Sunday night’s midseason premiere of The Walking Dead, “What Happened and What’s Going On,” felt, at times, like a different series. It was the most poetic episode to date, and the directing style and structure of Greg Nicotero felt like an independent film. It was a despairing and crushingly depressing independent film that left its audience broken and exhausted by the end, as Andrew Lincoln promised, and an episode of television that contained all the misery of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Indeed, as The Walking Dead fans, we have to wonder if this series can get any bleaker.
The opening sequence — with shots of both the past and (as we’d later learn) the future — was immediately disorienting. I must have re-watched the opening three times trying to figure out the significance of the pictures of the twins, the blood dripping onto the painting of a house and Lizzie and Mika beckoning someone to come home. By the end of the episode, however, it would all become clear: It wasn’t Beth’s grave they were digging, and it wasn’t Beth’s eulogy that Gabriel was delivering. It was a eulogy for Tyreese, a line from 2 Corinthians 4:18: “We look not at what can be seen, but at what not can be seen. For what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.” At this point in the show, the unseen misery that lies ahead must also feel eternal.
The action picks up about two weeks after Beth’s death (according to Greg Nicotero), and we see something for the first time in five and a half seasons of The Walking Dead. It took 60 episodes, but they finally left Georgia. That, in and of itself, felt like a small miracle for a series that often seems to reset at the beginning of every midseason a few miles away from where they began. The front eight, in fact, brought them back to where the series began, in Atlanta, which means they traveled around 500 miles to get back to Noah’s home in a gated community 100 miles from D.C. “It’s a long trip, but if it works out, it’s the last long trip we have to make,” Rick told the group.
It was not, however, the home that they were hoping to find. It had been destroyed, and not by walkers, but by people — vicious people that separated legs from torsos; despicable people who burned down the community from the inside; terrifying animals that will almost certainly come back into play later this season.
It was in the burnt-out community that Glenn and Rick resurfaced a common theme running throughout the series: the point of existence, especially as the characters continue to lose their humanity. It was that point when both characters were brought home by admitting that, if Daryl hadn’t, they’d have killed Dawn themselves, even knowing that Dawn accidentally killed Beth. Killing Dawn was not an act of self-defense or even revenge. It was an act of grief.
Michonne, meanwhile, had enough. She was ready to stop and salvage what was left of Noah’s neighborhood because, like everyone else by now, she was ready to find a place she could call home that would allow them to ground themselves again. Seeing scores of bodies strewn outside the gates, however, quickly suggested to her that Noah’s old neighborhood was not a place where anyone could find humanity. It was a place where evil had settled.
Most of the episode, as we would come to learn, was seen from the perspective of Tyreese, the character remaining with the most humanity. He was the moral center of the show, a man who could forgive Carol for killing his girlfriend, a man who helped his sister pick up the pieces after the death of Bob, the man who cared for Judith, who lost his affinity for violence, and a man who sometimes trusted too much, as in the case of The Governor.
We would get to see The Governor again, as well as Lizzie and Mika, Bob and even Beth, who were not like the hallucinations suffered by Rick so much as they were the ghosts of the dead calling Tyreese home. Staring into the photos of Noah’s twin brothers, feeling the hurt and heartbreak of Noah’s loss as only someone as empathetic as Tyreese could, he let his guard down, if only for a second. It would cost him his life.
He would hang in there for awhile. It almost seemed possible that they could cut off his arm, that he’d manage to survive, which is what we at home had hoped and believed. Surely, they wouldn’t kill off someone else so soon after Beth, right? They wouldn’t take away the beating heart of The Walking Dead, right? They wouldn’t pile misery on top of misery, right?
But that’s exactly what Greg Nicotero did, and when Ghost Bob told Tyreese to “turn it off” — comforting him with the knowledge that he’d finally paid a high enough cost for living — Tyreese faded. There was a sense of sad relief to his passing. He would no longer have to carry the heavy burden of hope for everyone else. Tyreese could join Lizzie and Mika and Bob in the tranquility of afterlife, where he’d no doubt wait, in peace, for the arrival of the others.
But why kill Tyreese now, you might wonder? Because I suspect, with what’s to come, that these characters don’t need to be held back by a moral compass. The future may require them to leave behind their humanity for the sake of survival. We may see Rick transform into Gareth and everyone else lose their sense of right and wrong, as they struggle to continue living in this temporary world of horrors that can still be seen.