Recurring Cast: Andrew Lincoln, Norman Reedus, Melissa McBride, Michael Cudlitz, Emily Kinney, Lauren Cohan, Stephen Yeun, Chandler Riggs, Danai Gurira, Chad Coleman, Josh McDermitt, Sonequa Martin-Green, Alanna Masterson
The wait for Season Five was a very impatient one. The writers were endlessly cruel, closing the season where it did. Rick and most of the others were held captive by a mysterious cult of people that only few will be surprised to learn are cannibals very early on in the first episode. The season closed, suggesting they were moments away from orchestrating a daring break-out. In many ways, the first episode of Season Five acts as the finale for Season Four. In my opinion, The Walking Dead works better this way, because everything that happens in that episode is so much more satisfactory, because of the long wait we had to endure. The pay-off is great with an explosive couple of action sequences and moments that just scream ‘cool’. Rick, who had little to do last time around, is man of the match this episode, over-shadowing the rest of the cast with his presence and attitude. However, saying that Carol and Daryl also get moments that their fans will punch the air with. The gang might have spent last time separated, but seeing them finally back, reunited, is an almighty occasion. This could be the one episode that actually hits the same level of excitement as the pilot. The Walking Dead at its very best.
Then things get a little shaky. This season is a little bit of a strange one, but it doesn’t have a clear direction to go. The group lick their wounds and end up at a church, where they end up staying with a priest, who may or may not be trustworthy. There then is a couple of obstacles to get through, before the show can move on, but I am not convinced they are handled very well. A part of the problem is the Walking Dead trying to mimic the success of the last season, where the episodes were broken up, so every character had their turn at playing the leading man. For example, one episode we are dealing with Rick at the church, the other we are with Daryl and Carol as they try to track down Beth, who is still kidnapped and then we jump over to Abraham to see how his group fare, trying to get Eugene to Washington and the cure to the zombie invasion. It is hard to point to an exact thing the show does wrong, because everything it does is very good. It has those quieter character moments that give Eugene, Tara and Bob (all wavering a little too close to red shirt territory until now), something worthy to do. Every episode ends on a gut-wrenching cliff-hanger (sometimes, a small mystery, sometimes a twist, or sometimes just ending on a quiet moment that makes you crave more, taking a lesson from Breaking Bad’s way of doing things), which makes you tune into next week’s show. That moreish feel is all very well and good, but it also means that when we look back over the seasons of Walking Dead, this one might feel a little more adrift than the others. The first half of Season Five is good, but adrift.
There are some good villains this time around too. Now that the Governor has sadly been written out for good, every new nasty bloke that turns up has to compete with the massive hole that David Morrissey left. First up, we have the cannibal group, led by Gareth. While the show kind of breezes over that particular villain a little too quickly, actor Andrew J. West does get some good moments. Gareth is at his best, when he is trying to convince the group that he is actually a good bloke. His matter-of-fact way of justifying his cannibalism is well-written and if the show spent a few more episodes, exploring this character, we might have come scarily close to understanding where he is coming from. The second villains are a good idea, but sadly, they are poorly handled. The Walking Dead continues their theme of exploring different political regimes, as humanity attempts to rebuild itself. We’ve had tribes, democracy and dictatorship. Here, Beth awakes to find herself in a police state that, at first seems like a dream community. They have a secure hospital and police protection. However, the police end up getting a messiah complex, hinting that Beth owes them ‘sexually’ for saving her, even though she never asked to be saved. The doctors live in fear that the second their use is up they will find themselves out of a job (which in the Walking Dead universe, usually means out of the group). Everything has a price and it makes the members of the group very inhuman. This is arguably the closest a form of government has come to today’s society, so some of these scenes are very interesting from a social perspective. I was impressed, but sadly, I think the writers botched up Christine Woods’ leader character, Dawn Lerner. The performance was actually really good with Woods putting a heartfelt spin on the character, but the writing could have been stronger. While Gareth never lost that sense of villainy, even when the show was trying to make you side with him, with Dawn, they try to make her come across as a tragic hero, who lost her way. Sadly, she has clearly done too many bad things to try and make us sympathise with her. Time spent with her crying and trying to appeal to a stony-faced Beth (Emily Kinney is absolutely terrific this season), just feels wasted. It would have been better to have her always showing her nasty side, but subtly expanding her story, so we understood why she was like that. The writers shove her character into our faces too much and as a result, that section, while moderately interesting, feels a little shaky.
But the Walking Dead has always been one to walk a shaky road. Its slower approach to the zombie genre is always a few scenes from collapsing in on itself (like Season Two), so I wasn’t really surprised when the cannibals were rushed or the police state card was overplayed. This show always makes sure it has just enough moments tucked away in the season to make the slower pace worth the wait. As I said, Episode One was a phenomenal piece of television. A twist is dropped when Abraham leads Glenn, Maggie and a few others to Washington and Rick’s handling of the cannibals is gruesomely exhilarating. A few words of praise must be given to the finale. As the police state ends up coming against Rick, the tension begins climbing. It is impossible to predict how that confrontation will play out. For a moment, the show teases the idea that the whole situation will be resolved peacefully (the irony of the situation is that both sides have little to fear from each other, but experiences with men like the Governor has made them mistrust each other to the point of violence), but, of course, things go wrong in a heartbeat and the conclusion is heart-breakingly excellent, in only a way the Walking Dead could be. A slower ending, yes, especially for those expecting a similar episode to the explosive first one, but one that is just as good.
Final Verdict: The Walking Dead continues doing what it does best, even if this time around, it isn’t as sure-footed as it can be.