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Is this the best 'Walking Dead' season ever?

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“HOLY S–––!” How many times have you uttered those words while watching season 5 of The Walking Dead? Most likely, a lot. Now, a good 50% of those profane utterances may have been due to the violence, which has been off the charts (as cast members Andrew Lincoln and Norman Reedus warned me it would be this year), but there’s something else about season 5. It’s not just the gore. Everything on the show seems to be operating on a different level — the characters, the story, the stakes. Put it all together and you have what could be shaping up to be the best Walking Dead season ever. Of course, we’ll have to see how things play out over the next 11 episodes before we can say whether that designation sticks, but so far, so great. Let’s examine what has made this season so strong on all fronts.

Every Episode Counts

We’re now five hours into season 5 of The Walking Dead, meaning roughly one-third of the way through the full haul, and every episode has felt truly vital. That has not always been the case in the past. The show took a big gamble in the back half of season 4 by splitting up the survivors into much smaller groups. Sometimes, as in the case of “The Grove,” it provided spectacularly intense results. Other times — even while giving us some welcome character studies — the episodes lacked a spark. There were some nice performances by the cast, but few watercooler moments that had everyone buzzing the next morning. Contrast that with season 5, in which every installment has had a signature scene (the throat slitting at the trough, the BobBQ feast, the confrontation at the church, Beth’s disturbing lollipop encounter, Abraham’s flashbacks and Eugene’s revelation). There has been no aimless spinning of wheels in season 5, which brings us to…

The Need for Speed

Remember the beginning of season 3? The gang arrived at the prison and the threat of a new human enemy named the Governor loomed large. The setting was cool, the action was intense, the villain was charismatic, and the show enjoyed some of its most off-the-hook action sequences. But even with some fantastic back-half episodes like “Clear” and “This Sorrowful Life,” the momentum faded a bit down the stretch. The Rick vs. Governor battle started strong, but simply overstayed its welcome…which is why many sighed in exasperation when the season ended and the Governor was still standing.

Contrast that with what happened with new charismatic baddie Gareth in season 5. Operating under the new less-is-more philosophy, the show introduced and then killed off Gareth in a span of only four episodes. And of those four episodes, he appeared only briefly in three of them (last season’s finale and the first two episodes of this fall). The only episode in which Gareth got substantial screen time was in episode 3 (“Four Walls and a Roof”). I can’t tell you how many people have said to me how much they loved the character of Gareth. But would they have still loved him after 13 more installments? There’s something to be said for leaving too early as opposed to overstaying your welcome. The show has ramped up its pacing dramatically, recognizing that it is not a bad thing to leave people wanting more. Yes, the storyline involving Gareth and the cannibals was a great one. And I love the urgency the show displayed in dispensing with them so quickly.

Get The Balance Right

Yes, I just quoted from the title of a Depeche Mode song. You want to make something of it? For a show as massively popular as The Walking Dead, it is surprising the amount of grousing from fans that has accompanied it along the way. Often that grousing has to do with complaints about there either being too much or not enough happening. People moaned in the first half of season 2 that the drama was too slow as the survivors searched in vain for Sophia, and then moaned again that there was no time to breathe and allow for character development in the action-packed season 3. Those runs were under the watch of previous showrunners Frank Darabont and Glen Mazzara. Current head honcho Scott M. Gimple (who wrote stellar installments “Clear” and “The Grove”) has made it his mission to strike the perfect balance between action and character development, and this season he has been right on the money. All the stakes in the world don’t matter if you don’t care about the individuals at risk, and Gimple has found a way to deliver character-based installments (such as the past two weeks focusing on Beth and Abraham) while simultaneously speeding up the momentum. That is no small trick, yet Gimple so far has proven to be freakin’ Doug Henning…minus the rainbow jumpsuit.

Rick is Back, Dammit!

The importance of this cannot be overstated. In season 3, Rick went crazy (seeing visions of dead people), and in season 4, Rick went soft (opting for farming and refusing to carry a gun). I suppose these are the types of things that happen when your wife dies. For a while there, the dude was starting to feel like dead weight. But then, in the season 4 finale, badass Rick returned. This is the guy we want to root for. No more moping around or second-guessing his actions. Now he will rip your throat out with his teeth if you cross him. This show works best when the man in charge is actually in charge. To quote a line from Maggie Greene in the comics, “I believe in Rick Grimes,” and this show is strongest when we can say that with full confidence.

Can the show keep this blistering pace up for 16 episodes? We’ll find out. But at this point, with five terrific episodes already under its belt, The Walking Dead has never been stronger.

For more ‘Walking Dead’ scoop, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss.