Butchers and Cattle: A Review of The Walking Dead Season Premiere – Season 5, Episode 1 “No Sanctuary”

Posted: October 13, 2014 in Reviews, The Walking Dead, TV
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Episode: 501
Airdate: October 12, 2014
Directed by: Greg Nicotero
Showrunner: Scott M. Gimple
Written by: Scott M. Gimple (episode); Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, Tony Moore (graphic novels)

While last season opened with something of a whimper, full of foreshadowing and suggestion, tonight’s Season 5 premiere was all about the bang. From beginning to end, it was a non-stop adrenaline rush, as the action never seemed to let up. And the episode ended with a very big reveal, and one that gives a hint as to where things will be heading. Season 4 was perhaps the most consistently solid season of The Walking Dead so far, so Season 5 has some big shoes to fill; if tonight was any indication, they’re starting off on the right foot – it should be a fun ride. Click through after the break to read my full review.

<<Spoiler Alert: The following review will discuss at length plot points of The Walking Dead S05E01, “No Sanctuary” – read more at your own risk.>>

The opening of the episode, which incidentally was released by AMC today in a four-minute clip, begins with a brief flashback. Gareth is talking to a man, both of them sitting inside a box car. The man asks Gareth what they’ve become, and Gareth seems unable to answer the question without a great deal of inner turmoil. Flash to the present, and Rick and the gang are fashioning weapons out of anything they can get their hands on: wood broken off from the interior of the boxcar, belt buckles shaved down and sharpened, earrings straightened out into wicked claws. They get ready as a group of Termites approach – only to have their plan foiled by a smoke grenade dropped in through the top hatch.

Rick, Daryl, Glenn, and Bob are taken, bound and gagged, to an abattoir, where we see two men working on a body, pouring bleach on some spilled blood. The two butchers go through their paces: approach a man from behind, butcher number one whacks him in the head with an aluminum baseball bat, butcher number two pulls him back, slices his throat, and drops him over the edge of a metal trough. Glenn is the fifth, and just as the butcher winds up for the smack, Gareth interrupts the routine.

This scene is banal in its efficiency. These are just two guys doing a job, a job they have obviously done many times before. They show absolutely no emotion, and only the barest modicum of interest in what they’re doing – and this is the perfect way to play this scene. On Talking Dead following the airing of the episode, showrunner and episode scriptwriter Scott Gimple admitted that his notation to this scene was, “Time to cook the donuts.” Exactly. These are just a couple of Joe’s doing their job. Truly the kind of bureaucratic evil-by-committee that enables normal people to commit heinous acts is on display here, and it becomes a theme throughout the episode.

While things are happening to Rick, there is a parallel storyline that follows Carol, Tyreese, and baby Judith back out in the wilds. They’re getting close to Terminus, and Carol is intending to leave Tyreese and Judith there – she wants to make sure they’re safe, and then move on herself. We see that Tyreese is having problems – he can’t even bring himself to brain a zombie, handing off the task to Carol – and she tells him he’ll have to find a way to do it again, despite his misgivings.

A horde is coming toward them, when they are distracted – they hear automatic gunfire off in the distance. This is clearly the gunfight we saw at the end of last season, when Rick, Daryl, Michonne and Carl were herded into the boxcar. Carol and Tyreese decide to take an alternate route toward Terminus, hoping to scout out the place before arriving.

We cut to a scene of one of the Termites. He’s setting up a firework – apparently, when they’ve had gunfire, they use fireworks to draw any curious walkers away from the compound. He’s talking on a two-way, saying, “I knew the chick with the sword was bad news. I told Albert I want the kid’s hat after they bleed him out.” Suddenly, a gun appears at his temple – it’s Carol, and she’s pissed. “We’re friends with the chick with the swords and the kid in the hat,” she tells him. This sets into motion the most kick-ass sequence of events enacted by a woman on-screen since Ripley tore the alien queen a new one in Aliens.

Singlehandedly, Carol manages to take down the entire well-oiled machinery of Terminus. She scouts things out, snipes a propane tank, blows a hole in the fence, and then takes out defenders with her sharpshooting skills. All this while completely weighed down with several pounds of foul-smelling gore – the better to walk among the walkers, don’t you know. Her actions cause enough disturbance in the abattoir, that Rick is able to use a makeshift wooden knife he’s fashioned to cut through his zip-tie, and then to shiv both of the butchers. The men free, they look for a way to join the fight.

The action is intense throughout the episode. Carol is simply awesome, completely owning the episode, while Daryl, Glen and Bob play second-fiddles to Rick’s own brand of bad-assery. His best scene is when he watches a group of Termites pass, all carrying automatic weapons and unloading on invading walkers. He creeps up behind the last one, takes him out, and then mows down the rest in one sustained burst of fire.

