Oh, man. Whether or not you had you issues with The Walking Dead's mid-season finale last year, last night's mid-season premiere was a shocking, gut-wrenching episode that has to rank in the show's Top 10. Warning: Major spoilers ahead, obviously.
So The Walking Dead is good at a lot of things — suspense, gore, shock — but it's never been really good at being tragic. Part of the problem is that given its premise, the audience expects these characters to die at any moment. We may be surprised when they die, and under what circumstances, but with the exception of Rick and probably Carl, we know it's coming for everybody at some point.
The other part of the problem is that TWD has struggled for a long time to make its characters empathetic enough to truly worry about, as oppose to just us just sitting and waiting for them to meet their grisly end. But the show solved both of these problems in "What Happened and What's Going On," which managed to be devastating in exactly the way the mid-season finale and Beth's death wasn't.
The episode begins with the strange montage that was previewed late last week: photos of two young twins, Lizzie and her sister, a burial, a picture with blood pooling on it. It's bizarre, but the episode quickly moves past as Rick and the others arrive at Noah's home in Virginia; they've brought him back to fulfill Beth's last wish, even as the group tries to recover from her death. While the others hang back, Rick, Michonne, Tyreese, Glenn and Noah slowly approach the wooded community.
If you guess that Noah's home would be overrun and everyone Noah loved dead and/or zombified, congratulations! You're a loyal TWD viewer. Aside from a few scattered walkers, no one is left, and Noah breaks down and sobs on the street. Tyreese stays with him as Rick, Glenn and Michonne decide to search for supplies. Of course, it's not long before Tyreese manages to talk Noah up, and the new group member runs to his old house, forcing Tyreese to give chase.
Tyreese manages to catch Noah before he enters, but it's obvious Noah has to know what happened to his family, no matter how horrible it is. And man, is it horrible. One of TWD's most gruesomely realistic corpses lies on the living room floor, a chunk missing from her skull, presumably Noah's mom. As Noah mourns, Tyreese goes to make sure the rest of the house is safe. But as he enters a kids' bedroom, he sees pictures of two young twins — the photos from the beginning of the episode — and is mesmerized. Which is when one of the zombified twins bites him on the arm.
I have to assume some of you think this is a dumb way for a character to potentially die; to be so absorbed in a simple photograph that he doesn't notice a zombie behind him. I won't disagree with you, but I'd argue that it makes sense for Tyreese — sweet, too good for the new world Tyreese, to get lost in those happy, carefree faces, to be momentarily so bowled staggered by what was and what is and everything that's been lost — to basically be doomed by his own humanity. Only Tyreese would have seen the tragedy in those photos, and only he would have even bothered to look at them. It's been argued time and time again on this show that you have to be hard to survive in the new world; Tyreese chose another way, and it finally proved his downfall.
After stabbing what was probably his younger brother in the skull with a model airplane, Noah runs off to get help, and the episode truly begins — an episode that occurs solely for Tyreese, as he's bitten and bleeding out in a kid's bedroom. It's where we learn that the montage at the beginning was a flash-forward of sorts, where we got snippets of what Tyreese sees as he lays dying — namely, Martin (the Terminus jerk he let live), Bob, Beth, the girls Lizzie and Mica, and even the Governor appear in his visions.
It's not a scene that The Walking Dead has ever tried to do before. It's portentous and mysterious, allowing viewers to read their own meaning into the words of Tyreese's late friends and foes. For instance, I thought it was ominous that the first person Tyreese hallucinates is Martin, as if his unwillingness to kill the Termite still weighs more heavily on his mind than anything else. I also felt like Beth, Bob and the girls were somewhat sinisterly telling Tyreese it was okay to "let go," to give up — while Martin and the Governor deride him for it, as if they want him to survive — but perhaps only to continuing suffering?
This hallucination goes on for a long time — punctuated by another zombie attack, that Tyreese only fends off by shoving his already wounded arm in its mouth so he can kill it — but I found it powerful. (It just occurred to me, maybe TWD was trying to do something like this back when Rick was going crazy and hallucinating Ghost Lori and phone calls all the time, but suffice it to say it didn't achieve it.) Meanwhile, Michonne has come to a realization — Eugene might have been lying about a cure, but his reasoning about Washington DC being the likeliest place where humanity might have established some kind of safe haven was sound. Michonne talks them into at least checking it out (Noah's home in Virginia is about 100 miles away) just as they come across an absolutely bewildering field full of severed zombie limbs. But before they can say "HOLY SHIT" Noah calls for them.
In The Walking Dead — hell, in most TV — characters rarely die slowly. Character deaths are supposed to be shocking, and that usually means they're quick and seemingly out of nowhere. If it only seems like a character is going to die — say, something puts them in danger early in an episode — then narratively speaking the longer that death gets drawn out, the more likely they'll survive. It's mostly basic storytelling. If an episode's storyarc is "this character might die," then the standard way to end that arc is with the character surviving. It's a satisfying conclusion, it builds tension then relieves it, it's storytelling 101, basically. Besides, to have a character inch closer and closer to death — to have a significant part of the episode being about all the other characters trying desperately to save them — well, to have that character die anyway isn't just tragic, its cruel. Viewers don't tend to stick around for shows that do that.
Which is why I'd like to commend The Walking Dead for killing Tyreese, even as much as I hate them for it. Watching Rick and Michonne and Gleen and Noah try to save him — from cutting off his infected arm, to trying to escape the settlement, to trying to drive back to the others at top speed — the most desperate the situation got, the more tense it got, the more it seemed Tyreese would have to be saved. Why bother with the scene where they cut off his arm if he's going to die anyways? Why make the group fight a small horde of zombies to get to their car if he won't make it? Because the result is truly shocking and heartbreaking. It's also effective in a way no other death on TWD has been, and because it's Tyreese — Tyreese who tried to keep from killing anyone, who forgave Carol, who was the heart and soul of the group even more than Herschel had been — his loss is devastating. Watching the light fade from Tyreese's eyes… watching the car stop in the road and everyone else get out… man. The Walking Dead has never once made me teary-eyed, until last night.
Father Gabriel conducts the funeral — another scene from the early montage — as the others bury Tyreese. Having also lost Beth so needlessly, the group is almost too shocked to grieve. They may have a new goal to head towards, a new potential haven, but since Terminus they've also lost their three most goodhearted members. I have no idea how the group bounces back from this… and at the moment, I bet neither do they.
• As he's trying to drive away from Noah's settlement, Rick runs into a van and a bunch of limbless zombies pour out of the back. It's crazy fucked-up, and it's obviously related to that field of severed limbs the group saw earlier. Does this have something to do with the Whisperers?
• The scene where Michonne tries to cut off a zombie's head only to discover it has a rebar in its shoulder, blocking her blade, was kind of awesome.
• Also impressively tense: the scene where Rick and the others knock open a gate with a mini-horde on the other side, and the zombies pour out in slow-motion through Tyreese' perspective. One female zombie breaks through and heads straight from Tyreese, and it's crazy because no one seems to notice it, but then Rick sees it but shoots it in the shoulder and it's still coming and then Rick finally gets it in the head. Well done, TWD.
• So the episode begins with Tyreese telling Noah abut his dad's habit of listening to the radio, of hearing all the horrible news in the world and calling it "paying the high cost of living." As Tyreese bleeds out, he often hears a static-y radio deliver what seems to be news bulletins from the early days of the zombie apocalypse. When the others are driving him back at top speed, he hears the car's radio, and whispers… "Turn it off." This is not subtle, but holy shit was it moving.