[This is a review of The Walking Dead season 5, episode 1. There will be SPOILERS.] 

If there’s one thingThe Walking Dead handles well, it’s season premieres. Regardless of which showrunner any given season (or half-season) happens to be under the direction of, the show has made great efforts to open each new season with a splash. And the season 5 premiere, ‘No Sanctuary’ is no different.

What’s surprising about the episode, though, is the way it recalls the specific kind of momentum the series had gained during the season 4 finale, ‘A’. That was the kind of cliffhanger where the central protagonists were being threatened, and yet at the same time, were also issuing a threat. It was an unexpectedly electric moment that seemingly had no hope of maintaining its charge by the time season 5 rolled around. What’s great about ‘No Sanctuary’, then, is how seamlessly it connects with ‘A’, and how it not only maintains the sense of excitement and anxiety that was promised, but delivers an episode that goes well beyond such promises as well.

If nothing else, it certainly wound up raising the bar for the recently announced season 6 premiere in 2015.

Melissa McBride and Chad L. Coleman in The Walking Dead season 5 episode 1 The Walking Dead Season 5 Premiere Review

Watching the premiere, it’s striking how often cliffhangers never seem to be given their proper due. There’s always some kind of story jump or shift back to the status quo that halfheartedly explains how the exciting circumstances the characters left off on were either circumvented or resolved completely off screen. Frankly, it’s the kind of thing that many might’ve expected from The Walking Dead itself. Which is why watching as Rick, Daryl, Tyreese, Carol, and the rest of the core crew deal with the matter at hand – i.e., the butchers at Terminus – without resorting to the kind of hand wringing as seen in past seasons, feels like such a big deal.

For one thing, it’s exciting television. For another, it adheres to the one principle that every television shows should always stick to, yet few bother to do so: Tell your story and move on. Let’s be honest, how many people figured that when The Walking Dead returns, it was going to spend several episodes teasing out the fate of various characters as they languish away, thinking they’re going to be next up at the Terminus abattoir? Instead, the show greeted its audience with an episode that told its story in a compelling fashion and had the gumption to finish it as well.

Now that’s not to say various individuals involved in Terminus won’t rear their human flesh lovin’ heads again somewhere down the line, or the ramifications of the events that unfurled at the so-called sanctuary won’t come up again; they just might. The point is, the episode took its story from start to finish and it’s now ready to move on.

If the overlapping threads had a common theme, it would definitely be one of brutal efficiency. From the butchers in Terminus, to the methodical, calculating, and deadly response of Rick’s group, everything was, in the moment it most needed to be, the model of effectiveness. What’s more, that sentiment carries over to the episode as well. Not since the series premiere (okay, maybe ‘Clear’) has an episode of The Walking Dead had such a well-rounded sense of purpose. But even ‘Clear’ had to go back to the lame-duck storyline that was the Governor.

Andrew Lincoln in The Walking Dead season 5 episode 1 The Walking Dead Season 5 Premiere Review

Here, at the beginning of season 5, there’s no such limitation; there’s only as-yet unmet expectation. Sure, the audience has been burned before by the promise of a new storyline and an exciting season opener, but after an effervescent episode like ‘No Sanctuary’, the natural reaction has to be to want more of this kind of fast-paced, deliberate storytelling.

The question of whether or not that will happen will have to wait, but for now one has to wonder exactly how that theme of brutal efficiency is going to play into future outings. Here, it worked well because Rick and his crew had an established enemy that didn’t require a lot of thought or work to make them a problem deserving of quick, decisive action. The audience never really gets to know them on a personal level, but their story as a group is a familiar one to the show.

The opening and closing sequences, showing Terminus as it was – when a band of thugs took it over to torture and rape those living inside – is as much development as we get in terms of who these people are and why it is they’re doing what they do. It kicks off the phrase “you’re either the butcher or the cattle” that typifies the every-man-for-himself philosophy of the show that likely contributes a great deal to its popularity.

Melissa McBride in The Walking Dead season 5 episode 1 The Walking Dead Season 5 Premiere Review

Here, though, the episode works a little differently. There’s an effort made to demonstrate the villains of Terminus aren’t simply motivated by one thing, but are more than that. And such an understanding, that characters are more than just saviors or killers – even as Glenn pegs Team Rick as the kind of people who would stop to save those in need – winds up working in favor of complicated characters, like Carol, and the conflicted ones, like Tyreese.

Like the Terminians, Carol and Tyreese are given an opportunity to be more than just good or bad; they’re a little more complicated. It’s not by much – and, for the record, neither are the butchers of Terminus – but it’s enough to see them brought back into the fold without lingering questions (by themselves or others) of whether or not they belong there. It also makes Carol’s reunion with Daryl, and Judith’s reunion with Rick and Carl feel earned, rather than a manipulative cap thrown on the end to make audiences feel good.

‘No Sanctuary’ works because of the way it dealt with the story at hand and wasn’t afraid to move past it. But it’s also because the episode was well balanced. There were moments of tension and dread, but there was also joy, humor, and a pay-off to a previous storyline that exceeded expectations. It’s not expected that the series be this well rounded all the time, but if it works so well here, then aiming for something like it is probably worth a shot.

The Walking Dead continues next Sunday with ‘Strangers’ @9pm on AMC. Check out a preview below:

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