TV Review: The Walking Dead – No Sanctuary (S5, E1)

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Director: Greg Nicotero
Screenwriter: Scott M. Gimple
Cast: Andrew Lincoln, Norman Reedus, Steven Yeun, Lauren Cohan, Chandler Riggs, Melissa McBride, Chad ColemanChris Coy

A triumphant return for a series that has gone from strength to strength in the last two years (a couple of unfortunate lulls excepted), “No Sanctuary” is everything a season premiere of The Walking Dead needs to be; fast-paced, thrilling, shrouded in uncertainty, and audaciously uncompromising.

The conclusion to Season 4, which saw Rick, Michonne, Daryl et al locked in a train car by the residents of Terminus which, far from offering the sanctuary it promised, actually turned out to be a trap, was a bit drab and sudden. After an entire half-season building up to Terminus, the revelation that is was simply a haven for thieves and psychopaths struck me as crass and a little lazy. Season 5, which picks up immediately when Season 4 left off, treats Terminus in much the same way, though don’t let that fool you because this time, Terminus ain’t gonna be left standing for long…

Unlike Season 4, which was all about separation and divergence, Season 5 begins with a story all about the perils and dangers of such attitudes and outcomes. It is an electric 45 minutes of fist-fighting, rocket-shooting, head-munching, zombie-bashing anarchy, in which no-one is safe and in which the stakes for the group have perhaps never been higher. Rick’s group, trapped and on the verge of being murdered by the people who run Terminus, is left with no option but to kill or be killed, while Carol and Tyreese – both of whom were last seen heading straight towards Terminus’ trap – must take extreme measures (something I’m sure you’ll remember that Carol is well used to by now…) to protect the people they love.

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Credit for the episode’s stellar success must go to Greg Nicotero, who directs his way through a script that leaves little room for breath or compromise. At no point was the safety of anyone assured, and as bullets rippled through fire, blood and the warm, dank air of Terminus, it would’ve been very easy to lose complete track of what was happening. Nicotero, however, demonstrates marvellous restraint as he leads us through a series of separate but intricately linked action sequences, all leading to a hugely satisfying pay-off in the final few minutes. That he manages to introduce an element of real sorrow and poignancy to the backstory of the residents of Terminus is but a bonus in an episode already brimming with chaotic but controlled energy.

Let’s be clear on this point too; The Walking Dead is a solid and accomplished show, no doubt about it, but right now it hinges heavily on the performance on Melissa McBride as Carol. Where everyone else has grown, she has evolved. Carol – once a meek, terrified young woman who could barely get through an episode without crying – is now the ultimate badass, and is more than a match for other such female heroes as Lara Croft or Ellen Ripley. In the hands of a lesser actor, Carol’s transformation might have seemed corny, yet thanks to McBride’s effortlessly practical performance, Carol has quickly grown into the believable and lovable rock upon which the show is built. “No Sanctuary” seals the deal for her, and I cannot wait to see how Carol develops even further as a character this season.

That’s not to say that the others aren’t great too of course, because they are. Rick is in danger of turning into a caricature of himself, but Lincoln still more than delivers the goods when he needs to, and characters like Daryl, Michonne and Carl (another character who has grown exponentially in my estimations since his first appearance) are still as likeable and engaging as always. In an episode so full of twists and turns, not to mention so packed with gruesome action set-pieces, it was obviously difficult for any of them (bar Carol) to really shine, though once again I look forward to seeing how they develop as the season continues.

If I were to make one criticism it would be that the scenes between Tyreese and Martin (a guest character, played by Chris Coy) in the cabin weren’t as effective as they perhaps could’ve been. I get why it was necessary to place Tyreese in such a situation, and I respected the outcome of his stand-off with Martin, but I felt like more could’ve been done to explore Tyreese’s fear of and objection to the violence that Carol in particular now deems essential to survival. Nonetheless, this is a minor criticism and I cannot find fault with Coleman’s performance as Tyreese.

Any worries you might have had about The Walking Dead slowing down should’ve been shattered by this exultant return to form. I’m still wary of having so many characters in one place at one time but, as we all know, The Walking Dead has never been afraid of a cull or two when things start to get out of hand. That I spent so much of this episode worried about practically every character shows just how well they have managed to knit real uncertainty into the series and just how unsafe everyone is. For a show with such a large cast to take such risks, particularly with a bunch of people a lot of us have come to like quite a lot, is brave, and even if things do slow down, that is a factor for which it must be truly commended.

Also, a question to end on that some of you might be able to answer / might have also noticed. That dead body on the table in the room with the literal blood bath; was that a clone? It sure as fuck looked like one… (Note: Have since been informed that the body belonged to a Terminus resident called Alex, so bang goes my theory!)