The Walking Dead has never really been about the dead. It’s about the living, and the myriad ways in which people adapt (or don’t) to a new world order, one that thrives on chaos and death. Even the credits in season five reflect the new world; candles dribble wax and axes drip blood, buildings crumble under nature’s influence, crows light in trees waiting for corpses to rot. There’s no nostalgia for the past here, no remaining love for order and beauty. As a wise person utters in this episode, “It’s time to return to our regularly scheduled shitstorm.”
The opening sequence of the season five opener calls to mind a haunting statement from the final episode of season four: “The more people become part of us, the stronger we get.” In a flashback, Gareth (whose name I apparently spelled incorrectly last season) and Mary, trapped inside the cargo container and flickering in dying candlelight, desperately ask themselves what they are now – who they’re becoming. As in season four, nobody really knows who they are in this post-apocalyptic mess, and as people flail, scrabble to get a grip on normalcy, things get messy.
Back in the present, our band of increasingly morally ambiguous outlaws prepares to fight its way out of the shipping container. They’re ready to go out swinging, but aren’t prepared for a smoke bomb dropped through the roof. It incapacitates them just enough to allow the cannibals to bind and carry Rick, Glenn, Bob, and Daryl to the killing trough, along with four others who don’t belong to us. As the eight men kneel, prone, in front of the metal trough, burly men in plastic raincoats first knock them unconscious, then slit their throats, gushing blood into the trough. First one, then the next, creeping ever closer to Glenn. The viscous fluid pools around the drain as our quad of men watches, helpless. Just as the butcher reels back to take a mighty swing at Glenn’s head, Gareth shows up to ask for their shot count. “I’m sorry, it was my first roundup!” the second butcher says, distracting everyone for long enough to save Glenn’s life. In the midst of chaos, it is in fact bureaucracy, red tape, a “required quota” that saves our protagonists.
Bob tries to talk Gareth down – he’s the nice one. Rick, on the other hand, eyes him with utter rage and contempt. Gareth is after the bag of guns they stashed in the woods, and as he holds a wickedly sharp knife a millimeter from Bob’s eye, Rick gives him the info he needs. It contains some AK-47s, an arsenal of other weapons, and a machete with a red handle. “That’s what I’m gonna use to kill you,” he tells Gareth – and you know what? I wouldn’t fuck with Rick at this point. The man is hardened and he’s not kidding.
And suddenly, the world explodes.
Post-credits, we switch over to Carol and Tyreese, walking the tracks and reading the handwritten signs pointing to Terminus. Sanctuary for All, Community for All. They encounter a herd, and the sound of gunshots nearer to the colony saves them. Carol catches one of the Terminus folks off guard as he’s chattering happily to someone on a walkie talkie. They’re friends with the lady with the sword and the kid, she tells him, and no, she doesn’t believe that Michonne and Carl attacked them. She’s also hardened, and I wouldn’t fuck around with her.
Tyreese, on the other hand, is wild-eyed and overstressed. When Carol creeps away to scout Terminus, she leaves Tyreese and Judith with the captive. Only the strong survive, and this guy’s no exception: he picks up immediately on Tyreese’s weaknesses and begins to pick at them. He asks Judith’s name, then asks if Carol is his friend. Chad L. Coleman really gets to shine in this scene; His face tells the prisoner all he needs to know – more wounds to prod. He needs Carol, he even understands her, but she’s no friend to him, not now and maybe not ever. “You’re a good guy,” he says. “That’s why you’re going to die today. That’s why the baby’s going to die.” He encourages Tyreese to take the baby and drive away, to leave Carol behind – to split them up, make it easier for Terminus to hunt them down. As soon as the guy, who’d been chattering innocuously about football a moment before, gets a chance, he attacks Judith, taking her tiny head in his hands and telling Tyreese he’ll snap her neck. He backs Tyreese out the front door, where walkers crowd, decaying hands hooked into claws, awaiting prey. After a clash and a clatter, Tyreese bursts back in the door and falls on the captive with his bare hands. Wide-eyed, he screams “I won’t! I won’t!” What won’t you, Tyreese? Kill the living? Turn into the bad guys? Die?
