Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson review The Walking Dead each week in a series of letters.
I used to have friends. And watch football on Sundays. And go to church. But then zombies came, and I discovered a taste for human flesh, and… hey, that baby you’re holding looks downright delicious.
So, last night’s Season 5 premiere of The Walking Dead was another look at keeping your humanity in a lawless post-apocalyptic world. In it, we’re given the briefest glimpse of how Terminus became Terminus. A hippie utopia turned into a nightmare. From cannabis to cannibalism is two easy steps. You’re either the butchers or the cattle.
Ricks’ group continues to fight for a third way, a point which is driven home several times in this tense, action-packed opener. First through Tyreese’s inner struggle. He can’t bring himself to kill a zombie, so Carol, who outbadasses everyone in this episode, leaves him to dispatch the soldier in the cabin while she goes full-Rambo on the butchers of Terminus. Tyreese’s desperation to hold onto his humanity puts Judith at risk the first time he gets distracted. He eventually finds that Team Rick balance during his bare-handed brawl with a half dozen walkers and kills the church-going, football-watching, flesh-eating bro.
Glenn, who almost died like three times in that human slaughterhouse during a teasing opening scene, hammers the point home when he reminds Rick that they have to free the other human cattle—“It’s still who we are!”—during their great escape. It’s a short-lived victory as the crazed prisoner still becomes food (just for zombies instead), but it’s a reinforcement of the idea that you can be neither butcher or cattle. You can be moral humans, willing to kill when necessary—even when unnecessary if it’s about justice, as Rick was ready to go back and kill ‘em all—but still full of compassion and mercy.
And, surprisingly, none of the group died. They leave Terminus stronger and reunited (except for Beth, but oh well). Rick and Carl find Judith! Tyreese finds Sasha! Even Morgan is on their trail. It looks like they’ll need all that strength, all that humanity and a healthy dose of mistrust if that burly soldier that originally ruined the dream of Terminus is who all the comics readers are hoping it is.
What’d you think? You buy Eugene as part of a 10-man team working on viral weapons for the military? Did the football-watching bro recognize Tyreese, who in the comics was a former NFL player? Did you love Carol as the bringer of destruction as much as I did?
Just like the aproned butcher in that escape scene, The Walking Dead is back!
Last night, the Giants were playing the Eagles and I forced myself to watch the first half. I haven’t watched any NFL games this season, mostly because the league sort of disgusts me, but I figured I should give it a try. At some point in the middle of the second quarter, after watching Eli Manning crumple like a zombie victim over and over, I looked on Twitter and discovered—holy shit, The Walking Dead is back! I set my DVR, suffered through 20 more minutes of football, and then made my great escape into the land of zombies and compromised humanity. I totally agree with you…this, and other TV, is now the best part of any Sunday. The four Fs of Sunday—family, friends, football, and faith—are now mere distractions as I anxiously wait for 9pm and the all-important fifth F: Flesh-eaters.
I completely loved the premiere, and though you’re completely right about the recurring theme of preserving a middle-ground morality somewhere between butcher and cattle in a landscape that permits very little in the way of behavioral nuance, I’d like to put that aside for a minute while we talk about the resurgent badassery of Rick and Carol.
First, Carol. I was a founding member of the Carol hate club back in the prison, when she transformed from fun unlikely hero to extremist nag to paranoid murderer. (Can you imagine how Carol would react to the current ebola epidemic? She definitely would have have found a way to bomb that Dallas hospital to smithereens, right?) Last night gave her a chance to put her best qualities to use, and I was duly impressed by the whole shebang, from disguising herself with zombie blood to bombing Terminus to shooting that woman in the leg and letting the zombies have her (I really let my sadistic side run wild when I watch The Walking Dead). Carol is alllllll right.
Second, Rick. Am I the only one that was totally with him when he wanted to finish the job, Josh? Sorry, but after being kept in a cattle car and coming about two seconds away from being knocked out with a sledgehammer and bled into a trough, I want a full measure of revenge. I also liked how he had the audacity to threaten emo hipster guy even as it looked really, really certain he was about to die. I would hope that if I ever found myself in a similar situation, I’d go the same way. Even though I’d probably cry and beg. Nevertheless, Rick is best when he’s not in whiny moralistic mode, and even though he’ll probably be 40% less badass now that he has Judith to protect again, I’m glad we got to see him let his badass flag fly for an episode.