Thematically, one of the most important scenes takes place in the memorial room, the room with names painted on the floors, and candles everywhere, that we saw back in last season’s finale. Carol is walking through the room, when a voice tells her to drop her weapons. It’s Mary, the woman who barbecues the meat. She’s angry – after all, Carol is taking down their well-planned community in a matter of moments. Carol isn’t easily suckered, and after a brief struggle, gets the drop on the cannibal matron. Mary tells her that they used to be good people, that they tried to help, but that bad men came. They raped the women, murdered some of them, took over the enclave; it was only by hardening themselves and fighting back that they were able to take Terminus for themselves once again. The implication is this: the things that happen to you shape you.

Yes, this seems obvious and trite on the surface, but consider the journey Rick and the gang have made over the past four plus seasons. None of the original survivors are the same people they were back when everything began, and each of them have done, in the words of Rutger Hauer’s Roy Baty in Blade Runner, “questionable things.” Besides the eating of human flesh, how much different are some of Rick’s actions from Gareth’s? Remember how he absolutely destroyed the would-be child rapist from the gang Daryl was running with last season? How about the inability to control himself when fighting Tyreese? And for the others – Michonne told Carl last season how she got her two zombie companions, payback for how her boyfriend and his buddy screwed up looking after her son Andre; Carl himself, pulling the trigger on that young boy from Woodbury who was surrendering to him; Carol, burning two living people, albeit to try to protect the rest from a deadly disease; even Tyreese, who in this episode hits the captive Termite hard enough to break the man’s neck (no, we don’t see this happen, but just look at the power in those punches). No one is innocent, except perhaps Judith. They’ve all been shaped, all done things they regret; but here is the difference: Carol denies the darker side of her soul. She decides to live for something worth living for – her friendships, her love for those she now thinks of as family.

This becomes clear when Mary tries to find common ground, a simpatico between them. Carol realizes there’s nothing there, and tells Mary: “You’re not here. Neither am I.” She opens the door to the walkers, ushering them in to make a light snack of Mary. It’s karmic in its simplicity, and shows where, morally, Carol has come down. She’ll do what she has to, but without malice – but don’t dare harm someone she loves.

Terminus in flames, Gareth likely injured but still alive, and most of the Termites either dead or fled, Rick and the group go to retrieve their stash of weapons and supplies. Carol finds them there, and leads them to Tyreese and Judith. The reunion between Carol and Daryl is especially touching, and watching Daryl off behind Rick as he also gives Carol a huge hug, his mouth quivering and barely holding tears back, was a wonderful moment of quiet humanity amid all of the carnage of tonight’s episode. Rick and Carl’s reunion with Judith was muted by comparison, but a rare moment of joy for the two of them, nonetheless. The end of the main part of the episode has Rick using mud to cover most of the words on one of the Terminus signs, and adding a word at the top so that it now says, “No Sanctuary.”

We get two stingers tonight. The first is another flashback. Mary has just been raped by some of the bad men who came to Terminus, and is thrown back into the boxcar where Gareth and his brother Alex are waiting. The thug orders another woman to be taken, and she shouts, “Not again!” as she’s dragged away. Gareth holds his mother, rocking and repeating, “It’s okay” over and over again. The thug leans down toward him, and says, “No, it isn’t,” striking him across the face with his flashlight.

This becomes a key moment in the formation of the Gareth we know. He tells Mary and Alex that they’ll get out of this, somehow. When Alex asks how, he replies, “There are butchers, and there are cattle.” This serves as a counterpoint to Rick and the other survivors’ position at the beginning of the episode. Both groups faced similar situations, and both came out victorious at the other end – only with completely different outcomes. While Gareth and company turned to paranoid isolation and cannibalism, literally consuming everyone who came their way, Rick and the group learned to become more inclusive as they faced the same threats (and perhaps even greater ones, what with the whole cannibal thing). After all, take a look at the group and their actions tonight. Rick has obviously come to terms with the addition of four new people, taken on the word of others – and one of them, Tara, was with the Governor last time Rick saw her (I’m not 100% certain he realizes who she is yet, but he isn’t stupid, and likely recognizes her). In addition, Carol, whom he dumped from the group back in episode 404 last season, is now right back in, no questions asked. He does give Tyreese a look when they meet up, and gets visual confirmation that Tyreese knows about Karen, and has come to terms with the knowledge. Rick’s group is a far nobler one than Gareth’s – they’ve passed every test they’ve had to face, and not sold themselves or their morals out.

The second stinger sees a lone man approaching Rick’s altered sign. He removes his hood and facemask, to reveal Morgan. Yes, Morgan from the original pilot episode, who also appeared in one episode in Season 3. He’s a fan favorite, and it looks like he’s following signs that Rick and the other survivors are leaving along their route. He also looks very put-together. The last time we saw him, he was going through considerable mental anguish at the loss of his son, and wasn’t even close to being right in the head. Here, he looks both determined and sane. He’ll be a welcome addition back into the fold. He’s also a poster-child for how things that happen to you can change you, make you grow. The fact that he seems to have worked through his issues makes him symbolic of the struggle the group is facing. It should be interesting to see how his appearance affects the group’s chemistry.

