The Walking Dead: Season 5, Episode 1–No Sanctuary

“You’re either the butcher – or the cattle.”

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(SPOILER WARNING!)

Hallowe’en being nearly upon us, ‘tis the time of year for a new season of AMC’s The Walking Dead. The last season was frustratingly uneven, with a first half that seemed to pack in all the plot and action and a second half that can best be characterised as aimless wandering around the countryside and sometimes encountering zombies. The first half was thrilling, the second half thoughtful; ideally you want a season (like the one before that) which balances both more evenly.

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It’s hard to judge from a season opener how well a whole season will go, but if this one is anything to go by, that balance may be more evident this time. It delivered the requisite action and gore, to be sure; but there was also room for plenty of dramatic depth, some more musing on post-apocalyptic morality, and a lot of advancement of the actual plot – all packed into a 45 minute episode. That’s not bad going.

It probably helps that, for once, the show’s kept the same showrunner on between seasons. Scott Gimple may have been behind the uneven tone of the last season, but he knows what makes the show work; and as writer this week, he served it up in spades. Action, gore, Walkers aplenty, and genuine suspense involving the fates of characters we’ve actually come to care about.

The Walking Dead has made it plain on many occasions that no character is safe from being suddenly killed off, no matter how central. The brutal deaths of Lori, nominally the leading lady, and Hershel, the Obi-Wan Kenobi of the group, made that pretty clear. After them, even Rick, nominally the lead, hardly seems safe.

That jeopardy was exploited from the first, with the quite nasty ‘slaughterhouse’ scene, as our heroes (and some unfortunates we hadn’t seen before, thereby guaranteeing their deaths) were lined up in front of a metal trough while a couple of Terminus incompetents methodically worked their way along the line with a baseball bat and a sharp knife. The fairly overt hints that Terminus was a community thriving on cannibalism were made explicit here, but it’s notable that, just as the show has never used the word “zombie”, Gimple’s script never once deployed the word “cannibal”. It didn’t need to; the evidence was all there in front of our eyes.

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As was, very clearly, the parallel between this group and Rick’s. The Terminus philosophy, on the wall of their ‘memorial room’ made it overt – “we first, always”. Just as last year parallels were clearly made between Rick’s group and the Governor’s, here again we saw that this philosophy, the pragmatic default in a post-apocalypse world, can lead you to some very dark places. As before, the writing made you question the apparent ‘morality’ of the ‘heroes’ – we’ve seen Rick do some very nasty shit to protect his community, not least of which actually tearing a man’s throat out with his teeth.

While the nature of the Terminus community and its backstory (shown in bookends that opened and closed the episode) implicitly invited immediate musings on the ruthlessness required to survive in such a world, that discussion was actually had between Tyreese and a cynical Terminus scout he and Carol had captured and tied up. Their two handed debate was cleverly used to punctuate the action, pacing out the episode neatly; but more than that, it had real emotional resonance in its rumination of the show’s ongoing questions – how far would you go for survival? And what would push you there?

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That Martin, the Terminus scout, seemed so demonstrably ordinary (much like the casual workaday attitude of the ‘slaughterers’) was presumably a deliberate choice to highlight how anyone, in the right circumstances, could end up going down such a path. Martin’s assessment, that pragmatically Tyreese should just kill him rather than risk further fights, turned out to be dead on, and despite Tyreese’s insistence that he wouldn’t go down such a barbaric path, that’s ultimately exactly what he did to save baby Judith. We didn’t see exactly what Tyreese did to Martin, but the implication was that it was pretty horrific – and a good demonstration that the show knows when to leave things to the viewer’s imagination.

But it couldn’t all be moral musings, and they were balanced out by some extremely well-staged action. Greg Nicotero, formerly a make up effects man for George Romero, has proven to be one of this show’s best directors, and he pulled out all the stops here to give us the kind of spectacle one expects from a season opener. As I’d predicted at the end of the last season, it was badass Carol who lit the touchpaper for the action (quite literally, in fact) by shooting a hole in Terminus’ propane tank and igniting it with a handy firework (the fireworks, presumably being used by Martin to distract inquisitive Walkers away from the gunfire, were a nice nod to Romero’s Land of the Dead).

