While the show is still not perfect, the level of improvement season to season has been remarkable on AMC’s “The Walking Dead.” It’s always been an odd duck in AMC’s family. The network’s identity was founded on high quality dramas like “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men.” But they didn’t get stellar ratings — at least until “Bad” entered its final seasons.
And then there’s “The Walking Dead.” The show has had incredibly strong ratings, but it wasn’t going to win any Emmy Awards for Best Drama. OK, it still may not win any, but that may have more to do with the Emmys than this show as it is now.
There is such a thing as horror elevated to fine art. It can be beautiful in its visceral and gut-wrenching gore and violence. With the Season 5 premiere, “The Walking Dead” achieved art. There were some beautiful cinematic shots early on the episode that were mesmerizing to watch, while at the same time conveying the experience of Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) at the mercy of the citizens of Terminus.
The acting among the main ensemble has grown to match the quality of the direction, cinematography such that the whole feels like high quality cinema, rather than the slightly elevated B-movie tone of the first two seasons.
Suddenly, we don’t have to talk about “The Walking Dead” as an anomaly on AMC’s schedule of masterful dramas. It’s fitting right in.
That said, there are still areas that need improvement. There is still an issue with the extras on the show, in particular those who become zombie chow. I’m not saying it’s easy to scream and flail about believably as a zombie is chewing on your innards, but every time some extra doesn’t sell these moments, it hurts the momentum of the narrative and the otherwise fully immersive viewing experience.
All credit to the zombies, though, from the special effects and make-up teams to the actors underneath the gore. This aspect of the show has just gotten better and better over the years to the point there are no moments where you can see slightly uneven makeup, or unbelievable zombie shambling.
As I was making my way through the episode, I realized that this may be the most challenging review I will ever have to write. In the interest of not spoiling the viewing experience, I don’t want to talk about any of the major twists and turns of the episodes, but therein lies the problem.
More than any previous episode of “The Walking Dead,” this episode is all spoiler moments, major turns, epic scenes and heart-wrenching emotional moments. This is another reason why the trailers for this season have been so vague, and relied so heavily on scenes from Season 4. You can’t show or talk about anything without spoiling it.
Of course, another reason for the vague trailers and teasers is because at this point, AMC can just tease with a random zombie and throw a date on the screen and viewers will tune in by the millions.
There was a lot of speculation about what Terminus was, and what the people there were really up to, with cannibalism as the biggest theory. Unlike on previous seasons, the creators wasted no time in giving up those answers. By the end of the hour, the viewers fully understand Terminus, as well as the motivations behind it and what kinds of threats Rick’s band of survivors are facing there.
It’s a refreshing change of pace for a show that has literally been all over the place with pacing in previous seasons. Season 2 felt like it took forever as the gang hung out at the farm. By Season 4, though, things had changed. The prison setting allowed characters to flourish and settle down, so while we were antsy to see the danger ratcheted up a notch, we were ready and able to explore these personalities after three years of watching them battle zombies.
The second half of Season 4 was the best batch of episodes yet, as the show discovered that it could have both rich moments with the characters and intense zombie action. We spent a little bit of time with different groups of people after they fled the ransacked prison, setting up their reunion in the train car of the season finale.
It was a smart move, as this ensemble has gotten absolutely huge. There’s a scene on this premiere episode that pans the entire main group, and I was both stunned at how large it was, and equally stunned that I had a meaningful understanding and appreciation of each character as an individual.
Those small ensemble stories last season were smart, as they fleshed out each member of the group so that we had reasons to care about them. That setup allowed this episode to move at breakneck speed, and that’s exactly what it did.
There was a point about halfway through the hour that I thought I was nearing the end of the episode just because it was so densely packed with action and forward momentum. By the end of it, you’ll swear you just watched a two-hour premiere.
I’d say that it could stand alone as an almost perfectly crafted hour of television, and I feel that it could, but it really does rest on our pre-existing understanding of these characters. The beats mean so much more because of the shared history we have with them and they have with one another.
I can tell you that Rick wasn’t lying when he said the people of Terminus had messed with the wrong people. This is no longer the indecisive leader of the past, nor is he the crazy man seeing the specter of his dead wife, or living in a fantasy world of prison farms. This is a man with his blinders off, fully aware of the darkness in the world and ready to tackle it head on.
And then there are Carol (Melissa McBride) and Tyreese (Chad Coleman) on the outside with the baby. Fans of these characters will be more than satisfied with their own adventures, as Tyreese steps up when he’s needed, and Carol continues to give Rick a run for his money as the most badass character on the show. Michonne (Danai Garira) may be a “weapon with a weapon,” as one character describes her in the premiere, but Carol is still the toughest woman around.
“The Walking Dead” is never going to appeal to everyone, and when it started I was excited about it and looking for it to simply be a good time. I never thought of it as a show that could be in the conversation as one of the all-time great television experiences.
Then, when those huge ratings came in, there was no real reason for it to try any harder than what it was. It was getting bigger every year, so it could have just rested on its laurels. Instead, the show has improved creatively every season and now may well be making an argument for itself among the greats.
This hour certainly presents a strong case.
“The Walking Dead” premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on AMC.