliff, but since the twin foundations of my music knowledge are late ’90s pop-punk and the soundtracks for levels in Mega Man games, I will point you to AllMusic.com, which claims the song reflects Cliff’s “desperate attempt to shake himself out of mourning and find a new career path.”
The themes are fairly explicit: “I’m a struggling man/and I’ve got to move on,” sings the dead girl. Yep, there is Beth, cheek still scarred, a bit of blood on her forehead where the bullet broke through. “It’s okay, Tyreese. You gotta know that now.” What does she mean, precisely? The first time you watch this episode, you probably thought that maybe she meant: It was okay, he could move on from his mistakes, he could live. (I’m sure I’m not the only person who watched the second half of this episode, remembering how they saved Hershel, screaming at the TV “JUST CUT OFF THE DAMNED ARM ALREADY!”)
But the other ghosts pipe up, and they complicate matters. “It’s okay that you didn’t want to be a part of it anymore, Ty. You don’t have to be a part of it.” “Being part of it is being now.” “You don’t have to. Not if you don’t want to.” “It’s better now.” So many vague descriptors! Does being “part of it” mean being one of those people in the church, killing captives in cold blood in a flagrant violation of the Geneva Convention? Does “not wanting to” mean dying?
It was interesting to see how the show brought back the Governor—a character who, quite frankly, I thought was pretty well left behind in the rearview. One of the most interesting things about the last three half-seasons of Scott Gimple’s tenure is how the third Walking Dead showrunner has incorporated certain elements of earlier regimes—even some of the problematic elements. (This marks a change from the Mazzara era, which felt like an aggressive attempt to move far, far away from the Darabont era.) When Tyreese agreed to work for the Governor, Tyreese was barely a character. I loved how this episode retroactively treated his entrance into Woodbury very seriously: “Your eyes were wide open,” says the Ghost Governor. “Did you adapt? Did you change? No. You would sit there in front of a woman who killed someone you loved. And you would forgive her.”
NEXT: Tyreese, through the eyes of Mr. Eko
In an interesting way, this almost felt like a retroactive postscript on the Governor’s storyline–an attempt to finally cement just what defined Governor-ness vs. Rick-ness, if you will. The Governor was someone who would not forgive—and that’s what Rick has become, in some ways. (Recall how Rick shot that policeman in the midseason finale, “Shut up,” like killing him was just easier than anything else.) And this felt like an attempt to make Tyreese’s story arc clear: He was the man who could forgive, the man trying to hold onto humanity while everyone else around him became a soldier-samurai with a zero-tolerance policy.
Earlier in the episode, Tyreese talked about “The High Cost of Living.” In a bizarre coincidence, this episode reminded me a lot of an episode of Lost that I absolutely love: “The Cost of Living,” the final episode to feature Mr. Eko. Some minor context: Mr. Eko was introduced in Lost‘s second season and immediately became one of the show’s most fascinating characters. (For its first four seasons, Lost had the incredible talent of introducing two or three new characters in an episode and immediately making them fascinating.) The character was clearly intended as an important new presence in the show’s spiritual-mystical spectrum: an all-purpose friend/nemesis/bizarro-clone of Locke.
In the summer between seasons 2 and 3, every single Lost fan I knew assumed Mr. Eko would be one of the show’s most important characters. Behind-the-scenes, though, there was trouble. The actor who played Eko—the towering charisma-titan Adewale Akkinouye-Agbaje—wanted off the show, for a wide variety of reasons.
Thus: “The Cost of Living,” an episode which some people despise for its awkwardness, but which retroactively becomes one of the show’s most important statements almost accidentally. Much of Lost focused on the idea of redemption—on the very Catholic notion of characters confessing their sins and atoning. Mr. Eko’s previous episodes seemed to fit in with this model, even hyperbolizing the show’s themes to near-parody: Eko wasn’t just a bad man trying to be a good man, he was a freaking war lord pretending to be a freaking priest. He kept on seeing the ghost of his dead brother; you got the sense that Eko was a guy who was being “tested.” (This was back when it was still entirely plausible that the Island was the home of God and/or the Devil.)
The whole redemption narrative eventually dominated Lost, so it’s interesting to go back and watch “The Cost of Living,” where Eko the character explicitly refutes the whole idea of redemption. The ghost of his brother demands his confession, but Eko refuses:
I ask for no forgiveness, Father, for I have not sinned, I have only done what I needed to do to survive. A small boy once asked me if I was a bad man. If I could answer him now, I would tell him that when I was a young boy I killed a man to save my brother’s life. I am not sorry for this, I am proud of this. I did not ask for the life that I was given, but it was given nonetheless, and with it I did my best.
This is, weirdly, a much more interesting response to the Idea of the Island than anything that happened in Lost‘s later years, when everyone was either a Believer or the resurrected ghost of Titus Welliver. And there were weird echoes of Eko’s final statement when Tyreese stood up to his own ghosts:
I know who I am. I know what happened, and what’s going on. You didn’t show me shit. You? You dead. Everything that you were is dead. And it’s not over. I forgave her, because it’s NOT over. It’s not over.
