Back in October of 2011, when I was a tender young critic (with only six months on the job), I started reviewing a tender young show called The Walking Dead (which had, at the time, only six episodes under its belt). I had my doubts about the show, and its cast of characters, and whether it could really build and sustain a compelling narrative around a premise that had no shape. “I just don’t see where it can ultimately go,” I wrote in that first review. “Zombies are a situation, not a plot; a world overrun by zombies is a setting, not a story.”
That aimless, interminable second season seemed to confirm a lot of my fears about the show, and I only ended up reviewing nine of its thirteen episodes. This was the purgatorial period in which our stalwart band of survivors were stuck on Hershel’s farm forever, half-heartedly searching for Sophia and suffering the insufferable Rick/Lori/Shane soap-opera love-triangle. There were occasional moments of power and brilliance—like the crushing reveal in “Pretty Much Dead Already“—but they were too few and too far between. I just couldn’t do it: I never stopped watching the show, but I had no desire to keep writing about it.
However, over the past few years, it hasn’t escaped my notice that The Walking Dead has gotten steadily better, for a number of reasons. First of all, it has recognized—as Robert Kirkman’s comic book did early on—that this story needs villains. (Zombies are not villains: zombies are an environmental threat.) The plague of the undead is just the backdrop, a high-pressure situation that brings out the best, or worst, in the human beings who have to deal with it. The Walking Dead has gotten a lot of mileage out of its all-too human villains, like The Governor in Seasons Three and Four, the practically minded cannibals in Terminus at the beginning of Season Five, and—most recently—the totalitarian police chief Dawn.
The show has also improved on—though not yet perfected—its core cast of characters. Some of the weaker, duller, or more problematic of the original central characters have slowly been culled from the herd, including T-Dog, Lori, Shane, and Andrea. The Walking Dead is democratic in its destruction, so we’ve lost some good characters as well—including Dale, Hershel, Bob, and Beth—but on the whole this is now a much stronger cast than it once was. I still have my doubts about Rick—I’ll always have doubts about Rick—but none about Carol, Daryl, Michonne, Glenn, or Maggie: these are characters the show has succeeded in developing to the point where we truly care if they live or die. (No one is safe, so I don’t doubt that one or more of them will die, eventually. But, when they do, it will truly hurt, and that’s exactly the emotional investment that this show needs.)
Recently, The Walking Dead has also more or less solved one of its biggest problems: pacing. Season Two, as I’ve said, went on forever; Season Three had its fair share of padding and foot-dragging as well. But, shortly after Scott Gimple took over as showrunner at the beginning of Season Four, things improved markedly. Since the resolution of the Governor storyline halfway through that season, The Walking Dead has moved along at a satisfying clip, and it has miraculously done so by moving its story arcs and character arcs along simultaneously. One of my chief complaints about Season Two was the paradox of the fact that nothing happened, for long stretches at a time, and yet the show somehow couldn’t find time to develop its characters in any meaningful way: both the plot and the people seemed frustratingly stagnant.
Now, those days are past: the show lately has managed to stay constantly in motion, while allowing the people to deepen and broaden along the way. (Beth, for example, has been around since the second episode of Season Two, but her death this season would not have stung at all if it weren’t for the time the show spent making us care about her in the second half of Season Four.)
Finally, I want to conclude my overview thoughts with the observation that The Walking Dead has succeeded in turning its very aimlessness from a bug into a feature. The question of what on earth these characters can possibly do in a world overrun by the dead is not just a problem for the writers, it’s the problem of the show itself: they have nowhere to go, and nothing to reasonably hope for, and no real reason to stay alive, but they just keep going. I wrote a tongue-in-cheek review in Season Two comparing the show to the existentialist novel The Plague, but that is seeming less like a joke these days. I’ve long argued that The Walking Dead is the most godless show on television, and that’s one of the things I like about it: the show has embraced the search for meaning in a meaningless universe as the only meaning there is. (The moment I probably decided I wanted to write about it again was the moment that gave this season’s third episode its title: when, after Father Gabriel objects to the slaughter in “the Lord’s house,” Maggie coldly informs him that a church is just “four walls and a roof.”) There is no God, no plan, no reasonable hope of salvation of any kind. There is no point, and that’s the point.
Which, coincidentally, is a good place for us to transition to talking about this latest episode.
“I just wondered if it even mattered, one way or another.” — Rick
Written by Gimple, and directed by Greg Nicotero, “What Happened and What’s Going On” is a stylistic departure for The Walking Dead, a self-consciously artsy experiment that visually blasts us with gauzy flashbacks and fastforwards, and puts a lot of its existential arguments in the mouths of hallucinations. The show has done this sort of thing before—Daryl’s conversations with his hallucinatory brother Merle in Season Two’s “Chupacabra” come to mind—and, though I don’t always think it works, I always applaud the effort. The Walking Dead‘s grim monotony is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness, and anything that changes up the formula—formally, tonally, or stylistically—is always welcome.
