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Season 5 of The Walking Dead kicks off with “No Sanctuary”, an uncharacteristically good episode that sees our heroes operating with a minimum of plot-required stupidity.

The most annoying horror cliche that, like zombies, refuses to die, is the way the genre depends way too much on characters being incredibly stupid at plot-critical moments. It’s even worse when a work of horror does all of that and somehow manages to keep its main characters alive, sending random extras and one-off redshirts to die for the protagonists’ sins. Like The Walking Dead, a show that has from the very first episode depended on its characters consistently struggling to adapt to incredibly dangerous situations, getting themselves into incredible peril, while somehow managing to stay alive until an actor’s contract runs out (or they lose the “sweeps week” lotto).

But what’s this? Was the season 5 premiere actually good? Did we really see our heroes applying lessons from previous experience to the current situation and behaving accordingly? Was there – GASP – a minimum of narrative wheel-spinning and a maximum of incredible carnage? Mostly! What a relief. You know, except for the fact that the world continues to be a post-apocalyptic nightmare. Be thankful for small miracles people, but focus on the big picture, which, in a rare treat for viewers of The Walking Dead, actually seemed to matter.

So let’s begin with a quick recap.

When we left the Ricktatorship, they’d just spent the second half of season 4 split into several groups, following a plot-redundant second attack by The Governor during last year’s mid-season climax. Enduring some rather violent trials that mainly served to whittle the cast down a bit to make room for new characters, they each made their way to a place called “Terminus”. Advertised by signs posted on highways and railroads as a place of safety from the constant dangers of the zombie apocalypse, Terminus seemed to all parties involved like the best bet after the way everything went tits up for them at the abandoned prison they’d previously lived in.

But oops, Terminus was a trap. It turns out that the people living there have organized what amounts to an anarcho-collective, but with crimes against humanity instead of vegan potluck. The Sanctuary group’s thing is luring in unsuspecting survivors, imprisoning them, stealing their stuff, and eventually turning them into literal human livestock. As the season 4 finale drew to a close, Rick and most of his band of survivors were relieved of their weapons and locked inside a cattle car to await being eaten. Of course, the Terminus group clearly hasn’t been watching The Walking Dead, or they’d know they’d just kidnapped a badass crew of straight up killers cross-trained in multiple forms of murder. Rick even joked about it right before the fade to black (more on that shortly).

The current survivors:

In Terminus:

Rick Grimes: Still in full tilt Rambo mode after suffering a nervous breakdown following the apparent death of his infant daughter, Rick has largely pulled his shit together enough to make his natural talent for killing people work for the group instead of against it.

Carl Grimes: Rick’s tween son, Carl is fast becoming every bit the ruthless killer his father is, only without having had 35+ years of not living in an apocalypse to balance him out. We’ll see how well that works out.

Michonne: Still incredibly badass, she has stopped being a quiet loner. Now she’s a friendly, group-oriented killer of men and zombies.

Daryl Dixon: Firmly established as Rick’s right hand man, Daryl has been coming to terms with his shady past and is firmly committed to his friends.

Maggie Greene and Glenn Rhee: The survivor’s resident married couple, they were finally reunited after spending much of season 4 separated.

Sasha: Tyrese’s sister, she spent most of season 4 arguing against “hey let’s split up” logic and trying to convincine Maggie not to do the stupid thing and set out by herself to find Glenn. It’s like the writers were thinking of us!

Tara Chambler: A former a police academy student who fell in with The Governor, she’s since joined our heroes and seeks to repent for helping The Governor attack them.

Bob Stookey: Let’s be honest: we know next to nothing about this guy. But he’s still alive, so let’s assume the show plans to do something with him.

Abraham Ford, Rosita Espinosa, and Eugene Porter: Three survivors encountered by Glenn and Tara, they’re trying to make their way to Wachington, D.C. where, so Porter claims, he has the key to curing the zombie apocalypse once and for all. Readers of the comic know how this turns out.

Still separated from the group:

NOTE: in the initial draft, I had written a section about the character Lizzie, which was cut for length. In editing, Judith and Lizzie were mingled, resulting in erroneously referring to Rick’s daughter as Lizzie. That error has been corrected.

