During its grim run this summer, The Leftovers took heat for its relentless bleakness. And sure, it was an emotionally wearying portrait of societal and personal dysfunction mixed with a fair amount of dog-killing, but did it ever have a guy threatening to break an adorable baby’s neck? Or, say, a zombie in flames eating a guy’s face? Or have an episode where off-screen rape counts as one of the less disturbing scenes? Nope. Welcome to season 5 of The Walking Dead, which would never be confused for Rick and Company’s Good-Time Shenanigans.
Even for a series that traffics in darkness, “No Sanctuary” is a bold restatement of purpose by writer/showrunner Scott H. Gimple and director/executive producer Greg Nicotero. This show has had some intense season premieres, but none has rivaled the nearly eight and a half-minute pre-credits sequence of “No Sanctuary,” which finds Rick, Glenn, Daryl, and Bob on their knees in front of a trough whose purpose is to catch the blood from their soon-to-be-slit throats. The Walking Dead hinges on close calls, and this may have been the closest one yet—especially for Glenn.
But let’s back up. When we last saw the group, it had been glumly reunited (minus Tyreese and Carol) in a boxcar at Terminus after Rick quickly figured out the Terminans were not saviors, but predators. What, exactly, they were wasn’t made explicit in the season 4 finale, but it couldn’t have been more explicit here: The inhabitants of Terminus lure people there under the guise of sanctuary, then eat them. It’s B-movie trope that, on paper, would fit in the Troma canon—maybe around 1989’s Chopper Chicks in Zombietown—but on screen, it feels like a logical extension of the Walking Dead world, where nothing goes too far in the name of (relative) safety.
And no B-movie would try to make the cannibals’ motives understandable. When “No Sanctuary” opens, we see a group in a boxcar—presumably, the same boxcar holding Rick and company at the end of last season’s “A.” Teased here and explained later, the Terminans were once in the same position as Rick’s group. But they made an unlikely escape (like Rick’s group) and decided to protect themselves at all costs. And is Rick “They’re screwin’ with the wrong people” Grimes—the guy who wants to go back and kill everyone after his group escapes—all that different from Gareth or his fellow cannibals? His humanity reaches its nadir the moment he says, “They don’t get to live.”
That’s what this episode is about, really. Okay, all of The Walking Dead concerns is about how we maintain our civility after society crumbles, but it’s especially overt in “No Sanctuary”: It’s in Glenn telling Rick, “We gotta let those people out. That’s still who we are—it’s gotta be.” It’s in Tyreese’s hostage telling him, “You’re a good guy. That’s why you’re going to die today.” It’s in Carol’s confrontation with that woman in their weird candle room. It’s in Carol’s redemption and Tyreese’s renewed ability to kill. It’s in Rick’s mowing down a group of Terminans with his machine gun—and his letting one of his former captors turn instead of get a headshot. And, most obviously, it’s in the episode’s de facto motto: You’re the butcher, or you’re the cattle.
Again, let’s back up. After the episode-opening flashback, we’re still in the boxcar as the group transforms whatever they have into weapons—zippers, belt buckles—in anticipation of their next encounter with their captors. “Go for their eyes first, then their throats,” Rick advises, but the Terminans are a step ahead: Before they open the sliding door, they drop tear gas from the top of the boxcar to incapacitate everyone. Rick, Glenn, Daryl, Bob, and two other guys get dragged into a literal slaughterhouse, to be drained and dismembered like pigs.
What follows is easily one of The Walking Dead’s most ambitious, fraught episodes. When Carol and Tyreese hear gunfire coming from the direction of Terminus, she uses walker viscera to blend in while she investigates. (But not before she and Tyreese take hostage a Terminan on walker-distraction patrol.) She orchestrates the explosion of a large natural-gas tank that saves the lives of her friends and catalyzes the fall of Terminus. That explosion, with its walker bodies flying through the air? “Badass,” say my notes.
If you’re into The Walking Dead for all the face-eatin’, “No Sanctuary” provides a bounty of zombie attacks, including the previously mentioned fire zombie (a new high-water mark for special effects maestro Nicotero). With the pained cries of living people being devoured by the undead, these attacks seemed especially rough, an unspoken karmic comeuppance for the perpetrators of Terminus’ awful trap. Even if they didn’t directly kill anyone, they were all guilty. And they are left to be fed upon.
All of this plays out while Tyreese faces the mind games of his hostage, heretofore referred to as Tiger Fan, thanks to his cap. Unsurprisingly, a guy who lives in a cannibal habitat dismisses Tyreese’s remaining morality.
“Horrible shit just stacks up day after day. You get used to it.”
“I haven’t gotten used to it.”
“Of course you haven’t. You’re the kind of guy who saves babies. That’s kinda like saving an anchor when you’re stuck on a boat in the middle of an ocean.”
Tyreese, still reeling from the loss of Mika and Lizzie in “The Grove”—not to mention Carol’s revelation that she killed Karen—is desperately struggling to hold onto his humanity, which is all but personified in baby Judith. Tiger Fan called her an anchor, and he’s right, but not in the way he meant: The baby links Tyreese to his pre-apocalypse self, a guy who didn’t have to do horrible things to survive every day. At the moment, when he doesn’t know if his sister is alive, all he has is this little girl and his duty to her.
When Tiger Fan inevitably takes control, it’s only a matter of time before Tyreese gets back in touch with his killing side. It’s also a moment to wonder how far The Walking Dead will go: Continual bleakness is one thing, but the murder of a baby is, like, black-hole dark. If you’ve read the comic, you know Judith’s story, and although the TV series has diverged significantly from the books, no one is ever safe in the Walking Dead world. (Well, maybe Daryl, because there would be serious blowback if he died.)
NEXT: Tyreese gets his groove back