I don’t think it completely works here—subtext made text, it’s all a little too on the nose—but its heart is in the right place. Because this is a reasonable place, emotionally, for everyone to be in at this point in the series. Beth was a rare ray of light and optimism in this relentlessly depressing world, a person who maintained her faith and innocence not in denial of the world’s realities—remember her suicide attempt?—but in spite of them. “There are still good people,” she said to Daryl last season, when he argued that the good people are not the ones who survive a zombie apocalypse. Beth was a good person, and she made other people—like Daryl—think they could still be good people.
And now she’s gone, and yet another potential sanctuary has turned out to be a bust, and it all just seems to prove that perhaps Daryl was right after all: the good people are not the ones who survive. This entire season, in fact, has supported that theory. Rick and the other survivors chose not to kill everyone when they escaped from Terminus, and that decision came back to haunt them, ultimately forcing them to carry out the slaughter in the church in “Four Walls and a Roof.” They tried not to go to war with Dawn’s people, conducting a civilized exchange of prisoners instead, and that too blew up in their faces, leading to Beth’s death.
What’s worse, in both cases, we have been reminded that the “villains” began much as Rick and Co. began: Terminus really did start out as a sanctuary; Dawn and her officers really were trying to help. “We heard the message,” one of the Terminus residents told Carol in the season premiere, explaining their evolution into murderous cannibals. “You’re either the butcher or you’re the cattle.” Kill or be killed, eat or be eaten, fall victim to the monsters or become a monster yourself: those really do seem to be the only choices in this world that is—especially after Eugene’s confession about the “cure”—utterly without hope.
So is it any wonder these people are tired? The bulk of “What Happened and What’s Going On” is dedicated to Tyreese, but you can see the exhaustion in everyone: not just physical exhaustion, but a deep, psychic, spiritual weariness. Rick tries to comfort Noah by telling him he will be part of the group now. “Then what?” Michonne asks Rick: that’s the eternal question for them, and you can hear in her voice how sick to death she is of asking it. You can see it in the way she futilely argues that Noah’s town can still be made safe, and in how she argues that they head to Washington, and in the joyless way she unsheathes her sword every time she has to kill yet another in a long and endless and mindless line of walkers.
And you can hear the exhaustion in Rick’s voice, as he is coming to the soul-deadening awareness that there’s no real point to anything he has tried to do. He keeps trying to be the “good” guy, and it all keeps turning to shit no matter what he does. He can’t protect the people he cares about, he can’t force civilization on a world that has gone to the wolves, and he can’t even stop himself from becoming a monster. “I wanted to kill her,” he says of Dawn. “I remember, I just wondered if it even mattered, one way or another.” Because why does it matter? There’s no hope for anyone, in the long run. Whether you decide to be a sheep or a wolf or a shepherd, there’s no joy or hope to be found, and everyone is going to end up zombie food one way or another. “I would have shot that woman dead, right or wrong,” Glenn concurs. Because what do questions of right and wrong matter in such a world?
“It went the way it had to, the way it was always going to.” — Tyreese
So who can blame someone who decides to check out? Tyreese doesn’t commit suicide—at least not consciously—but his death is framed as Hamlet’s fundamental dilemma: to be or not to be? The second half of this episode is Hamlet’s soliloquy given flesh, a chorus of hallucinatory figures from Tyreese’s subconscious gathering to debate the existential issue. Is it nobler to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune? Who wouldn’t want to end the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to? Fuck it, what’s the point of all of this?
Early in the episode, Tyreese makes a case for not giving up. “I wanted to die for what I lost, who I lost,” he says. “But I just kept going. And then later, I was there for Judith when she needed me. I saved her, 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.”
He’s trying to comfort Noah, but really he’s trying to convince himself, and it isn’t entirely convincing. Like everyone else, he’s tired, and he’s wondering if the decisions he makes really matter one way or another. He had taken the high road—deciding he didn’t want to kill anymore—and that was an understandable, even honorable decision. (“It’s okay that you didn’t want to be a part of it anymore, Ty,” hallucinatory Mika assures him.) But it’s also an impractical, almost impossible decision in this world, and we later see his sub-conscious (in the form of Martin and the others) torturing him about it. Did letting Martin live—after he had threatened to kill Judith—lead directly to the deaths of Bob, and Beth, and the others, through “domino shit”?
But “domino shit” is not the real problem for Tyreese, any more than it is for Rick. It’s not a question of making good choices or bad choices; the problem is that all choices lead to horror and violence and death. You can’t avoid it, because there’s nothing else left; you can’t remove yourself from it, because there’s nowhere else to go. “You didn’t want to be part of it,” Martin tells him. “But being part of it is being now. That’s what it is. Open your eyes.”
