Zombies haven’t always terrified me. In the sense that being bitten to death by disgusting, smelly, dead things while having my intestines pulled out through my body cavity, scary… It’s not like a zombie is really that threatening, after all. They shuffle, they move slowly, and they can’t out think you. But I have always considered zombies scary, plural, as in a you’re never safe, no matter how many you kill, how many walls you put up, or how far you run. You’re surrounded at all times by a shifting, shapeless horde of teeth, just waiting to bite and rip. The way they just pop up everywhere, overwhelming everything, and that horrifying sound that they make!!
Now that’s scary.
When I was younger and obsessed with Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, I often thought of the cultural satire that was woven into the story line. How the zombies come back to the mall, get caught on escalators, stuck in fountains. It all had this air of camp. When a zombie tore into another character you cheered, it was about the awesome special effects not the walking corpses. Back before zombies were a cultural phenomenon, when they were still used as symbols for our consumer culture. Back before Robert Kirkman wrote a little comic called The Walking Dead… and LONG before the great Frank Darabont had the guts to turn that book into one of the best shows on television.
There isn’t much room for camp on The Walking Dead, however. Much to its credit, the show chooses to follow human reactions to a zombie apocalypse instead of just staging the zombie apocalypse as a disaster-piece.
Tonight’s season five premier proved to us that this show is a balls-out, neck-biting, suspense-filled, thrill-ride with cannibalistic humanoids and all. It is a show at the top of its game, and running on all cylinders. I was literally on the edge of the couch the entire 40+ minutes.
I’m assuming that no spoiler tag is needed?
Season four ended with small-town-sheriff-turned-Zombie-apocalypse-savior-of-mankind Rick Grimes finally being reunited with the rest of the group from the prison. Yes, it was while trapped in a train car by cannibals parading as sanctuary, but that’s not the REAL point. As we see so well in the season five opener. There’s no sitting around and lamenting, there’s no crying in the corner like the original Terminus-ites do in the flashbacks that bookend the episode. There’s only the loose nail in the floorboard, or the crumbling-but-sharp wood in the walls… Season five starts with our group going all Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, and prepping to fight their way out of the fix they’re in while snipets of dialogue show how they all catch each other up on what’s happened to them since the Governor brought a tank to a sword fight. As the guards come to take them, Rick tells the group to steady themselves.
No truer words were ever spoken.
Too bad the Termites (sounds better, right?) “flip the script,” so Eugene says, and drop a gas grenade in through the ceiling. Cut to the scariest room ever filmed: the slaughterhouse at Terminus. As Rick is dragged through the doors he sees a body on a table being broken down but two men in coveralls, and three big bins marked BURN, FEED, WASH. Through the center of the room there’s a long, shiny metal trough that Rick, Bob, Glen, and Daryl are lined up in front of. This gleaming, obviously polished trough that sits there like a cold, hard truth. This trough is where our survivors’ lives will drain out in a single stroke. Lined up, coincidentally, next to four random red-shirts all Star Trek style, the butchers start on the other end of the trough from Rick. Just as the horror begins, we get a glimpse of the blonde guy on the end, and if it isn’t the hippie kid from last season (played by none other than The Penguin on FOX’s new drama Gotham)! Remember when Rick kicked Carol out of the group and they ran into those kids hiding in the house? We only ever got to see what happened to her. (it looks like things didn’t fare too well for him either). One at a time smack the hog-tied survivors in the back of the head with a baseball bat, then slit their throats, and let them drain into the trough.
You can almost see the steam coming from the blood as it hits the cold metal. It’s a disturbing scene.
Before long, Bob tries to talk an uncaring Garreth, the leader of the Termites, into sparing them. He quickly talks about the Cure and Eugene and starting the world over… But he’s not remembering who he’s talking to. This is a man who has crossed a line in his mind that he can’t come back from. In a show all about skirting the line and coming back from it, we know when Garreth says, “Can’t go back, Bob…” and slides the gag back on, that appeals will not be considered. Soon we learn that this smack-and-slice show is all for Rick’s benefit. To scare him into telling Garreth what was in the big bag they buried in the woods before coming to Terminus.
