Leading up to the return of The Walking Dead’s fifth season, Andrew Lincoln assured fans that the second half would be unlike anything we had seen before. In the most literal sense, he was absolutely right. “What Happened and What’s Going On” is a departure from the standard Walking Dead method of story-telling and it manages to implement a few interesting twists and turns that aren’t usually seen a single episode of the series.
The episode starts with a scene all too familiar for the members of Rick Grimes’ crew – burying a character who died a pointless death because of poor decisions. After a cold open full of montages, flashbacks, and hints at what is coming for the group, the majority of the episode’s first half is about dealing with the untimely loss of Beth. One interesting aspect of it is the group of characters that we end up following throughout the episode.
On the way to what the group assumes is a safe haven where Beth and Noah were planning on going, they split into two separate cars to keep a safe distance in case anything should go awry (that tends to happen in a walker apocalypse, after all). Because of this, we don’t see even a second of Daryl, Carol, or Maggie. Their reactions to the death of Beth are the most obvious, need the least amount of explaining, and were explored at the end of the last episode anyway. The decision to split the group in such a way gives us a chance to see how the other side of the group – namely Rick, Michonne, Noah, Glen, and Tyreese – are handling another death of a child. Just a very smart decision overall by the show writers, and it pays off by not making the grieving process of the characters feel like re-hashed sentiments that we already know. This group that we’re following is supposed to be the strong, silent ones, but even they’re beginning to crack, and we get the chance to explore that thoroughly.
Michonne made some stupidly irrational decisions, and randomly coming to the conclusion that they should head for D.C. next after staring into a bush for a few seconds was a bit ridiculous, but how this main group dealt with recent events was satisfying enough to watch unfold.
Only half the episode revolves around this, however, as the second half follows one character getting bitten in yet another nonsensical way. Walking into a house in a walker infested neighborhood, seeing a walker in the house, then staring at a picture dead to the world was one of the more boneheaded decisions of any character on the show – and that is saying something for a show with as many poor decision makers as The Walking Dead. It’s been clear for a while that the show has no idea how to make character deaths interesting anymore, and this episode did nothing to disprove that.
What happens after isn’t quite as bad, luckily. Seeing the effects of a walker bite and the hallucinations that result from it from a first-person perspective is really interesting. We’ve seen plenty of times how it looks from the outside – that blank thousand-year stare, and color running from the victim’s face – but knowing just what goes through their mind is a nice change of pace. Of course one can’t assume that everyone’s experience is the same after being bitten, but seeing one individual’s experience proves for an interesting episode nonetheless. All of the sequences post-bite, where it’s showing other dead characters creepily staring at the victim (especially in the car at the end) were some of the most eerie moments of the series so far.
Walkers have just lost the ability to be scary any more. Unless you’re counting jump scares, there’s nothing new they can actually do. If The Walking Dead hopes to remain a creepy horror show, even in a minor capacity, it’s going to be required to do so through its human characters. Granted, having a bunch of dead characters stare at the camera Sixth Sense-style is a one trick pony, but it’s a damn talented pony.
Another way that “What Happened and What’s Going On” kept the creep factor up was to severely lower the walker count. One of the scariest things about the show now, and presumably going forward, is that there is going to be less and less human activity in the world. This episode really nails the atmospheric tension of being in a forest surrounded by death all around you without actually having to show it. Hopefully this trend continues, but that might be asking too much.
In the end, the only real result of this episode is a character death a new direction to drive in. A huge majority of what was shown is nothing but flashbacks, and it feels oddly out-of-place for a big “welcome back!” episode. Scott Gimple knows how to write tension really well, and he did so again here, even if he couldn’t resist a starring contest with a photograph. And of course, the way the episode flips at the end and ties into the beginning of the episode was extremely well done, and made up for minor issues that I had with this episode.
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