The Walking Dead: Season 5, Episode 9–What Happened and What’s Going On

“To face it. Keeping your eyes open. My dad always called it ‘paying the high cost of living’.”

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(SPOILER WARNING!)

As ever this time of year, I’ve been absent from blogging while having a whale of a time at the Los Angeles Gallifrey One Convention. It was as much fun as ever, but once again, I’m behind in looking at The Walking Dead, which returned from its mid-season break the night I arrived in California with a typically bleak but unusually experimental episode. On first viewing, I found it confusing and hard to follow (though that might have been the jetlag), but interestingly a second viewing gave me quite a different perspective.

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The ‘mid-season opener’ is usually a slam bang fast paced affair with plenty of action, character development taking a back seat. With the audience now firmly established, showrunner Scott Gimple has broken away from that formula here to give us a downbeat, slow paced non-linear narrative, and to concentrate on the characters above all.

It also provided some excellent misdirection as to its final shock; if you were still reeling from the death of one major character before the mid-season break, you had to deal with losing another here. It’s a measure of how confident the show is in the audience’s empathy with the characters that the sudden, unexpected death of two in two consecutive episodes serves as better drama than any number of plot twists or gore-laced action.

In actual fact, there weren’t that many characters to be seen in this ep – once again, the ever-growing ensemble cast were smartly split into two groups. I expect we’ll find out what happened with Carol, Daryl et al next time, but here we got Rick, Michonne, Glenn, Noah and Tyreese.

It was fairly clear from the start that the ep was one that would focus on one character specifically. But just as Gimple’s script misdirected us with the gravedigging in that hallucinatory, disjointed cold open, it equally cleverly gave us the first impression that this ep would be all about Noah. After all, it made sense – he’s a fairly new character, we don’t know that much about him yet, and getting him back home was (presumably) the late Beth Greene’s last wish.

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Everybody Hates Chris’s Tyler James Williams is already a likeable presence as Noah, so this being The Walking Dead, he had to catch up on the angst – even by their usual standards, the gang were looking pretty shell shocked this ep. It didn’t therefore come as much of a surprise that, having reached his community’s refuge in Richmond (wow, there’s a world outside Georgia!) that everyone there had been massacred, including his mother and twin brothers.

Back on directing duties this week, Greg Nicotero showed himself to be as adept at handling character drama as he is with action and gore. The scene of Noah wordlessly covering his brutally murdered mother with a blanket was affecting, as was Rick and Glenn’s hollow-eyed discussion of Beth’s death. But it was with the not entirely unexpected revelation that one of Noah’s brothers was a Walker on the loose that the ep came into focus – it wasn’t about Noah, it was about Tyreese.

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Having already outlived his comic counterpart by some margin, Chad Coleman’s Tyreese has evolved into that character the show always has handy – someone trying to cling on to civilised decency in the face of a brutal new world. Like Dale and Hershel before him, he represented morality in the face of ruthless pragmatic survival. And like them, he couldn’t cope with the reality of the situation, something that’s been flagged up since his discussion with Terminus henchman Martin in this year’s season opener. It’s a particularly nihilistic recurring theme; that being a decent man in this world will get you killed.

In retrospect (again with that second viewing), it became clear that Tyreese’s words of encouragement to the grief-stricken Noah were actually more about giving us an insight into Tyreese himself. His account of his father’s unflinching confrontation with the brutalities of the world by obsessively listening to radio news broadcasts paid off when, having been bitten by Noah’s reanimated brother, he slipped into the hallucinations that made up the heart of the episode.

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Amusingly, the English-accented voice he imagined hearing on the radio from then on was actually Andrew Lincoln, devoid of his usual pretence at being American. And it was a signal of Tyreese’s ultimate resignation that he couldn’t belong in this new world when he ultimately told the hallucinatory Beth to “turn off the radio”. He just couldn’t deal with it any more, and death was a better option.

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Yes, Beth was back. As were a cadre of fan favourites, all dead and all of dramatic significance to Tyreese’s character. The show’s done returning characters as fevered hallucinations before, of course, notably Lori and Merle. Using this tactic sparingly has tended to be an effective dramatic device. This time though there was a veritable army of them, and I have to admit it smacked slightly of self-indulgence. Yes, it was great to see David Morrissey back as the Governor, and Brighton Sharbino and Kyla Kennedy as Lizzie and Myka, but it all felt a bit like a Doctor Who anniversary special where the plot struggles to justify including as many fan favourites as possible.

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Having framed the discussion way back at the start of the season, it was fitting to see Martin again, and both Beth and Bob played into Tyreese’s sense of helplessness and guilt. By and large, these imaginary characters worked well enough to externalise Tyreese’s thought processes as he slipped into death, despite some ridiculously portentous dialogue reminiscent of the worst bits of The X Files. It was a worthy experiment, but I’m not sure it entirely worked.

Ultimately though, Tyreese’s death came with little fanfare; he just slipped away. And that was fitting, for this show. Anyone can die at any moment – and it’s not always in a ‘blaze of gory’.

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Gore of the week

Even in a sedate character-based piece, Gimple and Nicotero managed to feed plenty of Christians to the lions. Or Walkers to Michonne’s katana, if you prefer. The usual gouging and head slashing was very much present and correct, though one of the best impacts (on an emotional level) was the lifeless corpse of Noah’s mother with her head stove in:

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Noah’s method of despatching his reanimated little brother was fairly novel too – a model aeroplane through the eye:

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However, the best gore was undoubtedly the slo-mo sequence as the gang dragged the half-dead Tyreese out of the gates. Blood exploded from slashed heads in Peckinpah-esque glory, but the best was the slo-mo headshot to the female Walker advancing on Tyreese:

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So where do we go from here? While the ep was primarily about Tyreese and his demons, there were tantalising hints about future plots throughout. Just who were the ‘Wolves’ mentioned on the graffiti, presumably responsible for the devastation of the community?

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Why did they leave a truckful of limbless Walkers parked in a nearby wood, with ‘W’ carved on their foreheads?

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At least the gang now have a sense of direction – despairing of anything else, they’re going to Washington after all. Which is fortunate for Morgan Jones, who’s already tracking them there…

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This was definitely a low-key and atypical mid-season opener, and I’m glad the show keeps trying new styles of storytelling – I’d hate it to become stale and formulaic. I’m not sure it entirely pulled off its dramatic devices, though as I said, it definitely rewards a second viewing. Watching it again, with knowledge of the significance of those hallucinatory recurring images throughout, gives them a dramatic resonance they don’t have on first viewing. Equally though, the second viewing robs you of the intentional misdirection – you know the ep’s about Tyreese, and you know it’s his grave you see at the beginning and not Beth’s. Nevertheless, while sometimes pretentious and self-indulgent, I have to give Scott Gimple credit for trying something different, which mostly works.