Beth Greene: After the Governor’s attack on the prison, Beth traveled with Daryl, until she was randomly kidnapped late in season 4. (Edit: see here for a brief description of what went down the last time we saw her.) Still unaccounted for as of the season 5 premiere.

Tyrese: Devastated after believing his sister killed during The Govenor’s attack, Tyrese now travels with Carol, and has become incapable of violence, even in self defense.

Carol Peletier: Having returned after her exile following the discovery that she’d euthanized several people in the prison infected with an unknown disease, Carol is essentially a total badass. She’s the only reason Tyrese and Judith are still alive.

Judith Grimes: Rick’s infant daughter, Judith was presumed killed after The Governor’s attack on the prison, but shocker: Tyrese saved her.

Are we up to speed? Great, let’s get into “No Sanctuary”.

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It’s fitting that The Walking Dead has a character named Tyrese, because Rick has suddenly started spouting one-liners lifted right out of Vin Diesel’s mouth. Think I’m joking? The season 5 premiere sees Rick channelling Riddick and, hopefully, setting up a satisfying – if cheesy – callback joke later in the season. We’ll dig into that shortly.

“No Sanctuary” starts with a flashback to some indeterminate time, with a group of people locked in a cattle car, weeping with terror while, just outside, we can hear a woman screaming, presumably being subjected to various unspeakable horrors. It turns out that we’re seeing the people who founded Terminus. “We never should have put up the signs,” one of the captives says. “What did we think was gonna happen? We brought ’em here!” But there’s a twist: at this point, Gareth, established last season as the leader of the Terminus cannibals, emerges from shadow. “We were trying to do something good,” he rasps. “We were being human beings.”

“What are we now, Gareth?”, says the other captive, and we see Gareth’s face harden. Cue the flash forward to present day, as we pick up right where we left off last spring. Rick and co. are, we now realize, trapped in the same cattle car, and Rick has just finished dropped the truly great one-liner that closed out season 4 – “they’re gonna feel pretty stupid when they find out.” “Find out what?” “That they’re screwing with the wrong people.” – and now they’re preparing to fight back as soon as their captors open the cattle car up.

Unfortunately, the Terminus cannibals aren’t stupid either. They open the door on the roof of the car and drop a flash grenade down into it. Quickly overcome, Rick, Glenn, Daryl and Bob are dragged into the Terminus complex’s abattoir, along with four other random captives. Yes, this is going to be yet another example of TWD using the meaningless deaths of random extras to raise the stakes for our heroes. But this time, the lazy use of redshirt victims serves a dual purpose, establishing how methodical the Terminus cannibals are in how they approach their human cattle operation.

The eight men, gagged and bound, are forcibly bent over a long trough as two Terminus cannibals size them up. In turn, the four unnamed extras are knocked out with aluminum baseball bats, at which point their throats are slit. At this point, Gareth, whose relaxed vibe makes him seem like Dr. Mengele riding a fixie, walks in with a clipboard and grills his fellow cannibals about keeping track of the number of bullets they’ve used that day. The gist is that whatever else the Terminus cannibals are, they’re also well organized and thoughtful about the day to day necessities of resource management in the apocalypse.

After a pointless round of begging by Bob – he thinks these psychos can still be reasoned with; Gareth calmly informs him there’s no chance of that – Gareth turns his attention to Rick. Having seen Rick burying a cache of weapons at the end of last season, he offers to spare their lives for a bit longer if Rick will tell him where the cache is and what’s contained within. Gareth sounds reasonable and easy going, even as he’s threatening to stab out Bob’s left eye. This prompts Rick to reveal the contents of the cache, leading to this exchange:

“There’s also a Machete with a red handle. That’s what I’m going to use to kill you.”

Yep. Rick just threatened to kill Gareth with a teacup. More on that later.

But no time to wonder when Rick had the time to come up with these bon mots, because at that moment, an explosion rocks the entire complex, leading to another flashback, this time to just before Rick, Glenn, Daryl and Bob were taken to the abattoir. Now we get to find out what Tyrese, Carol and baby Judith are up to. Walking, by the way. They’re still walking around.