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The resulting explosion was truly spectacular, bodies flown hither and yon in the fireball; and led to the sort of mass Walker invasion usually reserved for season finales. Apart from being a satisfying action sequence, this came as something of a relief for me – I’d worried that the Terminus plot would drag on for several episodes, like the increasingly dreary stay on Hershel’s farm in season two. Thankfully Scott Gimple seems to have learned from that, and the destruction of Terminus right at the outset of the season serves both to provide spectacle and wipe the slate plotwise for the season to come.

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And that’s interesting, because I have literally no idea where they’re going to go from here. With most of the surviving ‘heroes’ reunited (and, for a wonder, none of them killed), the only dangling plot thread left from previously is the mysterious kidnapping of Beth. Daryl plainly feels some responsibility for that, and I’m guessing he’ll spearhead a rescue effort (though let’s hope the search doesn’t drag on for half the season like the one for Sophia in season two).

Given the more action-packed part of the plot, Daryl, Rick, Carl and the others didn’t get a whole lot of character stuff, though Daryl’s ecstatic reunion with Carol was heartwarmingly played by Norman Reedus and Melissa McBride. I’m guessing the shippers among the fans will be typing furiously away at the fan fic already, though one of the more interesting theories I’ve heard is that their relationship may turn out to be entirely platonic since Daryl is gay. Not sure how much credence to put into that one; he may not have had any romantic relationship as such, but his libido plainly doesn’t rule his brain, and Carol’s definitely the one he’s closest to. Not that that rules the idea out, mind you.

More surprising was Eugene’s assertion, when pressed, that he really might have a cure that will stop the Walkers in their tracks. That may have come as a surprise if (like me) you’re familiar with the comics; but then the show has always been artful at misdirecting fans of the source material. Or it could conceivably be a double bluff? Once again, the show’s keeping us guessing, but perhaps the quest to get Eugene to some (probably long-defunct) research centre in DC will form part of this season’s plot.

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Gore of the week

As you’d expect from a season opener helmed by Greg Nicotero, there was absolutely oodles of gore, so much in fact that picking highlights is quite a challenge. Though strong contenders have to be the hapless Terminus residents chowed down on by the voracious  (and still burning) Walkers, particularly the unfortunate fellow who just lay there wriggling till one bit his face off.

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As ever, the requisite amount of squelched, blasted and impaled Walker heads was very much present and correct, but Nicotero seemed to go the extra mile with some of them:

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And some of the Walkers themselves were impressive makeup triumphs – full marks has to go to the first one we saw, with one side of its face torn to shreds:

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And while it wasn’t super gory as such, the mundane presentation of the throat-slashing in the ‘slaughterhouse’ was pretty upsetting given the context:

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A storming season opener, then, that nicely balanced the strong elements which were so all over the place last season, and conveniently wiped the slate for a fresh set of challenges for our gang. The show’s bleak, nihilistic philosophy was very much to the fore and as ever, there looks to be little chance of any happy endings. But plotwise, it’s all to play for, and I really have no idea what to expect from this season.

The writers will be hard pressed to come up with a central antagonist to match the Governor (though the comics did, eventually, come up with one), so yet another ‘tribe fights tribe’ storyline is presumably off the table, thankfully. Nevertheless, it was noticeable that we didn’t actually see the deaths of either Gareth or Mary, Terminus’ main (in fact only) characters – perhaps the gang will wish they’d let Rick go back and finish the job after all. Wherever the show is going, on this basis it’s still going strong.

Random thoughts – a brand new title sequence, which (like Sons of Anarchy) assigns a relevant image to several cast members. Nice.

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Rick (Police gun, knife)

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Daryl (motorbike wheel, angel wing vest)

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Glenn (Hershel’s watch, given to him as a present)

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Maggie (the burning Polaroid of her and Glenn)

Oh – and if you watched till after the credits (not that there’s usually a reason to), you were treated to a reminder of another dangling plot thread you might have forgotten. Looks like our gang might be about to get a new member…

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