Teaching the Dead: Change, and the Art of Dying

Last night’s episode of “What Happened and What’s Going On” was one of the most compelling episodes I’ve seen in the show. I set it up with the episodes “Consumed,” “Clear,” and “Still” (yes, “Still”) as episodes so rich in theme and character development that they deserve an analysis in and of themselves. I would use WH&WGO as a full view for my students if not for all the backstories of the past characters that provide an important tie to Tyreese. If students haven’t watched the show previously, the visions he sees would be meaningless and the discussion into the theme would be lost…..

But we all know who the spirits of episodes past are, so I can analyze the episode here and dedicate an entire thread to it.

However, I will not be able to do it justice. So much happened in this episode that dissecting it would require several threads. I will do my best to focus, therefore, on two main themes – change, and the art of dying.

I have been at a lost this season to identify a cohesive theme for season 5. In past seasons, the theme was obvious. Season 2 was about lost hope and losing humanity, season 3 was about community and family (you can’t go it alone anymore), and season 4 was whether we can come back from the things we’ve done. Season 5 seemed a mishmash of all the previous seasons’ themes – until last night when ghost Martin, in chiding and taunting a dying Tyreese, stated the theme plainly:

“You couldn’t adapt, could you?”

There’s the theme. Right there. How this new world causes people to change, or, in some cases, not change.

Look at Rick. He’s certainly changed. The “we don’t kill the living” Rick of season 1 is replaced by a Rick who now wanted to go back and kill all the Terminaites, who brutally gutted a kneeling crying Gareth on the church floor, whose plan to rescue Beth included killing several former cops, and who ran over then shot the escaping Cop Bob. In nearly all those cases, he was mutinied by his own people, who still insisted “that’s not who we are.” They were unwilling to change….

The mutinies were lead by characters at crossroads. Glenn was the strongest “don’t kill them all” voice at Terminus and he watched in horror at the church slaughter, but last night, after the death of his sister in law and the death of a dream for a cure, even he admitted he has changed. Now, “it doesn’t matter” – who killed Dawn in the end, doesn’t matter. Even he admits that now he would have left that Terminite in the boxcar and killed Dawn himself. He says this while holding a baseball bat, the foreshadowing perhaps of his own violent death.

The second mutiny was lead, of course, by Tyreese, who suggested a prisoner exchange for Beth rather than an assault. Another person who watched the Hunters massacred in horror, he’s so unwilling to adapt to this new world that he can’t kill Walkers or even men who attempt to strangle babies. In the end, it was fitting that he was so affected by pictures of twins on a wall that he let his guard down and was bitten by a child walker. He is a lover, not a fighter – a lover of life, of children, of people – a “fatal optimist” as Chad called him. It is that idealism and compassion that became his demise.

His death was not without conflict. The art of death is one of remorse, guilt, and of “paying your bill” for pass errors. As he bleeds out (I find it fitting he is bleeding out and not dying from the Walker poison) and slips into delirium, he sees the classic battle between remorse and redemption. The Governor and Martin are his “devil,” chiding him for his inability to change and reminding him how his unwillingness to change and his inactions caused the chain of events which lead to the deaths of Bob and (eventually) himself. They railed on him for the same reason we on the board criticized the character, being too soft. The Governor continues to try to seduce him by saying it’s time for him to pay for his idealism and naivitee and tries to emasculate him for forgiving Carol.

On the other side of the argument is another man who was unwilling to change, Bob. Not quite as stagnant as Tyreese, smiling Bob walked with a skip in his step and hope in his heart. He loved and believed in better days. He proclaimed “nightmares end” and tried to convince Rick to take a chance on Washington. He was the angel, trying to counter the Gov and Martin’s arguments by saying that everything happened that way it was meant to. Bob’s death had nothing to do with Martin as he was bitten on a run; Tyreese was not to blame. Bob is hopeful and positive even in death.

Then you have the welcoming committee, the choir of angels, the most innocent of the deaths, the two children who were in Tyreese’s care, and the teenager and newly departed Beth. All three assure him that death is better. It’s a release from the pain, from the violence in the world, violence that Tyreese’s father forced him to listen to on the radio in order to instill a sense of morality and responsibility in the preZA world. The radio is Tyreese’s constant reminder of the world he’s leaving and his struggle to remain constant in that world. The images in the news reports are progressions of preZA genocide, then the intital outbreaks of walker attacks, into postZA inhumanity and violence of person on person (possibly foreshadowing the “bad people” who attacked Shirewilt and perhaps the killers who put signs on their victims in season 4). When he asks to turn off the radio, he is releasing himself from the world, and the violence in this world.

It’s important to note that some of the deaths we’ve witnessed – and spirits that come to comfort Tyreese – were also immutable to adapt to the new world of the walker plague. Mika couldn’t kill anyone, even those who want to harm her. She also had difficulty killing walkers for a while. Bob, as already stated, was the soul of happiness and Beth was someone who still believed in the good in people and she still sings and admires art. Even in the hospital, it takes until the moment of her death for her to “get it” and understand how manipulative people can be. Here are three souls, like Tyreese, who are having difficulty adapting to this new world. The indirect result – they can no longer live in it.

Tyreese makes his case for remaining true to his ideals when he challenges The Governor and steadfastly refuses to die. When he does “let go” and allows death to take him, it is on his terms. It is because he has found peace with his decisions, and who he is, and the path he has taken. He is ready to die. And he is welcomed in by the others too good for this world (well, except Lizzie, but her mental illness makes her a victim as well).

The people who have changed – the Ricks, the Carls, the Michonnes, the Daryls, the Carols (Consumed was an episode all about her change and her rising from the ashes of change) – they have a better chance of surviving to the end, to be the “last man” or “last woman” standing. But those who won’t adapt or accept the new world as it is – Beth, Mika, Bob, Tyreese, etc – will find survival to be more difficult, even when there are walls to protect them.

So the theme is played out now quite consistently, all against the backdrop of the journey of someone’s death as he battles with his own soul and reestablishes his identity and beliefs. The beauty of this episode is that it shows the art of death, the battle for the soul, the regrets one has as they reassess their life decisions, and the peace that comes with self acceptance and passing on. Beth’s death becomes part of a greater tapestry, and the deaths of the past help Tyreese cross over because they, like him, held steadfast to the ideals of the past. Change is necessarily for any chance of survival in this world, and the extend that one needs to change will likely be explored in upcoming episodes, as well as the cost of leaving the old self behind.

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