On the down side of things, I see Eugene as more of a sad fraud than ever. Even if I believe him that the human genome project developed some kind of method for destroying humanity—which I don’t—I have even less faith that he can reverse engineer this…what? Virus? Bacteria?...to attack only zombies. Also, why were his pals Abraham and Rosita telling him that he didn’t have to reveal his secret to Maggie and the others? OF COURSE HE HAS TO! WHY WOULDN’T HE?? More and more, though, Eugene is like a kid lying about his karate skills. On the other hand, I don’t want him to die because he’s hilarious to watch during battle scenes, essentially just covering his head and flinching while everyone scrambles to protect him. I’m glad we have a coward character to watch when the action gets heavy.
Lingering questions for you:
1. Did Tyreese actually kill football-watching Detroit-Tigers-hat-wearing baby-threatening guy? We only see him get punched in the face. Granted, it was a lot of punches, and Tyreese wasn’t holding back. But I have this weird feeling he might not be dead, based mostly on the fact that Tyreese won’t let Carol go in and see him. When he wakes up, though, his brain might be so addled that he walks and talks like a zombie. Speaking of which, that’s one scenario the show never explores…how do you differentiate between zombies and crazy drug-addled street people?
2. What happened to the emo hipster leader of Terminus? We briefly seem to see him get shot by Rick as they make their escape, but there’s no indication that he’s dead. I have a feeling we’ll see him again.
3. They have to go back to Terminus for Michonne’s katana, right? Michonne without her sword is like Dale without his look of befuddled superiority. Yes, Josh, I still hate Dale.
What a transformation of Carol. The Walking Dead has now proven itself adept at big, sweeping character arcs where the characters aren’t always very likable at times but then they pick up a pistol or a rifle or a chair leg and show their badassery and we love them again. Does this mean there’s hope for Beth? What?—stop snickering. Carol started in the “cattle” category before veering too far into “butcher” territory, and she was fully prepared to go back into exile after dropping Tyreese and Judith off at Terminus. But I’m glad she’s fully back in the fold. Daryl’s reunion with Carol was almost as touching as the reunions that followed.
And Rick seems to have put his conflicted angst in the past. He’s not a gardener or lone wolf. He’s a leader now, who’ll do everything in his power to protect his family and followers. He’s someone I think I’ll enjoy watching for seasons to come.
But I disagree with you on Martin, the soldier that Tyreese beat up. I think Tyreese’s scare with Judith was the catalyst he needed to become a badass again. I think he’s done with his own transformation from idealistic pacifist to pragmatic protector. I don’t think Martin will be coming back. In fact, I don’t think there’s anyone from Terminus left. We saw the vast majority of fighters go down with a herd of walkers still left for cleanup. They don’t get to live.
And while losing the katana is like losing a character—couldn’t it have just been Eugene, Bob or Rosita that got left behind?—you have to admit, there’s something still pretty cool about seeing Michonne with her homemade replacement.
So this was a pretty epic episode. Where does it rank in your list of all-time greats? Or is it even in the conversation?
I think it’s safe to say this is a top ten episode that might be lingering around top five territory. One thing you can say about “No Sanctuary” is that there were no “boring” segments that acted as filler for the good stuff. We didn’t have to watch Beth sing sad songs to herself in the forest or sit through a heart-to-heart between Rick and Carl. It was all plot movement, all the time, and the character development was accomplished through action, rather than the tedious dialogue that has been The Walking Dead’s achilles heel from the beginning. I think that’s the main reason the show has improved year-to-year after a lull at Hershel’s farm in the middle of Season 2…the strength of this show is in visual storytelling, and the characters needed to undergo their spiritual/psychological growth within that context. What this meant, on one hand, is that they had to move away when possible from extended scenes of stationary dialogue, because that’s when they ran into the bad acting and bad writing that has crept up from time to time. On the other hand, it also meant that the visual storytelling had to gain depth and function as more than a plot engine. Could the show have survived and even prospered as a thoughtless zombie thriller? Probably. But it would be a guilty pleasure at that point, rather than a show about people with real stakes beyond who gets bit from week to week.
“Live Bait,” one of the best episodes ever, is a great example. The writers wanted to explore the Governor’s character in more depth, and the episode was notable for the scarcity of dialogue. They used the deserted landscape and David Morrissey’s substantial presence and a variety of visual signifiers to craft a mini-redemption story, and it was atmospherically gorgeous. That’s what we saw last night, for the most part…a camera dipped into a chaotic world, rather than anything that felt too written. A huge success, and a happy indicator for the season to come.
TERMINUS LIVES, JOSH! THE EMO HIPSTER WILL BE BACK. HE’S A BUTCHER!
Also, please don’t die, Rick and Daryl.
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