The Walking Dead: 501 ‘No Sanctuary’ Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
It’s been a long seven months, but finally the ratings smash that is The Walking Dead is back on our screens for a fifth season. We last saw our heroes reunited in a dark train car in the so-called sanctuary of Terminus (where the residents might be cannibals) – and with expectations sky-high as the zombie drama returns, does it deliver a satisfying resolution to the cliffhanger we were left on back in March?
Thankfully, No Sanctuary was a resounding success – 45 minutes of gripping, tense and gory action to kick off the new season with a bang (quite literally, thanks to Carol). Opening with a brutal and heart-in-mouth tense sequence as the Termites slaughtered their trapped prey like pigs, the opener was unusually straight to the point for a series that often meandered on the route to the ‘sanctuary’ – and surprisingly for The Walking Dead, action-packed. Right from the outset, there was a thick layer of tension throughout the events of the episode – barely anyone in the now rather large cast is safe, so to see the entire main cast make it out of Terminus alive was something of a relief; a testament to the solid character work laid in the second half of last season. There’ll doubtless be a culling of the cast later on, but after the splintered bottle episodes (strong as they were for character development), it feels satisfying to see the whole, extended, gang back together.
No Sanctuary worked as a showcase for a good portion of the main cast (around half the main cast were somewhat shortchanged, but that’s to be expected from a show now juggling 14 regulars) – and none more than Carol, as she embarked on a one-woman mission to free Rick and co from Boxcar A. Carol is often held up as a prime example of the excellent character development the show can pull off – starting off in season one as a timid post-apocalyptic housewife doing the laundry, Carol has seamlessly developed into a brutal killing machine who can blow up half of Terminus with an improvised rocker launcher (the propane tank explosion was a prime example of the terrific effects work on the episode). The scene where she left cannibalistic BBQ chef Mary to the walkers showed just how brutal Carol has become in the apocalypse; and the theme of brutality resonated heavily throughout the episode.
As Gareth, the lead Termite stated in the opening flashback – ‘you’re either the butcher, or the cattle’. It was a smart move for the writers to focus on that theme (even if it it’s a little bread-and-butter for apocalypse fiction) – after his slightly bloody encounter with Joe last season, Rick was certainly in full warrior mode this episode, slaughtering Termites left and right and even urging the group to go back and finish off the residents of Gareth’s fallen ‘sanctuary’ (a decision that Rick may just regret not taking later). Rick is arguably far more interesting as a man comfortable with his inner brutality – last season’s arc of Rick slowly moving out of his pacifistic ways never felt quite organic considering Rick’s behaviour in previous seasons, and with Glenn seemingly playing the role of peacemaker that Rick was keen to play last season, it’ll be very intriguing indeed to see where the hardened ex-sheriff will find himself this season.
It wasn’t all just gunfights and explosions in No Sanctuary – we also received a small peek into the origins of the cannibalistic Termites. The short bookend scenes were a little meagre, but the backstory was intriguing enough to lend the Termites at least a little bit of depth – linking into the main theme of the episode nicely. Gareth, who was afforded relatively little screentime this episode, is an intriguing and satisfyingly different villain to the Governor – smarmy and cynical, Gareth is a solid original addition to the series. It’s unlikely Gareth is dead (certain shots of the trailer featuring Gareth haven’t seen yet) – and if he is still alive, I’m very much looking forward to delving a little bit deeper into his motives.
No Sanctuary wasn’t quite perfect – the scenes with Tyreese and a Terminus goon were a decent breather from the brutal action at Terminus, but were significantly less interesting than the episode’s A-plot (pun unintended), as well as perhaps ladling the ‘butcher/cattle’ theme on a little too thick. Tyreese also got his moment to shine with yet another off-screen melee beatdown of walkers (how does he do it?) – there’s still some untapped potential in his character, so hopefully he’ll be able to shine a little more this season. No Sanctuary had a lot to cover, so it’s no surprise that some of the cast got short shrift – but after seven months, it felt a little disappointing to have just a handful of lines between key characters such as Michonne, Carl and Maggie (Eugene’s story continues to intrigue however, and it’s pleasing to see The Walking Dead do a little world-building, even if the notion of an anti-zombie virus seems a little ridiculous). Hopefully in episodes to come, we’ll see a little more of an even spread of character focus.
After all the brutal murder and explosions, No Sanctuary concluded on a couple of well-earned emotional moments, as the group reunited with Carol and Rick discovered that Judith had somehow survived the prison battle and the road to Terminus. The Walking Dead has often nailed some of the more emotional moments in between the zombie killing, and the two scenes served as a sweet coda to the very much not sweet events of the premiere. For this brief period before things go very wrong indeed in episodes to come, the group are together – and happy – once more. And if No Sanctuary is any indication, then the fifth season shows no signs of franchise fatigue, as the ratings smash continues its upward curve.
Overall, No Sanctuary is a strong, gripping opener to season five – with heaps of thrillingly directed action, satisfying character moments and some definitive answers to the questions dangled at the end of season four (with plenty left to discover), the road to Washington DC promises to be a very exciting ride.
Scene of the Episode – Morgan Returns. I’m not sure anyone expected a post-credits scene – least of all one showing the return of fan favourite character Morgan from the pilot and season three episode Clear. It’s not clear yet where Morgan’s story is leading, but it looks like Rick’s old friend is back on his trail.