After the (rather too) long and winding road to Terminus, “The Walking Dead” opens its fifth season in spectacular fashion, a dazzling adrenaline rush filled with suspense, righteous violence and, before it’s all over, genuine emotion. Imbued with cinematic touches, the only downside to this breathtaking episode is pondering what the creative brain trust can do for an encore. Still, AMC’s megahit finds itself in a very good place, from the current makeup of its ever-evolving cast to the latitude it has earned to take unexpected detours. Given the hype surrounding the series, it’s still impressive to see the producers deliver such a feast.
Lest anyone has forgotten, our intrepid band of zombie apocalypse survivors found themselves scattered far and wide for much of last season, gradually following the signs, in smallish groups, to the promise of sanctuary in a place called Terminus. That hope, however, gave way to something more sordid upon their arrival, as the inhabitants of Terminus locked them up, with the survivors’ leader, Rick (Andrew Lincoln), vowing escape.
How that plays out, however — in an episode written by showrunner Scott M. Gimple (the program’s third in five seasons) and directed by former special-effects mastermind Greg Nicotero — is so ingenious, and operates on so many tracks simultaneously, as to make the initial hour (OK, 43 minutes sans commercials) fly by. At the same time, the episode fosters a real sense of jeopardy even for those characters who, presumably, aren’t quite so apt to meet an untimely end.
Included in the proceedings, as always, is a rumination on the spiritual price one is willing to pay to cling to life in the most extreme of circumstances. That has always been the underlying double meaning in the show’s title, which applies every bit as much to the humans struggling to survive as to the slow-moving monsters whose heads explode so artfully.
As a consequence, the violence — and there’s a lot of it — has a clear sense of purpose that often eludes other series in the premium or near-premium genre. It’s also an impediment to those who can’t see past the ambulatory corpses, one reason “Dead” has never gotten its awards due.
While that’s unlikely to change this far into the run, the fifth-season premiere is a virtual primer on the best the show has to offer, and how producers have augmented the core cast — Melissa McBride is particularly good here — with more recent arrivals like Danai Gurira, Chad L. Coleman and Michael Cudlitz.
Not that anyone should grow too attached to any of them. But after a season in which “The Walking Dead” at times seemed to meander, it’s bracing to see a series that has weathered offscreen changes, and all but redefined expectations for cable viewership (as reflected in its soaring ad rates), continue to take creative chances — proving it can still leap ahead not just by shuffling along, but at breakneck speed.