Overall, I loved this episode. It was an exciting, adrenaline pumping action ride that lasted through the full 42 minutes. The double stingers at the end served to show how our group is different (and thus worth cheering for), and set up interesting storylines for the near future. Hard-as-nails Rick has fully replaced Farmer Rick, and Carol is officially my co-favorite character now along with Daryl. No real missed notes at all tonight – top-notch special effects, some excellent zombie work (especially the one that gets its head smushed against a wall – well done), and the gore factor was turned up to eleven. Nothing quite like watching four men getting their throats cut over a blood trough. Definitely stomach churning for the squeamish.

I doubt that Gimple can (or indeed, would want to) maintain the pace set tonight – and that’s a good thing. While it looks like the group will be on the move for the near future, likely on Eugene and Abraham’s mission to get to DC, it means that there will be less chance of narrative stagnation, such as was seen in Season 2’s long stay at the Greene farm, or Season 3’s likewise long stay at the prison. The series is at its best when things are moving, both with regard to the storyline and to the physical movement of the characters. And there’s still the question of whatever happened to Beth? You can bet that this will be a prime motivator over the first several episodes, as Maggie will definitely be lobbying for this as a major priority before they get heading too far north. I am looking forward to seeing what they do.

Cool Moments:

  • The first man that is killed in the abattoir made an appearance last season – he was the strung-out boyfriend Carol and Rick met in Episode 404, but who went missing after they sent him to look for supplies. He is played by Robin Lord Taylor – better known these days as Oswald Cobblepot (The Penguin) from Gotham
  • It turns out that Terminus was, at least partly, a family affair. According to Scott Gimple, not only is Mary Gareth’s mother, but Alex, shot accidentally by a Termite last season while Rick held him hostage, was his brother. In a moment of utter creepiness, it’s Alex’s body that we see being butchered when Rick and the others are first dragged into the abattoir
  • No, that wasn’t Negan you saw – in the final flashback we  have from the pre-cannibal Terminus days, we see a thug talking briefly to Gareth. His physique, his laugh, and his slicked back hair all served to make me believe initially that this might be an early view of Negan, a character from the comics that Gimple has promised will be in the show’s future. This was undermined, however, when Gimple pointed out during Talking Dead that the thug we saw in the flashback, was the tattooed prisoner Glen releases earlier in the episode – only to be promptly turned into walker-chow. So much for that theory!

Steve’s Grade: A
A far superior premiere to last year’s, with as much action as last season’s mid-season finale, even without the Governor’s pet tank there to take out guard towers. Carol has officially achieved Major Ass-Kicker status. Important themes underscored what could have been nothing more than a brainless action-fest, and the stinger served to foreshadow interesting developments to come.

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  1. dave says:

    Great review, thanks! I was worried this whole season was going to be spent on Terminus. The thought of episodes filled with long periods of dreary dialogue in the boxcar was not appealing. Glad they wrapped that up and did it well.

  2. Aleks says:

    1/2 of 2014 have passed. TWD strike again with good episode. Intence. Intresting. Scary moments in butchery in start of episode. Again will follow and read this blog.

  3. Aleks says:

    So Carol redeemed against Rick and other.We saw Daryl naked his feelings about Carol. So its all about Carol. If Carol was ”wasted” as a person in previous season – now we see that she is one of the main characters. That was beauty moment with gas tank witch she blown .Nicee. ”Carol Commando”. But that moment at the butcery i cant watch it with those moments when cut throats. I thought we’ve seen a lot in TWD. It was really scary and disgusting. Which was unliked when the line of cut throats came to our heroes was interrupted by dialogs and other things (as in any movie)

    • It did seem a little too convenient, but that was Gimple (who also wrote the episode) playing with our emotions. In the comicbooks, there are certain things about baseball bats which the readers know, and which would get a strong reaction out of them. The throat slicing was very graphic, and was definitely challenging to watch – I did appreciate, however, the way that the two butcher characters approached it as a matter-of-fact job to be done, rather than telling the prisoners what they were going to do. Greg Nicotero (the special effects lead, as well as the director of this episode) explained that they did the scene by having fake-blood filled tubes across the actors throats, which were then edited out in post-production. Do you get Talking Dead where you live?

      • Aleks says:

        pls tell which episode of Talking dead need o watch about this explanation of FX?

      • It was the episode that played this Sunday night – it’s S04E01 “No Sanctuary” – Talking Dead began with the second season of The Walking Dead, so the numbers are always the same, minus one for the season.

  4. […] Butchers and Cattle: A Review of The Walking Dead Season Premiere – Season 5, Episode 1 &#8220… […]

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