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They’re also headed to Terminus, but end up taking a detour through the woods in order to evade a large herd of zombies. When one zombie gets too close to them, we learn that Tyrese is still incapable of killing anything. He takes the baby from Carol and asks her to do the honors. Shortly thereafter, they stumble upon a cabin, where one a Terminus cannibal wearing a baseball cap is out on patrol. They overhear him talking on a walkie talkie about killing Carl and Michonne. Oops.

Carol quickly disarms him. “We’re friends with the chick with the sword and the kid,” she says, clearly having also developed the ability to drop one liners. She and Tyrese force him into the cabin and quickly determine that Terminus is a hellhole, but because the episode hasn’t had enough time to explain the theme of the season, they decide to tie him up and leave him alive rather than kill him. Carol then grabs her weapons, leaves the baby and the captive with Tyrese, and after applying some zombie grime to her face to blend in, makes her way to Terminus.

This gives Tyrese and the captive cannibal a chance to exchange extremely hamfisted thematic dialogue. Admitting he no longer has any real connection to humanity, he mocks Tyrese for trying to do the right thing. “You’re a good guy,” Baseball Cap Cannibal says. “That’s why you’re gonna die today. That’s why the baby’s gonna die.” Thankfully, even the show’s writers seem to have caught on to how insufferable it is to see people fail to get the big picture, because they then put words in the cannibal’s mouth that feel like they could have been shouted at the TV by exasperated viewers me. “Why the hell are you even talking to me? Take her, take car, and go. I don’t wanna do this today!”

Thank you for speaking for the audience, Baseball Cap Cannibal. Thank you.

Cut back to Carol, who has reached Terminus, where she sees the earlier herd of zombies gathering en masse by the fence. Remember that explosion earlier in the episode? That was her. She coldly shoots up the complex’s natural gas tank with her sniper rifle. This blasts open the fence, sets much of the complex on fire and lets the herd of zombies in. Like Rick, she’s finally getting that survival means unflinchingly doing what has to be done, no matter how distasteful.

That point is reiterated minutes later by Rick. We cut back to the abattoir, where in the aftermath of the explosion, Gareth runs off to check out what’s wrong, leaving the two butchers in charge of guarding the prisoners. Rick, as it turns out, had a makeshift wooden knife in his boot which he uses to cut himself free. He quickly murders both men, then frees his friends. Scoping the scene, Rick and co. notice another cattle car with, presumably, other captives awaiting execution. Rick suggests letting it remain a distraction to aid their escape, but Glenn, who finally gets to do something in the episode, hastily reminds Rick that they need to save those people too. “That’s not us,” he says, to which Rick grudgingly agrees. Though he also adds some very helpful advice: “Cross any of these people, you kill. Don’t hesitate. They wont.”

Meanwhile, Tyrese continues to be an idiot, trying to convince Baseball Cap Cannibal that they don’t have to murder each other. Around this time, some of that herd of zombies finds their way to the cabin, and while Tyrese is distracted checking the windows, Baseball Cap Cannibal manages to get free and grab baby Judith. Threatening to kill her, he forces Tyrese to leave the cabin, presumably to be devoured alive by zombies. But of course, Rick was right: these guys don’t know who they’re dealing with. Tyrese finally realizes what kind of world he lives in and makes short work of the zombies, then barges back into the cabin where he delivers a fatal, and richly deserved beating to Baseball Cap Cannibal.

In case the episode’s symbolism was too subtle, we get back to Carol, walking methodically through Terminus, having stumbled upon the cannibal’s booty room. All meticulously organized, with weapons separated by type, ammo labeled, a large table with hundreds of stolen watches, it’s something of a shock that we didn’t see “arbeit macht frei” painted on the wall. Carol is then confronted by one of the cannibals, a middle aged woman who, after being shot in the leg, tells Carol the story of how Terminus turned from a legitimate sanctuary to a deathtrap. “You’re either the cattle, or the butcher,” she says. Carol agrees, leaving her to be devoured by zombies pouring into the room.

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The episode concludes with all of our heroes, save Beth, being reunited. Again. (Seriously, they need to stop using the breaking of the fellowship as a plot device. It’s happened too many times to work.) After many months apart, they’re all relieved to be together , but more importantly, they’ve reached the acceptance stage of grief, evidenced by Tyrese, who sadly intones that he killed Baseball Cap Cannibal because he “had to”. Hopefully, this means no more pointless time-wasting as they continue not to learn from their experiences.

