As autumn gives way to the bleak doldrums of winter, so too does the fifth season of The Walking Dead, now lying dormant through the cold season until it reanimates come mid-February, 2015. As these past eight episodes have made clear, the success of the series hasn’t been an aberration as it’s continued to obliterate cable TV ratings records, besting even the numbers for NFL football here in the U.S. on more than one Sunday night.
Moreover, the detractors of seasons past—the ones that had bemoaned the dramatic elements of The Walking Dead as being too “soap-opera”—have gone quiet for the most part and, in some cases, have even succumbed to the allure of high-drama zombie-mania along with the rest of us.
Out of deference to those of you who binge-watch seasons of television on services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, Ravenous Monster tries to keep at least some of the proverbial cat in the bag when we review TV shows, but there are enough spoilers ahead to warrant a warning: Please, proceed with caution. So, how was the first half of The Walking Dead’s fifth season? Let’s take a closer look.
We pick up where season four left off—Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and the others have been taken prisoner at Terminus and stashed inside a locked railroad car. Through a series of flashbacks we see how the leader at Terminus, Gareth (Andrew J. West), and the others there turned toward the dark side after being attacked themselves by a roving band of aggressive survivors. Meanwhile, Carol (Melissa McBride), Tyreese (Chad Coleman) and baby Judith—who remain on their own—cross paths with another member of the Terminus crew and learn that Rick and the rest of their group are there.
Carol sets off for Terminus and much like John Rambo, she becomes their worst nightmare, destroying Terminus and helping to free Rick and the rest from Terminus’s cannibalistic cult. The reunion of Carol and the rest of her group, moreover, the reunion of Rick, Carl (Chandler Riggs), and Judith is incredibly moving and it’s what puts this premiere atop the list of great ones in cable television history.
The episode ends with a shot of Morgan Jones (Lennie James)—the first survivor Rick encountered way back in the series premiere—on the tracks leading toward the remains of Terminus, having discovered the signs that Rick repainted to read, “No Sanctuary.”
In an indication of where Rick’s head is at—and the logical progression of his arc as depicted late last season—he suggests tracking and killing those of Gareth’s crew who survived the Terminus siege, but the others overrule him with some of them opting to help Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) deliver Eugene (Josh McDermitt) to D.C. so that the latter can potentially cure the zombie epidemic. This is the initial narrative thrust of season five.
Soon the group finds Father Gabriel (Seth Gilliam), a squeamish and passive priest marooned in the woods and surrounded by walkers. Once he’s saved, Gabriel leads his rescuers to his rural church where they take shelter and regroup. However, Rick is suspicious of Gabriel, but before this can be addressed the group begins to pull apart for a variety of other reasons.
As Daryl (Norman Reedus) tries to talk Carol out of leaving—an impulse resulting from her discomfort over unresolved issues from last season—they happen to see a car that looks like the one in which Beth (Emily Kinney) was abducted last season and they hastily pursue it. Abraham wants nothing to do with the church and wants to head to D.C. immediately. Meanwhile, Rick’s methodically figuring out the group’s next step and he leads a scavenging team to a food pantry used by the church. Unfortunately, things go badly at the pantry, but the extent of the badness isn’t known until it’s revealed later that Bob (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.) has been bitten.
Later, as the group feasts at the church, Bob goes outside to ponder his terrible fate alone where he gets abducted by…Gareth! Horrifically, Gareth and his Terminus pals end up doing what they do—namely, they begin to eat Bob, but when Bob reveals that he’s “tainted meat,” Gareth and his cohorts freak out and drop off Bob outside the church, missing a leg and near death.
Rick decides to wait for Daryl and Carol to return and then go hunting for Gareth and the others. At that, Abraham loses patience and decides to head for D.C. He and Rick nearly come to blows over it so, to diffuse the situation, Glenn (Steven Yeun), Maggie (Lauren Cohan), and Tara (Alanna Masterson) agree to go with Abraham, Eugene, and the rest as long as they stay long enough to help take out our hungry friends from Terminus.
Rick, Michonne (Danai Gurira), Sasha, and Abraham brutally eliminate Gareth and his people in a tense showdown within the confines of the church. The next day, Bob succumbs to his zombie bite and after he’s laid to rest, Abraham leads half the tribe onward toward D.C.
The fourth episode opens with Beth now living inside a hospital in Atlanta. The people in the hospital are led by Dawn Lerner (Christine Woods), a cop whose fellow officers rescue people and bring them to the only remaining doctor onsite—Dr. Steven Edwards (Erik Jensen). Some people are saved and others are left to die. Those who are saved are assigned jobs within the hospital-sanctuary. Beth is assigned to be a nurse for Dr. Edwards and it becomes clear almost immediately that Dawn is not one of the good guys and the hospital isn’t a safe place. This is when Beth and fellow hospital inmate, Noah (Tyler James Williams), formulate an escape plan. Eventually Noah makes it out, but Beth doesn’t and just when she’s about to fight insurmountable odds by confronting Dawn and the others on her own, lo and behold, Carol gets wheeled in on a stretcher!
