“You’re either the butchers or the cattle.”
That soberingly bleak assessment of the existential options left open for humanity in the morally scorched earth environs of the zombie apocalypse pretty much summed up the thematic underpinning for The Walking Dead‘s unrelentingly fierce, action-packed, flaming walkers and cannibals (hurrah!) opening episode of season 5, “No Sanctuary”.
This was no sedate university tutorial for Philosophy 101 with a tweed jacket-wearing lecturer and a class of attentive iPad-tapping students; this was fire and brimstone payback writ large, exploding gas tanks, Carol (Melissa McBride) as a merciless avenging angel doing what needs to be done, and Rick (Andrew Lincoln) in full take charge take-no-prisoners mode, with neither of them in the mood for long dissertations on the nature of humanity in the vacuum of civilised governance.
The idea that there was a third way left – the ability to be compassionate and merciful while defending yourself with extreme prejudice when necessary – was only effectively voiced once when Glenn (Steven Yeun), on the run from the slaughtering house with Rick, Daryl (Norman Reedus) and Bob (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.) stayed his leader’s vengeful hand and urged the rescue of fellow captives with a simple but firm “It’s still who we are!”
His was a lone voice crying out in the chaos – Carol had upset the cannibalistic applecart of Terminus something good with the fences down, an immense herd of walkers surging in (well as much as shuffling re-animated corpses with decaying feet and faces can really) and flames and screams everywhere – but he was heard, just, by Rick who attempted to spare the life of the last man left alive in a shipping container marked “B” (the prison team were in the rail car known as “Area A”).
It didn’t ultimately do much good since the sole survivor of his group was a bearded Robinson Crusoe-esque looking madman who became zombie fodder in short order, but it was an important check on Rick’s newly re-found, gardener-begone! badass attitude which saw him wanting to run back into the flaming remains of Terminus to make sure the cannibals that had held them captive really were dead.
He was stopped then too by cooler, calmer heads like Maggie (Lauren Cohan) and Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green) who reminded him that everyone had escaped unscathed, that the chances of surviving the Great Apocalyptic BBQ were kinda slim (even so I won’t be surprised if we see Gareth (Andrew J. West) somewhere down the railway track) and that they should simply concentrate on where to go next.
You can hardly blame them for wanting to get the hell quickly out of (Chargrilled) Dodge.
They had come within seconds of suffering gruesome deaths – Glenn only avoided the baseball bat of the far-too-into-his-job executioner (who paid for his macabre enthusiasm later on when he turned), after two aborted swings, thanks to Carol’s exquisite makeshift bomb-exploding timing; others like the blond guy Carol and Rick found last season on a supply run weren’t so lucky – had to fight their way out of a sheer bloody chaos with crudely fashioned weapons made out of boxcar cutoffs (Michonne, played by Danai Gurira, is without her katana! This concerns me), and only just made it over the fence with a horde of walkers literally snapping at their heels.
And while the group were barely escaping with their lives and some semblance of humanity intact, Tyreese, left behind in a shack with L’il Asskicker, baby Judith with a captured Terminus flunky who spent his time trussed off against a wall somewhat unwisely taunting his captor about his namby-pamby holding onto his humanity ways, had his own tortured journey from unsullied humanist to possible practical killer (I say “possible” because you never see a body) to contend with.
It was definitely dark journey of the soul time, and while everyone emerged happy, smiling and reunited – Daryl’s deliriously happy embrace of long lost Carol was one of the emotional highlights of this or any season – and unarguably stronger, no one could say they’d had a particularly good day.
Even so, they were all alive (quelle surprise!), no Ensign Fodder, to use a old Star Trek term for the sacrificial narrative lamb, given over to the unforgiving demands of plot advancement and given another chance to possibly spirit the ever-cowardly virus-curer Eugene (Josh McDermitt), off to Washington DC with his ever-faithful protectors and true believers Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) and Rosita (Christian Serratos) to save humanity.
Or likely not since, despite a convincing display in the boxcar where Eugene claimed to be the sole survivor of a group of virologists who may have unleashed the plague and were thus the only ones capable of putting the viral genie back in its Pandora’s Box-like bottle, I suspect he is every bit the fraud in the TV series that he was in the comics.
But the veracity of his tale mattered not at this point with no guarantee by Rick they would even go to Washington DC – no destination was announced although the show’s producers have made it clear season 5 will occupy far more urban settings than previous seasons – and that the focus was solely on getting away from Terminus, a once-hipped idyll turned human meat market.
What distinguished one of the finest, most tautly-told episodes of The Walking Dead to hit our screens was the fact that the writers let the action do the talking.
There were no long bouts of plot-sapping ruminations on the nature of humanity in the apocalyptic age, no musings on the possible darkness within and whether it was possible to come back from those necessary excursions to the dark side or not; what you got was good old fashioned elegantly told, philosophically rich intelligent full speed ahead narrative momentum that allowed the characters’ actions to do all the talking.
It was most definitely a case of heeding that great writer axiom “Show don’t tell” but thankfully not in some lame Michael Bay-esque way where brains had long departed while the bodies kept walking and exploding and burning.
You saw in emotionally-raw, chaotically-driven ways how Carol had come back from the abyss – perhaps helped along by Tyreese’s unexpected forgiveness? – and did what she did, not out of some driven sense that she’s right and everyone is wrong but simply because it needed to be done, zombie guts smeared across her poncho and all.
Rick too, while determined to make the once-good folks of Terminus pay, and pay dearly, didn’t lose his mind, devolving into some sort of twisted Terminator of the zombie apocalypse, his hand stopped by wiser, cooler heads around him sure, but also by an inner sense that a third way between the butchers and the cattle might still be possible.
And three cheers for whoever decided to give us some insight, however briefly, into how Terminus went from mung bean-loving hippie-chick idyll where sanctuary was a reality and not a food-gathering bumper sticker; the suffering that Gareth and Mary (Denise Crosby, whose fight with Carol was suitably epic amidst the flames of their candle-dominated memorial) at least helped us to understand why these once fine people resorted to practices so morally repugnant that they made the walkers look damn near civilised in comparison.
It didn’t come close to justifying their monstrous actions (which were executed with chilling bureaucratic cold indifference by Gareth) but it did a sterling job of adding some grey to the great big baddies of Terminus whose motivations were an extreme, utterly selfish manifestation of the basic human need for self-preservation and not the mindless grab for power that characterised the Governor’s (David Morrissey) insanely despotic rule.
“No Sanctuary” was one of the most assured, full on and thematically rich episodes The Walking Dead has seen fit to put to air, with everything everyone loves about the show front and centre present and accounted for, all of which augurs well for the brutal action-packed but intelligently-written season we are assured is to come.
Behold the promo for next week’s episode “Strangers” …
And if you LOVED Bad Lip Reading’s hilariously imaginative first take on season 4 of The Walking Dead, you’ll love the second instalment in which, Laughing Squid assures us, “Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus) gets upset with Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) for gluing a wig on a mannequin, and Glenn Rhee (Steven Yeun) confesses that his favorite movie is Stargate …” among other gloriously silly things …