Warning: This article contains spoilers for seasons 1-4 of The Walking Dead
The Walking Dead returned with a new season last week, setting yet another record for cable viewership in America. The story of one man’s fight to survive during a zombie apocalypse has changed its focus more often than it has changed show runners, and this season the emphasis is firmly back on the living being more dangerous than the dead.
In recent years, the season premieres have been relatively weak, but season 5’s has to be one of the most action-packed so far. A lot of publicity before the episode centred around its intensity, and it certainly doesn’t disappoint. The last season left us with the cliffhanger of having most of the main cast trapped in a train car in Terminus, and after a brief flashback we’re right back in the action.
The tension in the first proper scene could almost literally be cut with a knife, and Andrew Lincoln conveys the emotion of the situation tremendously in a face-off with the leader of Terminus and this season’s antagonist, Gareth. Rick, despite being the lead of TWD and the audience surrogate for much of the time, is a character who has changed a lot over the show’s run, but his priority has always remained the same: to keep his family safe no matter what. Of course, his family is now the whole of his group, and so it is interesting to see his interactions with everyone throughout the episode.
And yet just as it would be wrong to suggest that TWD is all Rick’s story, so it is wrong to say that he is the only character allowed to shine in this episode. Though fan favourites Daryl and Michonne play a relatively small role in this episode, Carol is central to its premise. Without giving too much of the episode’s plot away, over four seasons Carol has developed from a frightened housewife regularly beaten by her husband to a pragmatist who will always do what has to be done, and it is in ‘No Sanctuary’ that this is clearer than it has ever been. Despite her Robin Hood-inspired zombie-killings this week, it is Tyreese who wins the award for bad ass of the week, with his dedication to keeping baby Judith safe leading to a moment reminiscent of his claw hammer massacre last season. Even late addition to the show Eugene manages to steal scenes, with his awkward method for escaping zombies being turned into an internet meme almost immediately.
Of course, it is for its unflinching violence that the show has become notorious (the first episode began with a cold open in which a police sheriff shot a little girl straight between the eyes) and there are many examples of this throughout the episode. One of the great strengths of TWD has always been how it manages to stop short of being gratuitous, and so it was disappointing that during this season opener I felt like that had changed. Some scenes were violent and brutal for the sake of it, and though this may just be the show’s writers acknowledging the brutality of this post-apocalyptic world it feels like they are instead trying too hard to have the shock factor. It will be interesting to see whether this develops into a theme throughout the season, or whether the writers were just going all out to live up to the hype that surrounds the show.
TWD has always had little nods to previous episodes in it, and I particularly liked the subtle way in which ‘No Sanctuary’ managed to tell us the fate of Sam (‘Don’t shoot! We have fruit!’), an incidental character from the start of season 4, without spending too long discussing it. There is even a shock cameo in the show’s first ever post-credits scene that tantalisingly leaves the door open to a very interesting reunion for Rick sometime later in the show.
And so it is fair to say that I thoroughly enjoyed ‘No Sanctuary’ and it has left me excited for the rest of the season, but it was by no means the best episode the show has ever done.
The Walking Dead airs Mondays at 9PM on FOX UK