Spoiler Warning: Do not read on unless you’ve seen “The Walking Dead” season five premiere, titled “No Sanctuary.”
“The Walking Dead” has certainly had its share of intense episode openings over its four year run, but it’s hard to remember any installment since the series premiere that has delivered such a nail-biting cold open as the season five debut. We begin with a flashback to the inhabitants of Terminus some time prior, finding them in a position very similar to that in which we left Rick and the other survivors, trapped and weaponless as unspeakable horrors are inflicted just outside their makeshift cell. As a captive laments that they never should’ve put up the signs inviting people to the safe haven of Terminus, we get our first sense that there’s more to these apparent villains than meets the eye — a motivation behind their mistrust.
Our sympathies are shortlived, however, because as soon as we jump back to “Now” and our resourceful survivors, who are smokebombed and dragged from the train car despite their best efforts to stage a coup with makeshift weapons, we realize just what the welcome wagon intends to do with their new guests: slit their throats and carve them up to feed the residents of Terminus. The Governor might have been a despotic socipath, but at least he still recognized the line between humans and walkers, and by killing and eating their own kind, the Terminans have become worse than the undead. Zombies may devour the living out of sheer, mindless instinct, but calculatedly luring weary travelers into a so-called sanctuary only to capture and murder them is indicative of a whole different breed of monster.
It’s chilling to see regular humans lining up their captives and unflinchingly slugging them with a baseball bat before bleeding them dry, especially ringleader Gareth, who cheerfully takes inventory while his henchmen do the dirty work. Thank goodness for the three hapless redshirts who are in line before Glenn (along with season four’s long-suffering Sam — aka “Gotham’s” Robin Lord Taylor), offering a gruesome taste of the seemingly unavoidable death that’s coming his way. Episode writer (and showrunner) Scott Gimple and director Greg Nicotero seem to gleefully enjoy toying with the audience’s expectations during the tense slaughterhouse scene, dangling certain death in front of Glenn multiple times before offering a last-second reprieve, ratcheting the tension up with every passing moment.
Despite Bob’s best efforts to reason with Gareth, his pleas fall on deaf ears, and it’s only Carol’s canny intervention that allows Rick, Glenn, Bob and Daryl to survive, her explosive distraction allowing them to overpower their guards and break free. Rick is in full take-no-prisoners mode as they make their way through the compound to rescue their allies, wanting every single one of the Terminans to die for what they’ve done.
The reason for Carol, Tyreese and Judith’s absence from the season four finale soon becomes clear as Carol launches a one-woman rescue mission against Terminus, blowing a hole in the gate to allow a herd of walkers to overpower the residents. She sneaks in amongst them by using the old zombie-entrails-as-camouflage trick (a grisly Halloween costume idea if ever there was one), infiltrating the compound and finding Rick’s watch and Daryl’s crossbow along with a terrifying number of personal effects, giving some hint as to the staggering amount of people the Terminans have killed — including children, if the teddy bears and stuffed toys are any indication.
While Carol is getting her John McClane on inside Terminus, Tyreese is literally left holding the baby (a refreshing reversal of gender roles — which is a welcome addition in an episode that relies on the overused TV trope of employing the rape of multiple women to build a sense of horror and motivation for male vengeance). Tyreese is still skittish about killing after the horror of what transpired with Lizzie and Mika in “The Grove” last season, but that resolve is sorely tested when he and Carol capture Martin, another Terminus inhabitant who has no qualms about threatening Judith’s life if it might save his own.
The scene between Martin and Tyreese provides an eloquent illustration of the lengths people will go to in order to survive, and the Terminan tells Tyreese that he no longer has friends, just “assholes I stay alive with.” He notes that he used to be a regular guy who watched football and went to church on Sundays, but he can barely remember that life anymore and has become used to the cruel new world order. Tyreese says he hasn’t got used to it yet, and Martin notes that it’s because he’s a “good guy” who saves babies — which is why he’ll end up dead. Given that the producers have described this season as an opportunity for the characters to be faced with the question “who do I become?” in the wake of everything they’ve been through, will Tyreese be able to remain a “good guy” in such a bleak world?
Martin notes that Tyreese hasn’t yet had to get his hands dirty, but desperate times call for desperate measures, and Tyreese later tells Carol that he “had to” kill the other man, pushed to abandon his principles through a need to protect Judith. This mirrors the plight of the Terminans in the episode’s “Then” flashbacks — they created Terminus with the best intentions, because they were “trying to do something good” and be regular human beings, but their good faith was rewarded with cruelty, and it forced them to become the butchers instead of the cattle. Will the same happen to our survivors? That question will be the season’s central theme.
Thanks to Carol, the group makes it out of Terminus with no casualties, and the others overrule Rick’s desire to go back along the fences and kill the rest of their captors. Glenn proves to be the chief voice of reason in the hour, since he also insists that they take the time to free the captives in the other train cars along with their own allies because “that’s who we are — it’s got to be.” His position as the group’s moral compass makes Glenn one of the most important members of the gang, and thus probably one of the most enticing characters for the writers to kill off, given that his death would certainly propel Rick, Maggie and many other group members in some dark directions. (Should we launch the #SaveGlenn campaign now?)
The episode’s most poignant moments are provided when the group is made whole again — first, in Daryl and Carol’s heartwarming reunion (and Rick’s subsequent acceptance of Carol back into the fold), and after, when Tyreese reunites Rick and Carl with Judith, before finally seeing sister Sasha again. As Chad Coleman told Variety at the season five premiere event, “That’s one of the few lighter moments you will experience. That was awesome, to be able to deliver Judith back to her father — there’s the tearjerker, it was amazing. But nothing comes easy on this show — he’s going to get turned inside out even more; his ideology; the things he’s fighting to hold on to; the way he thinks he needs to live is challenged tenfold. The level of violence and destruction is just ramped up even more.” (Uh oh.)
And while the group is now back together — and Abraham, Eugene and Rosita are still eager to get to Washington, D.C. — they look set to face a tough road ahead, especially since we didn’t see Gareth among the Terminus members killed during the breakout. Besides Gareth’s status, the episode left us with two other questions: where is Beth, and will Morgan finally catch up with the group after making a long-awaited return in the episode’s final moments? (And, given Morgan’s shaky mental state when we last encountered him, do we want him to catch up?)
“The Walking Dead” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on AMC.
Where do you think Beth is, and do you believe Gareth survived the attack on Terminus? Share your reactions and speculation in the comments.