How do you decide whether to be or not to be if the very definition of being is this never-ending nightmare?
And it’s in that open your eyes that the full bleakness of The Walking Dead‘s worldview becomes apparent, in a way that removes even the thin optimism of that word “now” in Martin’s statement. Because, yes, the world has gone to shit now: it’s overrun by zombies, and there’s no civilization left, and there’s very little kindness or joy to be found, and there’s no hope whatsoever.
But the horror and hopelessness aren’t just to be found in the world of The Walking Dead: they’re also in our world. Martin’s “open your eyes” calls back to Tyreese’s earlier story about driving in the car with his father.
“I just made it so I didn’t see anything except what I wanted. I wasn’t facing it…what happened, what’s going on. My dad always told Sasha and me that it was our duty, as citizens of the world, to keep up with the news. When I was little, and I was in his car, there were always those 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. But he didn’t change the channel. He didn’t turn it off. He just kept listening, to face it. Keeping your eyes open. My dad always called that ‘paying the high cost of living.'”
And, throughout the episodes, we hear some of those radio reports: they sound like they could be describing current events for these characters—including widespread chaos, and the breakdown of civilization, and the massacring of people with machetes—but of course they’re not: these are pre-zombie-apocalypse reports (from what sounds like the genocide in Rwanda). This horror—the horror these people are living through “now”—is not really new. The real problem is people, and people have always been like this. Most of the time we just choose, as young Tyreese wanted to do, not to see it.
But once you’ve seen it, how do you go on living? “It went the way it had to,” Tyreese says, several times in this episode. “The way it was always going to go.” The first time he says it, he means what happened with Beth. The second time, he means everything that has happened since he let Martin live. The last time, however, at the end of the episode, it might as well refer to the entire history of the human race. Given what people are, and what they’re capable of, it was always going to end up like this. So why keep struggling?
There is a particular resonance, I think, in this being Tyreese facing these issues. The Walking Dead mostly avoids commenting on real-world current events, but I found myself wondering if “What Happened and What’s Going On” was written in the summer of 2014, in the wake of events in Ferguson, MO and other communities that generated so much anger and despair about the devaluation of black lives. Intentional or not, this examination of how one keeps struggling in the face of ongoing misery and injustice and violence—in the face of a situation that never seems to get better—strikes me as timely, and evocative. (There are so many things throughout this episode that indicate that the racial subtext is intentional: from the use of Jimmy Cliff’s “Struggling Man,” to the evocation of the Rwandan genocide, to way Tyreese stares mournfully at the photos of the young black boys—Noah’s little brothers—who have been destroyed and corrupted by this unfair world.) I’ve offered as many jokes and criticisms as anyone about the way The Walking Dead seems to kill one black character every time they introduce another, but here I think it’s intentional: the older black man, Tyreese, has been struggling all his life, and now—as his struggle is finally over—he passes that torch and burden and the horrors of the world along to the younger black man, Noah, to struggle against in his turn. (There are several moments of linkage between the two men, most notably as they enter Noah’s house: Tyreese is entering, but we see Noah’s face reflected in the glass. In an episode where past, present, and future all overlap and inform each other, this subtle representation of the eternal recurrence of the struggle is sad, and powerful, and poignant.)
Inevitably, fittingly, The Walking Dead doesn’t offer any solutions or comfort: there are no solutions, and there is no comfort, and that’s the whole point. “For what can be seen is temporary, but what can not be seen is eternal,” Father Gabriel says at Tyreese’s funeral: from 2 Corinthians 4, it’s a message to not focus on the horrors of the world, and turn your eyes instead to some unseen eternal peace, but it rings hollow in the context of this episode and of this very atheistic show itself. If there’s any “message” here, it’s just an acknowledgement of how necessary it is—and how soul-crushingly hard it is—to look the horrors of the real world square in the face and still keep moving. Tyreese is tired, and he is hopeless, but he doesn’t give up—not until he has to. “I didn’t turn away,” he says to his hallucinatory accusers, near the end. “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.” Only at the moment of his death does he allow himself to say—about the radio, about the unremitting horror of the world—”turn it off.” Death may be “better”—though The Walking Dead offers the opposite of hope on that point—but, until we die, we have no choice but to keep listening, to keep our eyes open, and to keep hoping we can make things just a little better—as Michonne argues—”for one more day.” That’s the lesson Tyreese’s father taught him; that’s the lesson he passes on to the next generation in Noah.
Together we struggle by our will to survive, Jimmy Cliff sings. And together we fight just to stay alive. That’s the way it goes, the way it always has, the way it always has to. That’s our duty, as citizens of the world. That’s all there is, and it ain’t much, but it may—just barely—be just enough to struggle on for one more day.