The Walking Dead Season 5 Premiere Review: No Sanctuary

The Walking Dead is back for a fifth season, and what an explosive premiere it is!

Editor’s Note: This review contains major spoilers. So for all that is good and holy, turn back now if you haven’t watched the season 5 premiere of The Walking Dead. Or check out our spoiler-free review instead. This review also contains a comic book spoiler or two.

The Walking Dead season 5 premiere, “No Sanctuary,” is all business. By “business” I mean lots and lots of killing. Although there have been large action sequences on the show before — the Governor’s attack on the Prison last season perhaps the biggest of all — I haven’t quite seen this kind of body count. It’s to showrunner Scott Gimple’s and director Greg Nicotero’s credit that the show is able to cover so much ground plot- and character-wise while still keeping the action turned up to 11.

In past seasons, and I’m going to specifically call out the first half of season 2 and the latter half of season 4, the show has had trouble with pacing. Things tend to slow down to a crawl in The Walking Dead, which is necessary, yes, to develop characters and deliver some exposition, but at what point do things slow down too much?

The long journey to Terminus last season was a bit long-winded, made up of parallel stories that didn’t do too much to develop the HUGE main cast any further. Instead, that entire “arc” felt like one big setup for season 5 that reached a very predictable conclusion. Of course, Terminus was home to a whole mess of bad guys. The ending just didn’t deliver on the eye-rollingly slow journey.

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But the explosive season 5 premiere kicked my qualms in the face. Seriously. The episode is really, really good.

First, we have to talk about Carol, who’s really moved up the ranks of fan favorite, hasn’t she? This is very much her episode, where we see her reach peak badassery. Not only does she protect Judith and (arguably) Tyreese on the road to the compound, but she also pretty much single-handedly saves her entire group from the Terminans with a sniper rifle and some fireworks. Sure, she gets a little help from the zombies that break through the fences of Terminus, but she’s the one that wrangles everyone in, like the hermitic shepherd that she’s become on the show. 

Really, Carol is the Ben Kenobi of The Walking Dead. She’s been a loner at heart for the past few episodes, but has been watching over the group all along. And we see it all come together, as Carol becomes the group’s ultimate savior and the reason everyone is brought back together. I’d like to see her do more interacting with Carl this season. 

Carl doesn’t really have a big role in the episode, except when he reassures the group locked in the shipping container that Rick, who’s been dragged to the slaughterhouse, will be back for them. It’s a nice little moment that shows the boy’s newfound trust in his dad. It’s a successful setup and deliver by the end when Rick and Carl are reunited with Judith. The Grimes family is back together. Carl knows that Rick led them to her however indirectly.

Rick has been on the verge of a psychotic breakdown since the second attack on the Prison, but we get a sense in this episode that the worst of Rick’s anger has passed. There’s this cool calm in him during the slaughterhouse scene. He tells Gareth that he’s going to kill him, while he awaits ritual execution, tied up and unable to do anything at all. But Rick’s confidence is definitely back after biting Joe’s throat off. Whatever it takes to protect his family is Rick’s motto this year. No more farming or second guessing his actions. He’s not negotiating anymore. Rick is even determined to go back to Terminus and finish off the remaining bad guys after the group escapes. It’s only after he catches sight of Judith that Rick’s thirst for revenge subsides. 

Again, it’s Carol who really does a lot of the killing. She’s not someone we’ve ever seen act out in such an overt way. Sure, she was killing sick survivors before they could turn during the epidemic in the Prison, but this is really the first time that we see Carol show her true resilience. Which is interesting since, you know, she’s pretty much walking to her grave throughout the episode. 

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After watching “No Sanctuary,” I’m convinced that Gimple has written the definitive Carol episode — eventhough last season’s “The Grove” seemed to be that episode. A character that has suffered so much loss, banished from her people and forced to become an exile/guardian angel, has finally saved the ones she loves. Carol even has the best lines on the show, ones that symbolize death and vanishing. Her powerful words to Mary, “You’re not here, and neither am I,” seconds before she slips past the zombie horde (thanks to her special zombie guts skin lotion a la season 1) seems to confirm that she’s welcomed death. More than any other character who’s had a surprise death on the show, she’s prepared and accepted what’s coming.

I’m calling it: Carol’s dead by the midseason finale.

There are some things that continue to bug me about the show. Tyreese is still a bumbling idiot, pretty much stripped of his role in the comics, given a hammer and turned into a berserker. Without kids to really create that sense of duty in him, I’m not really sure why he’s still on the show. In the comics, he died during the second assault on the Prison, and I haven’t really seen anything to convince me that he’s worth keeping alive on the show.

When Karen was murdered (although most of us didn’t even know WTF Karen was), Tyreese had this super emotional crisis and thirst for vengeance that didn’t really reach a peak once Carol revealed that she had killed his love interest. He sort of fades away from every subplot he’s ever involved in.

Tyreese has to protect Judith and the children from the horde post-prison? He loses control. Tyreese has to protect sister from being killed by other sister? He loses control. Tyreese has to make sure Terminan doesn’t try to snap Judith’s neck while Carol is out saving the day? Guess how that turns out. 

When Carol told Tyreese that she’d be leaving them once they arrived to Terminus, I seriously feared for Judith’s life. I’m hoping that Bob and Sasha kind of give Tyreese a sense of purpose now that they’re reunited. Otherwise, he’ll just continue to be a whole lot of muscle with nothing to lift.

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My big frustration with this episode is its missed opportunity to cut some of the fat in the cast. Maybe it’s too early to start killing off main characters, but there are really a crapload of them and not enough time to focus on each and every one’s storyline. At least half of them can go. And the fact that a show that’s usually so bloodthirsty is content with teasing us with the almost-deaths of Glenn (Gimple faked us out not once, but TWICE in the premiere), Judith, Tyreese, and Carol…It just comes off as prudish. It’s the writers saying, “Yes, we’re going to kill someone off. You just don’t know who or when. Made you blink!”

I don’t think we need to be reminded that The Walking Dead loves killing off its main characters out of nowhere (R.I.P. Dale for life). I just hope they get to it really soon. Especially when Gimple reintroduces yet ANOTHER character from the past in a post-credits scene. Raise the stakes.

All in all, it’s a great season premiere, much stronger than last season’s, with efficient character development and the best action sequences I’ve seen on the show. It ends on a highnote, which is great, since things have just been so miserable for Rick and friends. Now let’s knock these guys the hell down again.

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4 out of 5