Nicotero shot this scene in a long close-up, with Tyreese’s finger pointing accusingly at the Governor—the way the shot was framed, his mouth is actually covered, so all you see is Chad Coleman’s eyes.
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! People like me, they can’t live… ain’t nobody gotta die today.
At the time, this sounded like what Tyreese was saying was: “I’m not going to die.” Given how the show ended, I look back at these statements, and I wonder if he was getting at something a bit deeper: If what he meant was, “If I die, you’re gonna have to drag me away.” And I wonder if this was also an extension of what he said earlier to Noah about saving Judith. Tyreese was insisting that morality does matter. He could’ve killed Carol—but if he did that, Carol wouldn’t have saved everyone at Terminus. In Mass Effect terms, Tyreese was Team Paragon, dammit, even if everyone else in the universe was Team Renegade.
He falls down. His blood falls on the painting of the house. The little blond girls take his hand… and then we snap back to reality and see Rick holding up Ty’s bloody hand, and Michonne bringing down the sword, One Hit, Clean, Go.
NEXT: It begins and ends with a funeral
The Away Team carries Tyreese through the streets of ruined Shirewilt estates. (ASIDE: In what is either a hilarious production coincidence or further evidence that The Walking Dead is taking place in a holodeck simulation of 21st-century America, “Shirewilt Estates” is an inverse mirror of “Wilshire Estates,” visited by Andrea and Shane back when The Walking Dead was a show that featured characters named Andrea and Shane. Of course, you all know that my personal theory is that every showrunner’s The Walking Dead has taken place in a parallel universe, and The Walking Dead season 9 will feature a showdown between Earth-1 Rick [the guy with the short hair and the good attitude], Earth-2 Rick [the guy with the stubble and the tendency to give speeches], and Earth-Beard Rick [the guy who looks like the bassist in an indie rock band who tends to shoot first and ask questions never] END OF ASIDE.)
They get to the gates, open them: Of course, there are zombies. In one of the best single shots in Dead history, we see through Tyreese’s eyes; Noah, trying to keep him alive; Michonne, hacking; Glenn, swinging a wooden baseball bat like a dude who finally figured out how to get Biggoron’s sword in Ocarina; Rick, shooting in slow-motion and earning the ZOMBIE KILL OF THE WEEK when he takes down a lady walker right before she attacks Noah.
They run back to the car. Of course the car won’t start; of course, when it does start, it runs right into the crashed truck; and of course, when it crashes into the crashed truck, a bunch of HORRIFYING LIVING ZOMBIE TORSOS FALL ONTO THE FRONT OF THE CAR WHAT THE HELL WHAT THE HELL. Serious question: Are we meant to draw some conclusions about the future of this season from all the clues left in the ruin of Noah’s colony? The big tire treads; the zombies cut in clean little bits; the fact that someone thought it was a good idea to carry around a bunch of limbless walkers in the back of their car: This all smells like some kind of organized campaign of terror. (Right about now is when anyone who has read the comics starts saying “Negan” and everyone else wonders what the hell we’re talking about.) I kind of prefer to think that this was just ambient horror—the kind of thing you see all the time in the Deadverse.
Back in the car. Rick calls back to the bridge of the USS Rickerprise. “Mr. Carol! Five to beam up!” he screams. “Prepare to cauterize the wound! For god’s sakes, tell Carl to go find some pudding!” On the radio, Tyreese hears some more horrors: “Troubling reports of cannibalism in the refugee camps in the Republic’s transportation corridor… burning down local prisons… the widespread mutilation of children and young mothers.” You hear “cannibalism” and “prisons,” and you wonder if this is just Tyreese remembering all the horrors he’s seen. Or maybe this is a premonition of whatever’s to come in The Walking Dead: One year, two years, a hundred years of Republics and Refugee Camps and Prisons and Cannibalism and Mutilation as a regular thing that happens every day.
“Turn it off,” he says. The Cost of Living was too high; or maybe Tyreese is just tired. “You sure?” asks Bob. Bob is in the passenger seat; Beth is driving; Tyreese is in a car surrounded by dead men, just like Tony Soprano in “The Test Dream.” Maybe Tyreese just didn’t want to fight anymore; maybe he achieved a moment of peace. “It’s better now,” says Beth. Bob smiles. Tyreese looks up at the sun. The last thing he sees is the light, before the dark.
The car drives down the road, the autumn leaves racing after it. The car stops. Five people get out, only four of them still alive. This shot is about 45 seconds long; it might be my favorite single shot in The Walking Dead‘s run. Rick looks frustrated, makes a move for his gun; Michonne looks resigned, makes a move for her sword. We don’t see who put Zombie Tyreese out of his misery. We do see Tyreese’s funeral—clever of The Walking Dead, to make us think we were looking at Beth’s funeral back in the opening scenes. Father Gabriel concludes his speech, promising that wherever Tyreese is now, he has a house not made from hands: “Eternal, in the heavens.”
Sasha picks up the shovel, drops it. Rick picks it up, starts tossing dirt down on the grave. When a man dies, the least you can do is bury him.