The Walking Dead Premiere: Fight Fire With Fire
Fans who have complained about The Walking Dead's slow pacing were forced to eat a lot of crow last night. After a relatively glacial fourth season, most of which was spent looking for the "sanctuary" Terminus, the fifth season premiere wrapped up the cliffhanger in about two seconds, included even more gore than usual (if that's possible), and quite literally went out with a bang.
I didn't hate the fourth season. I thought some of it worked, while some of it didn't. The standalone episode with Daryl and Beth was the high point for me, while the episode that focused on Rick and Carl, the two most annoying and least interesting characters on the show, was the nadir. I think the show can and does excel when it slows down, and I'm one of those weirdos who absolutely loved the ethical debates of the second season (maybe the only weirdo?).
That being said, I can see why many are hailing this episode as the best Walking Dead premiere to date. The first five minutes, in which the Terminus cannibals (yes, as we all suspected, they are definitely cannibals), line their victims up by a trough, crack their skulls with a baseball bat, and slit their throats so all the blood can come pouring out into the tub. It was brutal, even by this show's standards. (The actors weren't told what was going to happen, similar to the infamous chestburster scene in Alien, and it shows in their reactions.) It was also poignant, especially since the first victim was Sam, the adorable hippie from the fourth season, played by Gotham's Robin Lord Taylor. In true Walking Dead fashion, the scene managed to be satisfying for gore-porn fans while also driving home one of the major themes of the show. In Shane's words, "You can't just be the good guy and expect to live. Not anymore."
The conflict between surviving in a harsh, violent world and holding on to one's humanity has been the central theme of the show; while the walkers are ostensibly the antagonists, the show is at its most interesting and complex when it explores the ways in which the survivors are becoming closer to the walkers themselves. This theme is illustrated in this episode by many different characters, but none so explicitly as the Termites, who literally eat human flesh. But the episode actually succeeds in getting us to sympathize with them a little, as they were attempting to provide a sanctuary when they were taken over, raped, pillaged, and murdered. Now, they've decided that they're the butchers rather than the cattle. Witnessing the horror they went through made them understandable, if not justified.
Although their methods for protecting themselves leave something to be desired, they are somewhat relatable, especially since other characters made exactly the same decision, for very similar reasons. The Termites, Tyreese, and Rick all find cruelty and brutality within themselves in the face of viscerally harrowing things happening to innocents. Tyreese was experiencing "erectile dysfunction for killing," as my friend called it, until a Termite threatened to snap baby Judith's neck as she cried. Rick tried his best to hold onto his humanity, becoming a pacifist farmer, refusing to even partake in killing walkers. But then, very similar to the Termites, he became a sadistic, flesh-eating kill machine when men tried to rape his son. While the throat-slitting scene was upsetting, one could argue that Rick biting a man's throat out was equally so. Interestingly, in all three cases, their ability to empathize with tortured innocents counterintuitively pushed them closer to being monsters.
It's especially disconcerting to see this change in Rick, who was once the moral foil to Shane, horrified that Shane could even suggest wantonly killing people or accepting a "survival of the fittest" kind of world. If Shane were alive today, Rick might actually agree with him (except for the whole trying to rape Lori thing).
The other character who's gone through a similar character arc is, of course, Carol, whom many are praising as the "hero" of last night's episode, and maybe the show as a whole. Although I think Carol is a well-written, fascinating character, especially considering that she's a middle-aged woman, I disagree with the notion that she's becoming the model for how to handle an apocalypse. Many are comparing her ruthless practicality with other survivors' (read: Rick's) annoying hemming and hawing, their inability to just accept the state of the world and do what needs to be done.
And I'm almost on board with that interpretation of the character, but I'm not, because to me, that model needs to be devoid of cruelty. Their violence needs to be purely necessary, without pleasure or revelry. I agree that Rick is annoying, and that the survivors need to at least have the ability to commit violence if they expect to be able to protect innocents, but the model for necessary violence isn't Carol, it's Daryl. Daryl doesn't commit gratuitous violence, but he also doesn't put himself on such a high pedestal that he can't get his hands dirty in order to do what's necessary. That, in my opinion, is a huge part of the reason he's a fan favorite. He's kind without being pretentious, he's violent without ever resorting to cruelty. The contrast between Carol and Daryl is illustrated in this episode when Carol sets walkers on Mary. I'm not mourning Mary, but killing her in that manner was completely unnecessary. You know Daryl would have just shot her in the head like a decent person.
Judith was almost murdered yet again, being a baby in the zombie apocalypse must just be the worst. In all seriousness, after what happened to the character in the comics, I can't help but feel that the character's days are numbered, although I hope I'm wrong. If she's gone, who will Rick and Carl ignore?
The body on the slab was apparently Gareth's brother, whom Rick killed at the end of Season 4. At least they're not hypocrites.
The survivors will presumably resume their trek to Washington D.C., where Eugene will attempt to use a weaponized virus to kill all the zombies in the world. What could possibly go wrong? (Also, it doesn't sound like that will solve the "we're all infected" problem, does it? Have we decided to retcon that?)