All in all, it’s a better than expected episode from a series that seems to enjoy nothing more than just aimlessly spinning narrative wheels and relying on lazy plot contrivances to advance the story. Here’s hoping this is a sign of things to come this season.

PARTING THOUGHTS:

  • About those one-liners: You get the impression that Rick (or the writer) had been waiting his whole life for the perfect opportunity to drop them. Even so, it was satisfying as hell, not least of which because it implies our characters had finally figured out what kind of world they actually live in. What kind is that? The kind where everything, human and zombie both, is probably trying to kill you. Throughout four seasons, we’ve seen the survivors constantly struggle with that reality. I’m not complaining of course – rest assured, if you dropped me into a zombie apocalypse I’d need a change of pants within seconds. There is going to be a steep learning curve for anyone who wasn’t already John Rambo prior to doomsday. But our heroes have been trudging through the apocalypse for going on three (in-universe) years now, and yet they have consistently acted in ways that, were full blown plot protection not in effect, they would have been killed 50 times over.

    That’s why it was refreshing to see Rick’s survivors so quickly able to assess the situation at Terminus, and even after being routed by the cannibals and imprisoned, regroup and start planning their next move, and yes, deliver incredibly silly one liners. Maybe Rick and Carol have been secretly coming up with hardcore lines to say whenever they need to seem even more badass, but that kind of thing makes way more sense than the insufferably monotonous character study the show seemed to think it was before. If this signals a tonal shift, we might be in for a good season.

  • Dr. Porter didn’t get much screen time, but we did finally see the other survivors demanding he explain just how he thinks he can cure the zombie apocalypse. He delivered a credible-sounding monologue full of sciencey jargon, but he came off more like Kenny Powers than Neil Degrasse Tyson. Of course, people who’ve read the comic know where this is going…
  • In an episode so violent it included a towering explosion that sent dismembered zombies flying in the air, and multiple throats being cut, it was strange that Baseball Cap Cannibal’s death happened offscreen. I hope this doesn’t mean he’ll be back later to prove, again, how stupid Tyrese’s unwillingness to kill is.
  • Gareth, by the way, escaped the destruction of Terminus and since he’s signed up for the season, rest assured he’s been positioned as the season’s villain. That’s an interesting and somewhat hopeful turn of events. The whole episode, clumsy and heavy handed as it was, managed to firmly establish why he’s a villain, make the transformation understandable, and set up a real contrast. The cannibals were victims who learned the wrong lessons from being victimized. He and his friends banded together for safety, but reinforced their own growing lack of humanity until being monstrous was easy for them, so long as they saw everything in terms of “us” and “not us”. They were right to be wary, somewhat paranoid and ruthless in protecting themselves once threats became clear, but they were wrong in that they decided they had moral carte blanche to simply kill anyone they want. Rick’s survivors, on the other hand, have managed to keep ahold of their humanity, their family dynamic keeping them from going too far. If the face off of that tarnished idealism against simply giving in to selfish awfulness is where this season is going, I’m on board.

Bottom Line: At last, The Walking Dead appears to be moving away from the plot reset problem and just-because bad decisions that have plagued the series since the first episode. Better, with the Terminus group’s Gareth set up to be the season’s primary villain, it looks like the show might finally be able to examine the core concept of “struggling to maintain your humanity while doing whatever it takes to survive,” without implying that any evidence of thinking ahead or pragmatism means you’re about to become Hitler. The season’s themes are clearly foreshadowed in ways that are both subtle and hilariously over the top, and it’s a goddamned relief to see black comedy balancing out the painfully dull moping that normally passes for character development.

Recommendation: Do you need one? This is the most popular show on basic cable, mainly because we all love watching zombies chomping down while survivors murder each other. Even so, If the frustratingly dumb behavior of the survivors, or the show’s unrelenting dullness pushed you away, (as they did for me), season 5 looks like it might just be a course correction.

NEXT WEEK: “Strangers,” written by The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman, in which it appears our heroes go looking for Beth.

[rating=4]

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