We've been told that season 5 of The Walking Dead would be "devastating." I'm genuinely terrified for what's coming up this season, because despite the evil cannibal town, last night's premiere was as happy an ending I've seen on TWD — and the only way it was devastating was devastatingly good. Also: holy shit Carol.
I've tended to get hyperbolic about good episodes of The Walking Dead; I think I was so used to the show's crappiness in seasons 1-3 that when Scott Gimple took over as showrunner in season 4, I was so pleasantly surprised by the meteoric rise in quality that I tended to gush. But now, with a whole quality season under our belts, I think I've gotten my feelings under control — and yet "No Sanctuary" is definitely one of my favorite episodes of all time.
It begins right where it left off, with Rick and the group trapped in a Terminus train car. They're hard at work jury-rigging whatever weapons they can find, ready to jump the Terminus people as soon as they open the door. It's rare to see the entire group so proactive and competent, and you almost think that they're so badass that the Term-ites are already about to get their butts kicked because they have indeed screwed with the wrong people. And yet while Rick et al get ready to jump the train door, the Term-ites drop a smoke grenade in the train roof, drop in wearing gasmasks, and grab Rick, Glenn, Bob and Daryl without breaking a sweat. It's a perfect way to remind the audience that while Rick's group may be both proactive and badass, they are still utterly at the mercy of Terminus.
Rick and the others are dragged to a kill floor, because the people of Terminus are indeed cannibals — but it's less about hunger and more about a verrrry literal interpretation of the mantra "You're either the butcher or the cattle." They choose to be butchers so they won't be the cattle, and this makes them infinitely more terrifying than the Governor ever was. The Governor, although he was an insane asshole, was still human — he had passions and loves and good intentions (sometimes), and when he murdered people, he killed them out of anger or hate or revenge. For all his flaws, the Governor was still unmistakably human.
The Termites, however, kill to keep from being human. They murder (and eat) everyone who comes to Terminus, not out of fear, or to protect themselves from bad guys, but to be the bad guys — to purposefully be inhuman, as its own manner of protection. It's no coincidence that they have developed a system for everything from cutting the throats of their prisoners (and a blood trough) to who should respond during a crisis.
They have rules in place so they don't have to think about what they're doing; they choose to be part of a system so they don't have to be people.
What the Termites didn't figure on was the fact that this biggest badass in The Walking Dead universe is a 49-year-old woman named Carol. She and Tyreese and the World's Quietest Baby, a.k.a. Judith, are on their way to Terminus themselves, and come across a cabin in the woods where one of the Termites is setting off firecrackers to draw away herds of zombies (smart idea) and talking about the new prisoners Michonne and Carl to someone on a walkie-talkie. They have him captured in short order, and Carol uses the cover-yourself-in-zombie-gore disguise and heads to Terminus to rescue the group while Tyreese stays back to watch over baby Judith and their prisoner.
To give a blow-by-blow account of all the badass things Carol does in her one-woman assault on Terminus would be to ruin one of the episode's greatest pleasures, but suffice it to say Carol even makes normal badass Daryl look like… well, season one Carol. With help from a very large gas tank and her rifle, Carol basically does the same thing to Terminus that the Governor did to the prison, except she does it by herself and when she blows a hole in Terminus' defenses, the zombie she basically sends in there are also happen to be on fire. It's awesome.
Carol's attack gives Rick and the others the time they need to get free, and the ensuing zombie invasion causes enough chaos that they're able to rescue the rest of the group. Meanwhile, Carol finds the grill lady from last season and there's a lady fight which Carol wins because Carol is the Awesomest. The grill lady reveals the secret of Terminus: That it used to be an actual sanctuary, until they let some bad people in and were abused and raped and murdered, and only by becoming "butchers" were they able to reclaim Terminus — at which point they vowed to never trust anyone again. I don't think it's any coincidence either that Carol, who has made some pretty brutal decisions on behalf of her group herself, finds her doppleganger in Terminus. Carol decides to let the zombies eat her, but whether Carol doing this out of justice, or vindictiveness or self-preservation is unknown.
