When we last left our depressive band of post-apocalyptic survivors, Rick and the gang were trapped in the cannibal capital of the South, a new crew joined up with the supposed key to solving the zombie infection, and Beth was still kidnapped by mystery villains.
Last season was definitely better than previous installments, but was uneven in many troubling ways. What should have been a tight, explosive season turned into a sprawling two half-seasons of wheel-spinning and ill-conceived plots. Paring down the group and splintering them into unusual factions was mostly successful, and helped spice up some previously uninteresting characters. And the introduction of Terminus and the crazy Christian cult made for a high-energy cliffhanger that should provide enough of a jolt to keep the tension going throughout the new season.
“No Sanctuary” picks up not long after the closing events of season 4, a few hours probably, a few days at most. Rick and co. are still trapped in the boxcar, but have spent their time wisely by crafting weapons out of anything and everything they can. Not that they get to use them. The cannibals toss in a tear grenade and drag out Rick, Bob, Daryl, and Glenn as the first group to be butchered. After killing 4 men from another boxcar, Gareth pauses to interrogate Rick about his stash in the woods. An explosion interrupts their little chit chat and provides Rick the perfect opportunity to stage a counter attack.
Turns out that firebomb was triggered by Carol. She and Tyrese came across Martin, one of the cannibals, and overheard their dastardly plot to kill their friends. Carol turns their plans against them by caking herself in zombie guts and following a herd of walkers to Terminus where she unleashes them on the fortress. Most of the Terminites get eaten, but Gareth only takes a shot to the shoulder, meaning it’s only a matter of time before he returns with a vengeance. Rick’s group reunites (minus a still AWOL Beth), and the episode ends on a happy note…except it doesn’t.
Bookending the whole thing are 2 scenes showing how Terminus got started. Guys like creeper Joe from last season had once taken over Terminus and inflicted maximum carnage until Gareth was able to take it back through sheer force of violent determination. The Terminites weren’t just cannibals, they were people who willingly sacrificed their humanity in order to survive. They function as a sort of cautionary tale, an example of what Rick’s group could be like if they aren’t careful. In the beginning, the writers tried too hard to keep Rick the idealist. He was the man who believed civilization could carry on through the dark times if they tried hard enough. But there are plenty of people who saw the end of everything as their personal playground. The Governor used it as his chance to establish his own version of civilization, a cruel dictatorship lorded over by a depressed psychopath. Joe used it as a consequence-free chance to indulge in the worst human behavior imaginable. Other survivors are just trying to get by and avoid the roving crazies, killers, and walkers.
Rick and co. seem to have come to terms with the fact that peace and civility are things of the past, but that murder and mayhem aren’t the only future either. They’re finally learning how to kill to survive while not letting it destroy their humanity. Sometimes Rick strays too far into hateful revenge, as when he wanted to go back and kill off the Terminites, but the others are always able to pull him back. (You could argue about whether or not it’s a smart decision not to go back – it’s not, it’s really not – but Rick makes his choice from a healthy place.) Deciding to live rather than just survive doesn’t always mean leaving bad guys alive, though. Sometimes it also means Tyrese beating a guy to death with his bare hands in order to save an innocent child. Sometimes it means Carol leaving a woman to her fate on the floor of a shrine room. And sometimes it means Glenn letting off some steam by bashing in some zombie brains.
There are 2 things TWD does really well: premieres and finales. It was a violent, bloody, frantic episode that kept the action going straight through. Even though I knew the show wasn’t about to kill off any of its cast in the first 20 minutes of the new season, I still flinched each time the butcher raised the bat over Glenn’s head. Glenn got the short shrift the last few seasons, but I still like the guy and would be very pissed off to see him go. (Rick, not so much…) And nobody but nobody threatens my Daryl. The second the writers kill him off, is the moment I abandon the show entirely. I still harbor dreams of him, Carol, Beth, and Li’l Asskicker getting their own spinoff and ditching Rick to go be awesome elsewhere.
Gareth is a much better villain than the Governor ever was. The Governor was an asshole that got retconned into being a conflicted antihero, and his character collapsed like a house of cards. It didn’t help that the writers dragged out his arc well past its expiration date. Gareth, on the other hand, isn’t sadistic or cruel. He’s a ruthless, desperate pragmatist. Butchering outsiders for food is as mundane to Terminus denizens as slaughtering pigs for bacon. Where the Governor would’ve gloated over his victory, or Joe and the “Then” baddies would’ve raped and tortured their way through their captives, Gareth is almost completely indifferent to them. If he hadn’t seen Rick’s bag of tricks, he wouldn’t have even bothered to talk to him at all. Why would he? A rancher doesn’t ask his cattle how they feel before nail-gunning them in the brain and turning them into ground beef.
As evinced by the “Then” and “Now” sequences, it’s clear Gareth is a man who can run a long game. He’s clever and patient enough to not go for the quick thrill of immediate revenge but instead to build it up until he can destroy everything in his path. Of course, the writers could just as easily ruin a perfectly entertaining character by wasting him on ridiculous plots and not fleshing him out as a person, as they are wont to do.
The only thing that really concerns me for the future is the size of the cast. The larger the ensemble, the less time we get to spend with each character. In the disastrous timesuck that was Hershel’s farm, the cast was so vast I kept forgetting who was there until they were eaten by zombies. Hell, Beth’s character was so sidelined that it took until halfway through season 4 for the writers to finally devote some attention to her. At this point the Washington crew is barely more than a collection of generalities and tropes, and it doesn’t look like they’re going to get anymore well-defined anytime soon.
Nevertheless, it looks like we’re headed in a solid direction. Now taking bets on how long it’ll take the writers to screw it up.
- “It’s funny how you don’t even notice the time going by. Horrible shit just stacks up day after day. You get used to it.” “I haven’t gotten used to it.” “‘Course you haven’t. You’re the kinda guy who saves babies. It’s kinda like saving an anchor when you’re stuck without a boat in the middle of the ocean.”
- “You’re a good guy. That’s why you’re gonna die today.”
- “I won’t! I won’t! I won’t!”
- Morgan’s back! Yay!
- I don’t think the show has ever made me happier than when Daryl hugged Carol. My heart grew three sizes in that moment.
- Speaking of Carol, how many people had a moment of heartbreak when she corrected Rick about whether or not the fire was still burning. Good job on the subtlety, writers. Have a cookie.
- The more the scientist claims he can cure the zombie plague, the less I believe him. Sasha picked a bad time to challenge him, but it’ll have to be addressed sooner rather than later. No way Rick will risk his family without concrete proof.
- AMC reupped for season 6 before the 5th had even premiered. They apparently have a lot more faith in the show than I do.
- Although we likely won’t get any clarification either way this season, I’m going to ahead and fanon Daryl as gay anyway.
Alex Brown is an archivist, research librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.