Season premiere review: ‘The Walking Dead’ – ‘No Sanctuary’

Senior Television Writer
10.12.14 109 Comments

“The Walking Dead” is back for its fifth season – and has already been renewed for a sixth. My review of the premiere coming up just as soon as I provide you step by step instructions, complete with illustrations and a well-composed FAQ…

“You're a good guy. That's why you're gonna die today.” -Martin

“The Walking Dead” is a show with many flaws, but it almost always does premieres well, and it almost always does zombie action well. So by turning the fifth season premiere into wall-to-wall action, Scott Gimple effectively fool-proofed “No Sanctuary.” We'll see how interesting things are once Rick's crew is on the road again, but watching Carol – once the most helpless, useless character on the show, and now arguably the most interesting one remaining – single-handedly wreck Terminus was pretty damn splendid.

The overwhelming victory was welcome in part because of how absurdly the odds had been stacked against our heroes. When Rick, Daryl, Glenn and Bob were escorted into the butchering room so that Gareth could calmly and smugly interrogate Rick before leaving their throats to be slit, I began fearing we were headed for some extended torture porn scenario where the characters were in the unshakable grip of these cannibals who viewed them as nothing but meat to be consumed, piece by piece. Fortunately, we heard the explosion moments later, and it became clear that Terminus was under siege – by, it turns out, a single woman and the convenient zombie herd that wandered by.

While Rick freed his friends and Greg Nicotero and his team got to have a lot of fun with the idea of flaming zombies, the episode also took a bit of a philosophical bent with the scenes at the house where Tyreese was keeping an eye on Judith and captured Terminus soldier Martin(*).

(*) Played by Chris Coy from “Tremé,” continuing this show's trend of hiring David Simon alums, if not the more specific “Wire” trend. 

Martin is, like the other people we see in Terminus, almost zen in his smugness. They think they have figured out the best, and only, way to survive and thrive in the apocalyptic world, and almost take pity on the poor saps who wander into their rabbit snare. Martin can't fathom the notion of having friends anymore, let alone caring for a baby, and he looks on Tyreese as a sucker – a good guy in a world with no place for such things. And when he gets loose and orders Tyreese to drop his weapons and step outside to be eaten by walkers, it seems that his point has been proven. What he's not counting on is that if Tyreese is a sucker, he's a big one who has a habit of surviving impossible zombie odds(**). And when Tyreese bursts back into the cabin, whatever post-Lizzie hesitance he had about killing is long gone. 

(**) The one complaint I have about that sequence is that the show already went to this well when Tyreese appeared to be fatally overwhelmed by zombies last season because he took too damn long getting out of the car, then appeared alive a few scenes later. You can play that card once, even twice, but after that, it's just parody, no matter how big and mean Chad L. Coleman looks. 

You could argue that Martin actually wins the argument by being beaten to death by Tyreese, but we see throughout the episode – as we have throughout the series – that Rick's group isn't like any other they come across. They're not sociopaths like the Governor or Joe or what the people of Terminus have become, but nor are they easily-bullied victims like, say, Hershel and his family were when Rick first brought Carl to their farm. They've fought to find a happy, livable medium between survival and compassion, and if there are moments where they tilt too far one way – say, Rick ignoring the doomed hitchhiker in “Clear”(***) – their moral compass eventually points back towards that middle. During their escape from Terminus, Glenn insists on stopping to free other prisoners from a rail car (though the episode weirdly sells out the gesture for a dumb joke: there's only one person in the car, a lunatic who runs out screaming “We're the same!” before immediately getting eaten by a walker), and Abraham, Eugene and Rosita seem to recognize they've fallen in with a good group.

(***) Despite all the gore, explosions and general Carol bad-assery, the most excited I may have felt during the episode was in the bonus scene after the credits, where we saw Morgan following Rick's trail. Anything that brings Lennie James back to this show, even for a little while, is very welcome.

If the slaughterhouse scene is as bleak as “The Walking Dead” gets, the episode's concluding moments are as happy as it's possible for the show to be. Carol has an emotional reunion with the group, from a tearful Daryl to a smiling Rick (who has, like Tyreese, allowed circumstance to justify forgiving her for what she did back in the prison), and Rick and Carl are in turn reunited with an alive-and-well L'il Asskicker. For a show that at times struggles to make the fates of any of these people compelling, it's a powerful, effective sequence, and it leaves our group mostly reunited (save for the still-MIA Beth), well-armed, and with a newfound purpose in getting Eugene to Washington.

Now, Eugene's moment in the boxcar where he attempts to explain how he will stop the plague isn't especially convincing – though if the goal is to keep us wondering if Abraham has been taken in by a con man with delusions of grandeur, then job well done. But after the diaspora of season 4.1, it's good to have the group back together, and operating with a clear goal. Because this is a big fat hit that AMC has no interest in ending anytime soon, I expect there to be many complications and delays on the road to the fireworks factory D.C. But that's still to come. “No Sanctuary” represented well most of the things that this show does at its best.

Before we go to the comments, it's time once again to explain how this blog's No Spoiler rule applies to this show:

1. No talking about the previews for the next episode.

2. No talking about anything else you know about upcoming episodes from other sources – and, yes, that includes anything Gimple and Kirkman have said in interviews.

3. No talking about anything that's happened in the comic that hasn't happened in the TV show yet. (Or anything that's been revealed, like character backstory and motivation.) As with “Game of Thrones,” the goal is to treat “The Walking Dead” TV show as exactly that, and not as an excuse for endless comparisons with the comics. If you want to talk about the comics, feel free to start up a discussion thread on our message boards.

With that in mind, what did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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