[A version of this review appears in the Nov. 6, 2014, edition of the Rutland Reader.]
The season five premier of The Walking Dead did something I thought the show was no longer capable of: it made me want to keep watching it.
The first season captured the attention of audiences because it was both novel and utterly terrifying. Early episodes depict the immediate aftermath of the zombie apocalypse in all its bleak hopelessness. With that status quo quickly established, we then watched characters struggle for survival in a world where the living are often more dangerous than the dead.
Since then, my enjoyment has waned significantly, even drifting into hate-watch territory. The series has only intermittently recaptured the sense of terror that initially made it such a phenomenon. Eventually, the shock value of zombie killing wears off; there are only so many exciting and original ways to deploy and dispense with them. After a while, it all starts to look the same. Sure, all that gore and intense violence has been successful — the series continues to be a ratings juggernaut — but the quality of storytelling has been inconsistent at best.
Part of the show’s problem has been its tendency to spend too much time in one place. Few viewers will count the time spent on Hershel’s farm during season two among the show’s high points. Subsequent season-long stays at Woodbury and the prison were equally prohibitive to advancing plot.
These detours suck all the energy and suspense out of the show leaving us with uneventful plotlines like Rick wanting to be a farmer, or anything involving Carl. Character development has never been this show’s strength, and whenever these characters spend too much time sitting around talking (and usually moping), that weakness becomes only more apparent.
The Walking Dead is a show that works best when the characters are on the move, and there is a clear objective. So far, season five has given us both. Since taking the helm last season, showrunner Scott Gimple has done a lot to pick up the pace. Now free from the baggage of the Governor, Woodbury, and the prison, he’s able to push forward, possibly even taking the characters outside the small patch of rural Georgia, they’ve been wandering around in since season one.
When we last saw our band of brooders, they were taken captive by residents of Terminus, the too-good-to-be-true sanctuary that served as the MacGuffin for much of last season. After learning the Terminians’ terrible secret, we start to think they’re going to be this season’s big bads. However, in an exciting albeit improbable sequence, the threat is neutralized, and the gang is back on the road.
This brisk pace is a refreshing change. Once again on the move, the group — almost a dozen at this point — decides to head to Washington where Abraham, the Sgt. Slaughter of the zombie apocalypse, is convinced they will find salvation and a cure. It’s most likely a fool’s errand, but at least the mission promises forward movement.
I’ve slagged The Walking Dead for weak character development because I think it’s important. This is a premium cable drama that should aspire to do more than scare and gross us out. And while it’s too early in the season to know if there will be any strong individual character arcs, the show is doing a good job of demonstrating just how far these people have evolved as a group. The word family is tossed around liberally in a recent episode. It’s a theme that’s easy to recognize and even easier for the writers to show (the disparate group as surrogate family is a common TV trope). However, seeing these people function as a deadly tactical unit is far more impressive.
The group has been killing zombies together for a while now so it makes sense that they’ve gotten pretty good at it. In one scene, Rick doesn’t even flinch when told a location they want to secure has a least a dozen zombies. Yeah, they may be a family, but they are also soldiers, too, and anyone who underestimates that fact — like say the Terminians — will not last long. A tense scene in this season’s third episode demonstrates just how proficient Rick and company has become — and how brutal they are willing to be to keep the group safe.
It’s here where this season’s big moral dilemma seems to be taking shape. Killing zombies has always been essential to survival. They are essentially an infestation — or, as another critic has put it, a natural disaster to be weathered. The show has repeatedly shown what happens to those who still view them as human (spoiler: people die).
Killing humans, however, is still a matter of philosophical debate. At this point in the series, it’s clear that other humans are the greater threat. Experience has hardened fighters like Rick, Carol, Michonne, and Daryl to this fact. But not everyone in the group is on board. In recent episodes, we have seen Tyrese struggle with taking a life. Meanwhile, Carl, who has been teetering on the edge of darkness for some time now, reminds Rick that not every stranger they encounter is an enemy.
The theme surviving with one’s humanity in tact will likely take center stage. If the show continues to handle it with the relative subtly it has thus far, it could make for a powerful arc. The show hangs a lantern on this struggle when we lose one of the gang to a bite this week. Their dying words to Rick will likely resonate throughout the rest of the season: “Nightmare’s end. They shouldn’t end who you are.”
In the world of The Walking Dead, trust and compassion are dangerous luxuries. In the space of only a few scenes — an example of some deft and concise exposition, which is a rarity on this show — we see the extreme iteration of distrust at Terminus, and the terrible progression when hopelessness and desperation consumes one’s humanity — figuratively and literally. The time spent at Terminus is brief but heavy with portent. And it raises a question this season seems intent on answering: Are Rick and company in danger of becoming monsters worse than the ones they are fighting?
The Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on AMC. Previous seasons are available to stream on Netflix.