I'm not surprised THE WALKING DEAD is a hit. What surprises me if how much of a hit! An astonishing 17.3 million people watched its AMC premiere, and that figure is predicted to rise to around 22m when repeat airings and catchup is included. The show even gave Fox a ratings boost here in the UK on Monday (helped by the less-than-24-hour later scheduling?), by achieving an overnight audience of 824,100 viewers. So was the fifth season premiere worth all the attention?
"No Sanctuary" was a premiere playing to The Walking Dead's main strengths, so was unquestionably a highly entertaining and satisfying hour of action-orientated drama. Oddly, this show tends to have finales that feel curtailed disappointments, with the subsequent premieres acting as belated catharsis. Last time we saw them, Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and the scattered members of his gang had converged on the promised land of 'Terminus', only to be thrown into shipping containers by the crazy inhabitants of the abandoned railway station, and "No Sanctuary" dealt with their unlikely escape to freedom.
I was surprised we'd spent half a season getting the characters to converge on Terminus, just to have the place obliterated within a few episodes, but at least this means season 5 can focus on the more intriguing prospect of getting Eugene (Josh McDermitt) to Washington D.C in order to cure the zombie outbreak. Or so he says. To be fair, Eugene actually managed to impress his cohorts with big words like "pathogen" here, so maybe he isn't a total fraud? I still have a funny feeling he just enjoys feeling important, and has seen one too many Discovery documentaries.
There are two things this show does well: action and harrowing events. "No Sanctuary" was brimming full of both. I felt genuinely sick during the opening scene where Rick, Daryl (Norman Reedus), Glenn (Steven Yeun), Bob (Lawrence Gilliard Jr) and three 'redshirts' were forced to kneel over a steel trough, to get whacked by a baseball bat and have their throats slit like abattoir cattle. The relentless music enhanced the deep sense of stomach-churning horror most impressively. I wasn't convinced by the hazy reasoning the Terminus folk decided to become cannibals (poorly "explained" in flashbacks), but they were effective boogieman in this premiere—mainly because they were so blasé about their nasty lifestyle.
The action was some of the best The Walking Dead has produced (which usually means the next batch of episodes will be sedate and cost-saving), and I particularly enjoyed seeing Carol (Melissa McBride) turn into a deadly, silent, one-woman army. Armed only with a rifle and a firework rocket, coated in zombie guts to walk amongst the dead, Carol singlehandedly razed Terminus to the ground and gave Rick the perfect distraction to engineer an escape. I remember when Carol was the least interesting character on the show, so the rehabilitation the writers have done with her is remarkable. I only wish she didn't have a relationship with Daryl, which just feels phoney to me.
The subplot with Tyreese (Chad Coleman) encountering a Terminus "ally" called Martin also worked well, with baby Judith under threat once Martin's true colours were revealed and their cabin besieged by walkers. It was a more personal type of tension, but the pay-off was arguably better than Rick's fiery escape as a consequence.
Great to see the show taking some time to do quieter, character-based scenes. There hasn't been a lot of that since the early days (when there was too much of it), so maybe the balance will be better this year. I still find a lot of the characters quite disposable and dull, and the fact the "core group" aren't likely to be killed robs the show of some much-needed danger. It would have been unforgettable if Glenn had been butchered by the Terminus sickos, denied a heroic send-off, having only just been reunited with Maggie (Lauren Cohan)?
Overall, it's hard to find fault with an episode designed this way. It had modest aims, but achieved them well. The action was engrossing, the tension was drum-tight, and there was a satisfying release once the group reunited with Carol in the woods… and Rick finally got to cradle his baby daughter again. Although, if I'm picky, that moment deserved to be bigger. Didn't Rick spend the past half-season believing she'd been eaten by walkers?
(This premiere also delivered a welcome surprise in the post-credits scene of Morgan Jones (Lennie James) following Rick's trail. I dearly hope he's back on the show for an extended period of time this year—because, frankly, The Walking Dead needs a few more actors of his calibre...)
written by Scott M. Gimple • directed by Greg Nicotero • 12 October 2013 • AMC