Review: ‘The Walking Dead’ Season 5 Maintains The High Bar Of Season 4

Review: 'The Walking Dead' Season 5 Maintains The High Bar Of Season 4
Review: 'The Walking Dead' Season 5 Maintains The High Bar Of Season 4

It’s rare, in this golden age of television we’re living in,
to find a show that actually improves with age. That’s not to say that shows
become terrible after Season 3, but generally by Season 4, great shows tend to
wander up their own butt a little (“Mad Men,” “Louie”),
while mediocre shows tend to really start spinning their wheels (“True
). So it was certainly refreshing that Season 4 of
The Walking Dead” was the most successful season of the show by a
country mile, and if the Season 5 premiere is any indication, the good times
will keep on rolling.

“The Walking Dead,” of course, has been a ratings
phenomenon since the beginning, and the Season 4 premiere was the most-watched
drama in basic cable history. The show has never wanted for an audience, so
when Scott M. Gimple took over showrunning duties in Season 4, no one would
have blamed him for resting on his laurels. Have the characters hole up somewhere,
kill the occasional zombie and make the barest hints towards character
development. Heck, it worked great for three seasons!

READ MORE: ‘The Walking Dead’ Renewed for Season 6 by AMC Ahead of Season 5 Premiere

Fortunately Gimple and his writing team were willing to
shake things up a bit, first with a harrowing flu infection plot line, followed
by a climactic clash with The Governor, an obvious psychopath who nonetheless
was able to convince more than one group of supposedly reasonable people that
he was a leader worth following. The final battle with The Governor led to the
best idea in the series yet: spreading the group to the four winds and taking
entire episodes to focus on small sub-sets of characters rather than the group
as a whole.

Character has never been the primary focus of “The
Walking Dead,” since after all, it’s a survival horror show set during the
zombie apocalypse. But the characters were particularly thin over the first few
seasons, and it certainly didn’t help that a bulk of Season 2 saw the cast
cooling their jets and having petty arguments on a farm, wondering where Sophia
had run off to (hint: she was dead in the barn). Once Season 4 moved into its
second half, the character work became stronger than it ever had. (It probably
didn’t hurt that several episodes didn’t feature lead character Rick — who had
become an increasingly tiresome sad-sack — at all.)

After the significant cast turnover that a high body count
show like “The Walking Dead” requires, Season 4 saw the show with its
strongest roster yet, with stand-out core cast Andrew Lincoln, Steven Yeun,
Norman Reedus and Melissa McBride joined by ace character actors like Chad Coleman,
Larry Gilliard, Jr., and Michael Cudlitz. (It never hurts to include alumns
from “The Wire” in your regular cast.) These actors all got the
spotlight in Season 4’s back half, and were given richer material to play with,
as Daryl wrestled with the bad man he used to be after falling in with a pack
of scavengers, and Rick learned the lengths he would go to protect his son.

But the stand-out was McBride, whose Carol became the most
interesting character on the show, simply because she was willing and able to
do things other characters wouldn’t (like, for example, shooting a psychopathic
child in the back of the head at the climax of “The Grove”). Now when
one of these characters falls (as they inevitably must), the sting will be all
the greater.

The narrative drive of Season 4 was the characters looking
to reunite at Terminus, a stronghold with signs posted along railroad tracks
promising, “Those who arrive, survive.” You didn’t need a crystal
ball to predict that Terminus was bad news, and indeed, the season ended with
most of the cast reunited, albeit trapped in a train car as the citizens of
Terminus prepared to harvest their bodies for meat. After the low-key back half
of Season 4, Season 5 seemed primed to pick up the action and return to the
show’s pulpy horror roots.

“No Sanctuary” picks up right where Season 4 left
off, and delivers on Rick’s final line of last season. “They’re screwing
with the wrong people,” indeed. The premiere is 45 minutes of action and
suspense from start to finish, and I can’t imagine any fan of the show being
disappointed. It feels like the biggest episode the show has attempted in terms
of pure spectacle, and writer Gimple and director Greg Nicotero successfully
pull out all the stops. If there are any reservations, it might be that it’s
all too much too soon, and once everyone is reunited, the cast does seem
unwieldy in its size. Still, that’s an easy hurdle to clear for this show.

AMC only released one episode for review, so it’s difficult
to say what overall direction the series will take this season. Based solely on
the premiere, the theme will most likely be “how far is too far?” and
what lengths Rick’s group will go to in order to survive. “You’re either
the butcher or the cattle,” is a repeated line in Season 5’s first
episode. Rick and his group seem tired of being cattle, but how comfortable
will they be in the role of the butcher?

Grade: A-

READ MORE: How ‘The Walking Dead’ Cast Would Kill Zombies and Other Red Carpet Secrets

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