Meanwhile Carol smears herself in mud, blood, and gore and walks among the undead toward the end of the line. She pierces a hole in Terminus’s gas tank, then shoots a bottle rocket at it. Walker bodies burst into hundreds of pieces; limbs and torsos fly grotesquely through the air as black smoke billows from the torn tank. Carol shambles in the front gate with the rest of the herd, watching steely-eyed as the walkers rip apart the people of Terminus. Inside, she discovers a stash of watches, silver and gold gleaming in the fluorescent lights; a pile of eerily neat teddy bears rests atop a gurney, telling us all we need to know about these people. She wanders into the sanctuary, whose walls scream, “NEVER AGAIN. NEVER TRUST. WE FIRST ALWAYS.” Here she encounters Mary, who conveniently tells her all about Terminus. “The signs were real. It was a sanctuary. The people came and took this place, and they raped and they killed and they laughed, and we fought and we got it back and we heard the message. You’re the butcher or you’re the cattle.” It’s everything we need to know; Carol lets the walkers eat Mary alive.
On the other side of the building, Rick and co. take advantage of the sudden chaos. “We don’t deal with security, that ain’t our job,” one butcher tells the other. “This is.” Their distraction, their attempts to cling to normalcy, to everyday tasks (as horrid as they may be) allows Rick (once a rather orderly guy himself) to slash their throats. Bureaucracy–I keep mistyping that as “bureaucrazy,” which is maybe more appropriate–saves the day once again.
Once outside, Glenn convinces Rick they need to rescue the remaining people, even those who aren’t their own. “That’s still who we are,” he pleads. “It’s gotta be!” When they open the door to the cargo container, a man bursts out, his facial tattoos and insane grin recognizable somehow. (ETA: a friend pointed out that this gentleman makes an appearance later in the episode, though I didn’t catch it on my single viewing.) He screams, “We’re the same! We’re the same!” The same as what? Rick manages to get a gun from one of the more careless Terminus folks and using their own weapons against them, he mows them down.
Inside the cargo box, an insistent Sasha asks Eugene once and for all what the cure is. “It’s classified,” he answers. Well, that ain’t good enough – not for our characters, and not for us in the audience. He tells them he was part of a ten-man team with the Human Genome Project, working to fight weaponized diseases with weaponized diseases; to fight fire with fire. “I believe if we switch the terminals in DC we can take out every last one of them…all things being equal it does sound pretty badass,” he concludes, just as Rick frees them.
I’m still not sure about Eugene. He could be a classic gamer geek trying to save himself. He sure as hell doesn’t look like a scientist (I know, I know, books and covers), and I’m not sure if his doublespeak and secrecy is a flaw in the show’s writing, if he’s deliberately being opaque, or if he actually knows what he’s doing. He makes me make Fry Face.
They leave Terminus in flames. Our raggedy band of “good guys” is back together again. When Daryl sees Carol in the woods, his face both gleams and crumbles and he rushes to embrace her with distraught affection. The relationship they share is one of the show’s redeeming points. “Did you do that?” Rick asks Carol, hugging her gently, and although not all is forgiven, we know she’ll be welcomed back into the fold after her banishment. Rick and Carl are reunited with Judith even as Sasha and Tyreese wrap their arms around each other.
Rick’s crew, having grown exponentially even as they’ve lost friends and family, begins the journey away from Terminus. “The more people become part of us, the stronger we get,” said Gareth at the beginning of the episode – and that turns out to be true of our protagonists, though not in the, you know, cannibalistic sense. As they march away from the ruined outpost, they rewrite the signs in blood: NO SANCTUARY. There’s no sanctuary in this world, except perhaps among your friends.
In the final moments of the episode, we learn that Mary wasn’t lying, that the colony at Terminus was tortured, maimed, raped, pillaged. A heavily muscled man with facial tattoos – none other than the prisoner Rick freed previously – tosses them into the shipping container for later use. No one comes out from that unscathed. It appears his chant of “We’re the same” refers to how in this world, maybe everyone’s a monster. The episode ends with Gareth in the shipping container, telling Mary desperately, “We’re gonna take it back. You’re either the butcher or the cattle.” This proposes an ugly dichotomy for the new world order, one into which our protagonists don’t fall. They’re not the same as these people. The world, even now, isn’t black and white, and trying to assign order, hierarchy, is perhaps what gets people dead.
The season five opener suffers from the same flaws as the series as a whole, but its pacing is spot-on, the acting stellar, and of course the effects and makeup impeccable. The premiere veered toward pure action, and I hope we get some quiet, some time to contemplate our characters’ adjustments and personalities, in the coming weeks.
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