(I started writing this over the weekend. Then today Bowie died. And I thought, “How can I talk about something as trivial as a TV show on the day Bowie died?” Then I realized that, thematically, karmically, it all tied in together. Or at least I’m going to force it to.)
(First, the obligatory “what Bowie meant to me” essay. In a word, everything. I discovered him in college and immediately consumed anything of his I could get my hands on, no mean feat in the dark pre-internet days. I remember freaking out my new roommate when I played her “Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family,” my favorite track off Diamond Dogs. I remember dyeing my bangs blonde for years after seeing The Man Who Fell to Earth. I remember reading he was bisexual in a biography and a spark bursting into life inside me. He was the most unique, intriguing, interesting person I’d ever seen, and he taught me that doing your own thing is infinitely better than worrying what everyone else thinks of you. He defined me until I could define myself. He was so otherworldly I suppose we thought he’d never die. He managed to surprise us one last time.)
Nothing says Christmas at my house like zombies, and Tery didn’t disappoint this year with Walking Dead Season Five on Blu-ray. Which gave me the chance to rewatch that episode I tore apart so viciously that one time. My opinion took almost a 180, and I thought I should set the record straight in case Scott Gimple and Greg Nicotero (writer/director) are still crying themselves to sleep every night over my harsh words.
I’m talking about What’s Happened and What’s Going On, Tyreese’s death episode. Make no mistake, I still think it was a real stretch the way they killed him, but on a third pass I think I see, and appreciate, the deeper message they were trying to convey.
I think this is the most nihilistic episode of the series, and that’s saying something in a show about the zombie apocalypse. The group is fresh off the death of Beth and (slightly less tragic) Bob. I only say “less tragic” because Bob was a good guy, but Beth was pure light, young and innocent and maybe even a bit unbelievable in her goodness, almost as if she wasn’t a person at all but a concept. Like Tyreese. Realizing this was when I started watching this episode for deeper symbolism.
See, Walking Dead usually has two kinds of episodes: either frantic desperate action, or slow character development where nothing much else seems to be happening. This is the first episode I can think of that’s all about the state of the world and humanity and how Rick’s group has evolved (or devolved) after all they’ve been through (what do you know, it’s all right there in the title “What’s Happened and What’s Going On.” I was so blind). We’ve known from the beginning “the walking dead” referred to the living, not the zombies. But never have we seen it so obviously as we do in this chapter.
I mean, even Glenn, always the most optimistic of the bunch, says nothing matters anymore, nothing they do makes a difference. Rick is slowly starting to agree. Only Michonne, who has already been down this road, says otherwise.
Then there’s Tyreese’s point of view. The crux of it comes out in his conversation with Martin from Terminus–Tyreese believes his purpose for living was to save Rick’s baby. Martin thinks the fact that he’s the kind of guy who saves babies is precisely why the new zombie world is no place for him.
As Tyreese keeps bleeding (because stupid Noah can’t toss together a simple tourniquet, and takes 20 minutes to run a mile to fetch help), the symbolic significance of his dead visitors isn’t hard to figure out now that we know we’re dealing in abstracts. On one side there’s Bob, Beth, and the two girls; the good of the world, all taken tragically, all telling him “things are better now (in death).” On the other, Martin and The Governor, as a reminder that there are still plenty of evil humans in the world, and all he can look forward to is meeting more of them if he manages to walk away from this mess. Evil humans and fighting endlessly for every moment of life from now on.
But of course he’s not walking away from this mess, and the stark contrast between the way he enters and leaves Richmond is a beautiful set of symmetrical bookends. In the car in the beginning, he talks about his father’s belief that people had a duty to know what was happening in the world, to keep listening to the news no matter how grim; that was “the high cost of living.” On the way out, with Beth and Bob in the front seat, he asks them to shut off the radio. He decides the cost of living is too high so he’s turning the world off.
But for me the most powerful was a deceptively simple pair of shots: the group passing a heavily decayed human skeleton on the forest floor in the foreground. The shots are exact mirror images, except the first they walk past calmly and the second they run in the other direction hauling Tyreese. I wondered the point of showing us the skeleton twice; I mean, we don’t need visual cues to explain their destination. The answer is obvious, now. The skeleton is utterly indifferent to them. Whether strolling through or desperately trying to save their comrade’s life, it’s all the same to the dead. They don’t care about us and our earthly troubles anymore. And maybe sometimes that’s a better way of being.
(It still bugs the hell out of me that Karen was missing, and the disc commentary conspicuously avoids her as well.)
This is the part where I shoehorn this together with Bowie’s death. He apparently had cancer. Robin Williams found out he had a rare debilitating neurologic disorder, so he decided the cost of living was too high. When I think of my own death my sincerest wish is that, when it comes, I’m either so riddled with disease and pain, or so fed up with all the bullshit and evil of the world, that turning off the radio is a preferable choice. To go while still in love with life is too painful to bear contemplation.