The Walking Dead has been brooding over the physical and emotional toll of survival ever since Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) awoke from a coma in the pilot episode and discovered that the world had transformed into a dilapidated hellscape populated by the living dead. As the series has unfolded, heightened threats to the lives of the ever-evolving and close-knit group of survivors he leads have forced Rick to compromise his humanity and edge further toward an uncertain moral abyss. Picking up where last season left off, with Rick’s bloodlust-tinged send-off (“They’re messing with the wrong people!”), the first episode of the show’s fifth season is short on exposition and long on payoff. Moreover, the conclusion to the Terminus plotline that dominated the latter half of the previous season sidelines the show’s tendencies toward on-the-nose dialogue and strained characterization in favor of a more propulsive sense of narrative advancement and emotional gravitas. It isn’t necessarily the existential quandaries of survival, but the base feeling of survival itself, that dictates the tenor here.
Nearly all of the main cast of characters is gathered together again, yet the premiere mostly divides its focus between Rick and Carol (Melissa McBride). While Maggie (Lauren Cohan), Michonne (Danai Gurira), and the newer crop of survivors cower in fear inside the shipping container, Glenn (Steven Yeun) and Daryl (Norman Reedus), among others, shiver and quake alongside Rick, convinced of their imminent doom as they’re forcibly lined up for execution. Staring into a trough and watching it fill with the blood of others, they are, it seems, dead meat—and in more ways than one. Though Rick eventually proves frighteningly nimble and decisive against Gareth (Andrew J. West) and his cronies, were it not for the brilliant finesse of Carol’s explosive attack against Terminus, all the survival skills that he has so finely honed across the timeline of the first four seasons would be for naught.
Throughout, the episode juggles its numerous narrative threads and their attendant thematic resonances with a striking delicacy. It all culminates in the escape of Rick’s group from Terminus amid a fury of gunfire and smoke, with hordes of walkers flooding into the establishment through its fallen fences. And oblivious to it all is Tyreese (Chad L. Coleman), left behind by Carol in a one-room cabin in the woods with baby Judith and one of Gareth’s goons. Uncertain as to what the rising smoke in the distance foretells, Tyreese calmly discusses with the man, sitting on the ground with his hands tied, the possibilities of how their clash will end. Tyreese implores a nonviolent solution, while the stranger suggests that, for one of them, death is an inevitability. The contrast between their tête-à-tête in the woods and Rick’s slick maneuvering through Gareth’s falling kingdom resounds powerfully with an understanding of the long, hard road individuals go down when driven by the need to survive and the agony of those who cling to old notions of humanity, not knowing if they have the courage to follow in their footsteps.
As for that crazily serene sense of confidence that underscores the philosophy of the man with whom Tyreese tussles, it’s of a piece with the mindset of everyone else at Terminus. They, too, were once frightened, having invested in the hope of humanity’s underlying goodness, a belief they thought would guide them through the zombie apocalypse. But as the series has poignantly expressed many times before, hope is a dangerous prospect. There’s an unmistakable ugliness to how this gang has turned on their fellow living, feasting on their flesh for sustenance, yet the haunting scenes that open and close the episode, of Gareth’s people huddled in the same containers where they locked Rick and his band of survivors, resonate with a weird sense of empathy for how they fell into their own moral abyss. After encountering a woman inside a candle-lit room inside Terminus who explains how her group chose to survive, Carol denies her a merciful ending, but it’s telling that her demise isn’t staged as a gleeful spectacle of comeuppance.
The episode culminates with a well-earned, emotion-rich reunion, with Rick realizing that Carol saved their entire group. This is the first time in a long stretch in which so many of the show’s characters have been allowed a moment of reflection and joy at seeing each other, and very much alive, in the same place. They’re obviously unaware of what future horrors Gareth has in store for them, but as they pause here before charging toward the next chapter of their seemingly impossible journey, their relief seems to stirringly remind them of why they struggled to survive the apocalypse in the first place. They have no common goal at present, no home to protect or guard, and no place that they’re specifically moving toward, and there’s something about that rootlessness that suggests the series may free itself of some of its more nagging, ambiguity-defying bad habits. Right off the bat, this new season strongly hints that the series will continue to ruminate on primal sensations of fear and survival, but that it will be more content to allow action, as opposed to a plethora of argumentative moral debates, to speak to such existential matters.