As I was going through my old reviews of The Walking Dead, I was surprised to find a recurrent complaint about the show’s depiction of African Americans, having willfully forgotten the way former executive producer Glen Mazzara used to play musical chair with his black characters. Indeed, T-Dog and Prison T-Dog (his real name was Oscar) never got around to developing proper personalities, coming off less like actual cast members than token extras. One could’ve said the same of Tyreese in season three, but Scott M. Gimple mercifully changed all that when he took over, as exemplified in “What Happened and What’s Going On”.
I noted in my review of “Slabtown” how our new show runner has been toying with time, perspective, and narrative to keep monotony from settling on The Walking Dead. “What Happened and What’s Going On” has got all the markings of a classic swan song like “Better Angels” or “This Sorrowful Life”: the inexplicably decelerated pace, sudden focus on the character about to die, drawn-out chats brimming with introspection… Just the same, Gimple, who penned the episode himself, managed to hoodwink me twice, thereby keeping me on the edge of my seat the rest of the time.
The first bit of misdirection takes place at the very beginning of “What Happened and What’s Going On”. Right off the bat, we’re bombarded with random images of a suburban house, some creepy twins, and a makeshift funeral, which, for obvious reasons, I assumed to be for Beth. I didn’t even suspect, let alone piece together, the scene’s true context until it unfolded again at the end of the episode. Well played The Walking Dead! I thought for sure you’d give us a breather before the next casualty.
The second part to fool me pertains to the subject of the episode. What with our heroes heading to his old stomping grounds and Tyreese spending the first act chatting him up, one might forgive me for expecting “What Happened and What’s Going On” to focus on newcomer Noah. Perhaps I got distracted by Tyler James Williams’ understated charisma, the way he conveys fortitude and intelligence even as his character breaks down in tears. Given how many have flat-out lost their marbles on The Walking Dead, who could blame the little dude for indulging in a bit of grief? The realisation that Dawn saved his life by keeping him prisoner couldn’t have made things any easier.
However, “What Happened and What’s Going On” quickly switches gears as Tyreese gets chomped on by a prepubescent walker, causing him to hallucinate former cast members of The Walking Dead as avatars for his deepest and darkest thoughts. I love the narrative device, which allows Gimple to expand one character’s state of mind into a trippy dramatisation (in the literal sense) of the series’ central theme: “You’ve got to pay the bill!” the Governor insists, but what if the price of survival is your humanity? After all, there’s a reason the big guy’s will to live is solely represented by villains.
Because of this, “What Happened and What’s Going On” never duped me into believing Tyreese might survive, though his always using the same limb to protect himself made for a good red herring. I suppose it’s weird that The Walking Dead would once again knock off a black lead just after a new one is introduced. For once, however, we get the sense of a real character leaving the series (and a real one joining the ranks). In fact, it occurs to me we’ve learnt more about Tyreese Williams in these past forty-four minutes than we did in the whole of season three. Now if someone could just explain to me what the hell happened to the walkers Michonne found by the woods…
Death toll so far: twenty-nine. Man, Sasha can’t catch a break this year!