‘The Walking Dead’ ups its artistry game and waxes poetic in a beautiful, heartbreaking midseason premiere

By Alex Frail

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(AMC)

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The following article contains spoilers for the fifth season of “The Walking Dead.”

“The Walking Dead” always had a knack for surprising me. Just when I think the apocalyptic drama might’ve dried up its poetic well, the program opens with a strand of non-chronological, blurry shots of indefinite objects or people. They’re disorienting. They’re confusing and unsettling. But they always inject the following hour with a wondrous, ominous dread that you just can’t shake.

Season five’s midseason premiere, “What Happened and What’s Going On,” marks a new pinnacle for the show’s creativity. Quick, light-soaked shots reveal a grave, fuzzy audio crackles out Father Gabriel’s (Seth Gilliam) eulogy and then the real shocker arrives: bloodied Lizzie and Mika smile into the camera, breaking the fourth wall with a haunting gaze. “It’s better now,” they tell us.

Of course, Lizzie and Mika died way back in season four. Their inexplicable return had me doing double takes. For the rest of the episode, I was scratching my head.

Showrunner Scott M. Gimple, who penned the episode, unspools this mystery in agonizing fashion throughout the midseason premiere. As Rick (Andrew Lincoln) leads Michonne (Danai Gurira), Glenn (Steven Yeun), Tyreese (Chad Coleman) and Noah (Tyler James Williams) back to Noah’s old home, Tyreese reassures Noah on the drive. When they arrive, Noah realizes he’s too late. The compound is overrun, his family dead.

Distracted by a photo of Noah and his brother, Tyreese tragically gets bitten. The moment really caught me off guard. Sure, “The Walking Dead” has killed its characters erratically before. “Killer Within” even saw two main characters go at once. But I never thought the show would kill someone barely an hour after Beth (Emily Kinney) was killed.

The bite happens early. As such, the episode hinges upon that moment, and then the poetry comes off the screen magically, like nothing I’ve seen on “The Walking Dead.” As Tyreese slips into unconscious, a slew of dead characters surround him in a frightening hallucinatory trip. Lizzie and Mika console him. And slowly, the mysterious cold open comes into focus.

Bob (Lawrence Gilliard, Jr.), Martin (Chris Coy) and Beth all appear to Tyreese. He barely utters a word at first. Coleman offers a heartbreaking performance, allowing the pained realization to wash over him in the silence. This silence allows the dead to taunt him – Martin reminds Tyreese of their cabin conversation – or to console him. All the while, Coleman gives a stellar performance in near silence.

Greg Nicotero, who also directed the incredible season five premiere, “No Sanctuary,” delivers yet again. He splices these hallucinations together with seamless clarity and unnerving erraticism. When the scariest apparition appears in the imposing form of the Governor (an eternally missed David Morrissey), Nicotero frames the posthumous villain from a low angle shot. With just a glimpse, dread rushed back to me. Even from the grave, the specter of the Governor looms.

Nicotero really excels late in the hour. The blood loss from the bite metastasizes Tyreese’s mental state. His visions grow more imposing, more erratic. Clever crosscutting suggests Lizzie and Mika hold Tyreese’s hand, while Rick and Co. actually yank it outright to amputate the bite. It’s at once horrifying and profound.



As I said, I never expected “The Walking Dead” to bump off another character so soon after Beth died. I suppose that’s what the writers suspected. So, hats off to them. However, throughout the episode, I was more surprised at how accepting I was of Tyreese’s demise than I was at the fact that he was bitten.

Coleman’s performance stunned me. I can’t deny that. The problem lies in the character’s lack of depth throughout each season. As I sat there, marveling at Coleman’s acting, I realized the show would be little different without Tyreese. Beyond saving Judith in season four and an interest grapple with morality, he offered little to the narrative’s advance or to the program’s intrigue. So while I loved Coleman, I was fairly indifferent toward Tyreese.

The midseason premiere was a beautiful entry to “The Walking Dead’s” increasingly impressive canon. No one has gone so beautifully into that good night as Tyreese does. Coleman’s acting stole the hour. Meanwhile, Gimple’s writing and Nicotero’s direction ensured yet another entertaining hour.

In the grand scheme, however, I’ll remember “What Happened and What’s Going On” as little more than a poetic death study. The cold open releases an air of intrigue sustained for the whole hour, but it kept me engaged with its style at the expense of its substance.

Alexander Frail can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @AlexanderFrail.