The Walking Dead, S5 E9: “What Happened and What’s Going On”

If the midseason premiere is any indication of where the show is headed and at what level of quality, well, your guess is as good as mine. While I admire the risk of an episode like “What Happened and What’s Going On,” I’m not sure I would’ve picked it for the premiere. I mean, closing out one arc with the death of a good character who still believes in kindness and empathy only to start a new arc by killing off the last remaining character not consumed by nihilism is a bold choice. Surrounding that death with a meaningless, empty plot probably didn’t help matters…

After five seasons and three showrunners, The Walking Dead has settled on two distinct styles and tones. Tone-wise, it’s either well-structured with an interesting plot arc and solid internal logic or scattershot and filled with plot holes and inconsistent characters. Style-wise, it’s either fine enough or thoroughly creative. Ever since he took over as showrunner, Scott M. Gimple has started doing these wonderful little standalone episodes—“Clear,” “The Grove”—and obviously this was supposed to be in the same vein. Except it wasn’t, or at least it wasn’t as successful.

“What Happened and What’s Going On” was both well-structured and creative, but it still didn’t entirely work for me. I had the same feeling toward episode 9 as I did toward Black Mirror: shrugging apathy mixed with mild annoyance. I get what they’re going for and it was certainly nice to look at, but there’s a fine line between impressive and indulgent. Some of you will think ep 9 (or Black Mirror, for that matter) were works of televisual art, but for me it was like watching someone trying way too hard to get their point across. It was a beautiful yet hollow hour with too many pretensions and not enough craft.

This was one of those episodes where characters deliver charged, florid speeches about things that would be better expressed through subtext. Chad L. Coleman was excellent as usual, but the script once again failed to live up to his talent. Tyreese spent the entire episode either speechifying or hallucinating, neither of which were particularly in character or worked as well as the show thought it did.

The main problem with the episode, besides the turgid dialogue and the avalanche of artistic flourishes, was the unnecessary redundancy. We’ve seen this scenario a dozen times before. A beloved character confronts something that shakes their faith in humanity and forces them to decide whether life is worth living or not. Tyreese finally got his turn in the hot seat, and while his had more flair than Rick’s or Michonne’s or Bob’s or Beth’s and so on, it’s still the same story with the same outcome. Everyone chooses to live, and it doesn’t so much matter whether they do or not, what matters is their decision. Each time we see this play out, it gets that much less effective. If we’re going down this road yet again, we need a different perspective, and no, fantasizing about the murder twins doesn’t count.

In terms of setting up the arc for this half season, we got some intriguing crumbs—Who was collecting zombie body parts? Why? Did they cause the breach at Richmond or did they stumble upon it later? Where van was that van headed before it crashed? What or who caused the accident? How long before Rick’s group encounters them and it all goes to shit?—but not enough to make me super excited about the rest of the season. The change of scenery is the most welcomed part of the new arc. Getting out of Georgia means a fresh start, new encounters, and endless possibilities. We never got a real sense of the geography in the south, so it seemed like group was wandering around in lazy circles for the last 5 seasons. Now we know exactly where they are and where they’re headed, so when they inevitably detour we won’t feel completely lost.

I’ve written before about how the grimness of the comic books were what ultimately drove me away. Although I know I read at least one more volume after the infamous issue #48 in which the Governor’s second attack on the prison leads to some decidedly horrible deaths, I honestly can’t remember anything after it. And I’ve no desire to go back. It’s just too exhausting. Every issue makes me feel like I did after that time I marathoned the first seasons of The Fall and Top of the Lake in one weekend. By Monday I was an emotional disaster area. The Walking Dead show isn’t there yet, but with the rapid succession loss of all of the happiest and most well adjusted characters to pointless deaths—Bob, Beth, and now Tyreese—there’s a futile darkness creeping in around the edges.

Even Michonne is affected by it. Where once she was able to deal with being unmoored, now she wants so badly to settle she’s willing to chop down a forest. Without a moral center, Michonne is coming apart at the seams, Glenn is turning into a man whose only regrets aren’t killing enough people, and Rick is sliding further into indifference. The only thing uniting the group now is desperation. It’s what drove them to Richmond, and now compels them to D.C. It’s what pushed Noah home and left him crying in the street. It’s what made Tyreese fight for his life even though he’d already been handed a death sentence. What else is there? What’s left? You can stay and die now or more forward and die a little later. Wallowing in that amount of misery is hard to pull off in the long run. I know the show can never have a happy ending, but there has to be a balance between hope and crushing disappointment, and a van full of zombie torsos ain’t cutting it.

Final Thoughts

  • “You’re the kind of guy who saves babies.”—I get that Martin intends this to be an insult, but…
  • “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.”
  • “It went the way it had to, the way it was always going to.”
  • “It isn’t just ok.” “It’s better now.”
  • There should be a rule that as long as Daryl and Carol are still alive they must be directly involved in every episode.
  • Every time they show Maggie wailing uncontrollably over Beth’s death, I remember that she didn’t once even mention her until Daryl turned up.
  • Hey, what ever happened to Morgan? Poor guy’s probably still wandering around Georgia looking for Rick.
  • A scheduling note from the Powers That Be: from now on there will only be coverage on premieres and finales for TWD instead of weekly reviews. Sorry, zombie fans.

Alex Brown is an archivist, research librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.


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