When Daryl returns to the church with Noah in tow and without Carol, Rick and the others formulate a rescue mission and embark on Atlanta where the plan is to kidnap two members of the hospital group and subsequently exchange them for Carol and Beth. After two tense episodes setting it up, this climactic exchange goes horribly wrong, yielding a cliffhanger that’s devastatingly tragic, surpassing even the profundity of the season premiere while providing the other emotionally moving bookend for these eight episodes.
Meanwhile, the subplots involving Abraham’s mission to deliver Eugene to D.C. and Father Gabriel’s trustworthiness are addressed in the episodes leading up to the finale and the fractured group is reunited just as the midseason draws to a close. And with that, we’ve lost another member of the group, Morgan Jones continues closing in on Rick, and collectively we’re left in the darkest of places within The Walking Dead universe.
Whereas past seasons were essentially about the loss of innocence, this season is an outright rejection of it. What’s both captivating and dangerous is that Rick is only a few clicks away—if we consider things like cannibalism a “click”—from acting the same as those he perceives as enemies. And in a slick bit of manipulation by the show’s writers, when Rick acts out in cold-blooded violence, “doing what he’s got to do,” we cheer because it not only feels justified, but it feels good. And THAT’S scary. Our sense of right and wrong has evolved right along with that of our heroes, for better and for worse. We’ve been strapped into the driver’s seat of a vehicle that’s blazing through fairly repugnant moral territory and the experience is fascinating.
Gone is the idealism and subsequent ethical conundrums of past seasons such as if/when it’s ok to not help people or even kill them if it will protect the tribe. Up until very late last season, that was an omnipresent debate among members of the group. That group, led by Rick, has now fully assimilated to post-apocalyptic life. Tension no longer manifests from our survivors figuring out how to survive while maintaining some semblance of their former selves, but rather it comes from whether or not they can survive in a world where groups much like their own exist and those, too, view outsiders as threats. It’s literally “kill or be killed” and there no longer seems to be anyone holding out from accepting that reality.
From a production standpoint, The Walking Dead season five is humming right along. This cast hasn’t had to prove itself to people like me in a long time and that’s not changed. These actors remain a huge asset to this series and their performances over the course of these eight episodes remain unanimously stellar. The performances of Andrew Lincoln as Rick, Chad Coleman as Tyreese, and Emily Kinney as Beth are particularly potent. And that has as much to do with the writing as it does anything else as these three characters have been given some great dialogue to speak as well as some incredibly harrowing circumstances to survive this season. From Tyreese’s protectiveness over baby Judith early on to Rick’s lethal defense of his tribe and Beth’s willingness to face great danger alone during the later episodes, these characters and the actors portraying them have made me hold my breath more than once this fall.
The zombie action remains both tense and disgusting. This season has featured a couple of really fun set-pieces designed to tickle horror hounds and test the gag reflexes of the rest of you. Those include a group of gross, bloated water-logged zombies at the food pantry and, later, some partially melted zombies that had been victims of an earlier bombing raid in Atlanta—the military’s futile attempt to contain the epidemic early on and at any cost necessary. These zombies are visually disturbing, but moreover, they represent the core concept of the series—that the world as we all know it has ended. The future is now and it’s not a friendly place. It’s a dark idea that’s large in scope and tragically bleak.
These eight episodes haven’t been perfect, of course. While there are sources of antagonism abound this season, that’s not quite the same thing as the presence of a proper antagonist and the void revealed by the lack of one, though small, is apparent, nonetheless. It obscures the through-line of the plot, making this season feel like a small step forward into the narrative, rather than thrusting us ahead through the story in more gratifying leaps. And where seasons past have been stuck on a treadmill at times (season two, for example), those seasons emphasized character development in ways that are no longer necessary at this point, so now when we’re forced to run in place it’s difficult not to notice. But this lack of focus isn’t enough to truly detract from what’s otherwise been a fantastic eight episodes of horror television.
Finally, moving the center of the conflict back to Atlanta for the midseason finale provides the perfect juxtaposition to highlight the development of the principal players in this drama. The city allows us a clear point of reference for the stark contrast of where our characters are now versus where they were in season one and THAT’s the fuel that makes The Walking Dead season five sizzle so far.
The Walking Dead season five has earned a midterm grade of A-. We’ll be looking forward to next semester.