Meanwhile, Rick and the others do manage to escape, back to the bag of weapons Rick very smartly hid before they entered Terminus last season. Rick's ready to go back to kill them all, but the others convince him not to choose the path of vindictiveness since they're all dead or running away — although it also helps that Carol approaches at that moment. Watching Daryl run to her and hug her is genuinely affecting, and Norman Reedus just kills it by walking the line between his normal tough guy routine and almost sobbing in relief. But the hug between Carol and Rick is even more moving, the tearful reunion pushing away all the other issues in the heat of the moment. And it's a good thing the others convince Rick not to head back to Terminus, because instead he's led to the cabin, where he discovers the Wee Baby Judith is alive, and Sasha sees Tyreese again, and this episode of The Walking Dead has about as happy an ending as I think we can ever hope for.
I feel like "No Sanctuary" is restating The Walking Dead's mission statement, and there are two moments I think that say this as well as TWD has ever said it, even if they're both on the nose. The first is when Rick and the others are escaping Terminus and they spot anther train car surrounded by zombies. Rick is ready to ignore it to concentrate on rescuing the others in their group, but Glenn stops him: "That's still who we are. It's gotta be." They free the person inside — a lunatic who is immediately eaten by zombies.
The second is during my favorite scene in the episode, when Tyreese is talking to the captured Termite, who tells Tyreese that he's a nice guy, and that's why he's going to die. Anyone who would bother trying to keep a baby alive — a baby whose existence only makes your survival more difficult — is clearly a good person, and that's why he's not tough enough to survive the new world in general or the people of Terminus in particular. But the line that sticks out to me is when the Termite describes his fellow Termites: "They're just assholes I stay alive with."
The Walking Dead has always been about the difference between surviving and living, and the question of the value of humanity in a world where it's also a liability. Never has it been spelled out so starkly as "No Sanctuary," but neither has the show so triumphantly proclaimed humanity as the winner. The Termites abandon their humanity thinking it'll make them safe, but it's their brutality that leads Carol to kicking their ass to rescue her friends, and it doesn't save them. The Termite mocks Tyreese's compassion, but it's the group's collective humanity that leads to their happy reunion — if Tyreese weren't willing to take care of Judith, then Rick would never be able to reunite with her. If they weren't good people, Carol wouldn't have been compelled to head back to the prison to watch over them, and then rescue them. Their humanity is a liability in so many ways, but it also why they're alive — it's what makes their lives worth living, and more importantly worth surviving for.
As Rick and the other walk away from Terminus, Rick takes a moment to paint a big "NO" above the "Sanctuary" sign. Maybe Terminus was no sanctuary, but Rick and the others provide their own haven. When faced with the butchers of the world, the Termites chose to become butchers themselves. When faced with the butchers of Terminus (and all those other bad guys), Rick and the others have tried to stay decent people — it's cost them, and they've failed sometimes, but this time it's not just saved them but brought them back together. This time it's a victory, plain and simple.
Something tells me they better enjoy it while they can.
• After the credits and the next week's episode clip, a helmeted, masked gent sees Rick's "No Sanctuary" sign. It's Morgan! The guy from "Clear"! The first guy Rick saw! What the hell is he doing? I have this weird theory that he might end up being the TV version of Ezekiel, although I have no idea how that would work.
• Speaking of theories, the rumor is the horrible guy who assaults Terminus and turns them into monster is Negan, the next big TWD comic villain. He's in shadows because the role hasn't officially been cast yet.
• There are bits of silliness in this episode of course: the fact that the dude about to hit Glenn with a bat is interrupted right before he brains Glenn not once but twice; that Carol fires a firework at the leaking gas tank to set it aflame. I don't care.
• The new opening sequence seems much better, although it's basically a new series of images in the same style. It's much more creepy to me, at least.
• Also, Eugene gives his origin story and explains the "cure," which amounts to "I worked on diseases to fight diseases and I think I know a disease to fight this one." It doesn't sound very convincing, but I can see how people who have not only been living in the zombie apocalypse for years but are also trapped in a train car by cannibals would want to believe it.
• So you remember that blond redneck guy in the overalls from the episode where Rick and Carol went on patrol and Rick discovered Carol set the two sick people on fire and banished her? He shows back up as one of the guys captured by Terminus, who has his head bashed in and throat slit by the Termites. More importantly, that blond redneck guy was played by Robin Lord Taylor, better known as the proto-Penguin on Gotham. That's blowing my mind.