Rick never breaks his stare. Like a vicious animal that has locked onto its prey, Rick is only thinking one thing: “The sharp piece of train car in my hand isn’t sawing this zip-tie fast enough.” But when Garreth begins to take Bob’s eye out, Rick tells him. “Guns. AK-47, .44 Magnum, automatic weapons, night scope… There’s a compound bow and a machete with a red handle. That’s what I’m going to use to kill you.”
And we know that Rick will get to do just that because Garreth only chuckles at him smugly, like a true hipster-turned-cannibal-leader, Garreth is too detached to feel the fear he should while staring into those eyes. Hell, I feel it, and I know it’s just a tv show. (keep telling yourself, it’s only a tv show, it’s only a tv show)
When gunfire erupts, there is a smile behind Rick’s murderous eyes when he hears it. We already know who and what it is, there’s only one group of survivors outside the gates. It’s Carol, of course, come seeking both her friends and redemption. Like a total boss she deftly maneuvers into the horde of walkers all Old School, covered in zombie Guts. (Season one shout out!) Using the distraction, Rick frees himself and runs through the two butchers like a hot train-car piece through butter, and it’s ON.
I almost didn’t think Carol was going to find the others… The way the episode tracks her progress through discovering what Terminus is for herself the same way the survivors did last episode… But the end of this roller-coaster ride is a deftly constructed emotional climax. I had tears falling pretty freely by the time Daryl sees her for the first time, running and taking her up in his arms… And then when Rick and Carl see Judith… Oh man, just thinking about it gets me a little misty. I applaud the show for keeping Judith alive long after she’d perished in the comic… It was a wise choice, and one that provides ample opportunity for the show going forward.
I don’t know about you, but I’d like to see at LEAST another five seasons, and somewhere in there we need some time-jumps. I still think the ultimate way to end the series is to show a flash-forward of a time in the future where the world looks more like The Last of Us. Where nature has reclaimed the Earth and while the Walkers are still out there, really only in scattered hordes that are easily tracked or diverted. I see a network of communities, thriving, starting the world over, and I see the finale being all about having Judith’s wedding. Where we see Rick, while I’m sure crippled in some way (ahem, hand… kneecap), he frets about things like not knowing how to dance with his daughter with a busted old zombie-killing knee. A whole episode where no one gets their neck ripped out or cut up by cannibals… Where our survivors get to once again taste that normal life… And it will be oh so sweet because of everything we’ve gone through with them.
But I digress… There is literally too much going on in this episode to cover in one post, from Eugene’s disclosure about what sounds like an actual plan (as opposed to the books), to Tyrese’s extremely troubling conversation with a Termite who threatens Baby Judith, to the Terminus flashbacks where we see how a group of people trying to be human chose to be butchers instead of cattle… But most importantly is the stinger at the end, and its troubling implications. Just as the credits roll on one of the best episodes yet, we see a masked stranger walking the tracks our group just finally left toward the NO Sanctuary sign Rick left behind… The camera tightens in and the mask comes off, and as our brains quickly think back, “No, Shane’s twice dead, Dale is too, Hershel’s decapitated, Amy’s shot, Andrea’s gone, Lori’s dead, and now Nelson Van Alden and Chalky White?!!” (oh crap, wrong recap, sorry…)
But no, it’s a very mean-looking Morgan. The man from the beginning of the show, who Rick promised to radio every day and come back to find… Who we last saw shit-house-rat crazy and blaming Rick for his son’s death. While he seemed to have gotten over it and accepted his part, the look on Morgan’s face and the strange tree-carving Hobo-code symbols he’s following through the woods…? What are they? Who carved them there? They look fresh… And they don’t seem to be the markers Daryl left where they buried the big bag o’ guns… I’m curious, and while the episode’s plot and Morgan’s appearance seem a bit contrived, I remember that this is a juicy zombie show, and I should let certain plot devices just lay as they are.
Can I say, that I was VERY happy to see Walkers playing such a pivotal part in tonight’s episode? It seemed at times that they were just window dressing last season, only popping up at the right time to chomp. That explosion was KILLER.
The Walking Dead is back. Steady yourself. It think it’s going to get worse before it gets… Well, even worse.