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When we last saw Rick Grimes and the gang, they were held captive in a shipping container at Terminus, with the cop vowing, “They’re screwing with the wrong people.” Not long before that, Rick was preaching pacifism, planting crops, and trying to stay in touch with whatever shred of humanity was left inside him. In other words, he was deadly boring. Thanks to those thugs who nearly molested Carl, and now, to Gareth and the cannibals of Terminus, Rick is all alpha, ready to do whatever it takes to keep his people alive. And if this episode is any indication of what’s ahead in season five, it’s gonna be an ugly, bloody ride.
The season-five premiere kicks off with a hint of Gareth’s backstory, but from there it’s right into the action, as the captives plan to fight their way out. After getting tear-gassed, Rick, Daryl, Glenn, and Bob wake up in what looks like a scene from Hostel — they’re zip-tied and kneeling over a trough. A thug with a baseball bat winds up and cracks a hostage in the skull, then slices his throat. Blood pours out. The thug steps up to the next poor hostage, clubs him and cuts him. It’s one of the most violent and horrific scenes in the series so far — no coincidence it happens in the season premiere, to spark maximum buzz/outrage/squeals of joy from torture-porn fans. It’s also a disturbing echo of real-life current events that the writers surely didn’t intend, as images of ISIS beheadings still linger in the public consciousness. Some may argue the scene was in poor taste, but it hammers home one of the show’s strongest themes — desperate people are far more dangerous than zombies.
Luckily for the guys, an explosion saves Glenn — and likely the rest as well — from being on the wrong end of that Louisville Slugger. Turns out the big bang is courtesy of Carol, who’s armed with a bag of weapons from the dirtbag with the Detroit Tigers cap. Detroit had two items of note — a working walkie-talkie (which would seem impossible at this stage of the apocalypse) and fireworks. Carol proves to be an amazing shot with a bottle rocket, as she perfectly launches one at a flammable tank. She’s also an innovator of sorts, as the resulting zombie flambé makes for a fun time. Getting eaten by a regular old zombie, at this point, is just plain embarrassing. But being taken out by a horde of zombies on fire? That’s an honorable death.
Before Terminus completely goes to shit, there’s a rather important revelation in the shipping container, as the rest of the gang plots an escape (again). Sasha decides, for no apparent reason, that this is a good time to grill Dr. Eugene about his ultra-top-secret-save-the-world plan. After a deep breath and three seconds of consideration, the Doc spills the beans. He claims he worked on a little-known branch of the Human Genome project, in which microorganisms were “weaponized” to attack other dangerous strains; a “fight fire with fire” approach. It’s a scary concept, as he explains it: “I am keenly aware of details behind failsafe delivery systems to kill every living person on this planet.” The Doc thinks that with his knowledge and some “tweaking” in Washington, he can create a weapon of mass zombie destruction. “All things equal,” he says, "it does sound pretty badass.” Which sounds funny coming from a guy who squeals whenever a zombie is near. (Note how he cringes as they run through the zombie-infested Termimus yard.)
As the sanctuary is overrun by Rick’s group and the red-hot walkers, it’s refreshing to see the group’s leaders make some tough choices. Rick, we know, is officially Not Fucking Around. He shanks the baseball-bat thug and his partner in the throat, then guns down a roving Terminus hit squad. Later, once they’re over the fence and in the clear, he finds the weapons stash and wants to go back to finish the job. On the one hand, that makes good sense — Rick clipped Gareth with gunfire, but it looked more than a glancing blow than a kill shot. Rick learned his lesson with the Governor: Better to take these psychos out than let them live to return one day with a tank. But the Sarge seems to speak for everyone when he says, “I’m not dicking around with this crap.”
Carol also proves that spending quality time with Judith hasn’t made her soft. She runs into Mary, the barbecue lady, in that creepy candlelit room and gives her best “come at me, bro.” Before Carol caps her, Mary kindly explains that the Terminus folks were good people once, until they were raided, raped, and killed. They learned a hard lesson, she says: “You’re the butcher. Or you’re the cattle.” Carol’s learned a few lessons, too — never let someone who tries to kill you live, and don’t waste a bullet. (Also, props to Carol for using the ol’ zombie-gut camo to make her way through the herd. Why aren’t they covering themselves in entrails all the time? Because it’s TV, and that would make for a boring show. Did anyone else have a brief Thriller flashback as Carol lumbered around, flanked by zombies? A quick moonwalk would have been nice.)
Back at the shack where Detroit is tied up, Tyreese is tested as well. Detroit can tell Tyreese is a “good guy” simply by the fact that Ty didn’t kill him. (He also questions, smartly, why Tyreese is even talking to him.) The big man holds out as long as he can, but when Detroit threatens Judith, he snaps. Somehow, with no weapons, he takes out a few walkers, then bull-rushes Detroit and beats him to death. It’s a hard lesson, one that Rick and Carol seem to have accepted — good guys, as in the white-hat-wearing types, don’t exist anymore. Try to be one, and you’ll likely end up dead.
In the end, it’s a parade of reunions — Daryl and Carol and Rick and Judith. Judging by the heartfelt way Rick thanks Carol for her fireworks display, maybe he’s ready to let her homicidal past stay buried. After all, he’s done some dirty deeds himself lately. We also hear the Sarge tell his lady, “We’ll talk to them. Not just yet.” Maybe he’s ready to step up the pace en route to D.C. Or perhaps there’s more to the Doc’s plan than he’s letting on. Along with Beth’s fate, that’s a question to be answered later.
We’re left with one final flashback to the shipping container and the early days of Terminus, when it was actually a safe haven. Gareth comforts his mother (Mary!), who’s been assaulted and perhaps raped. Like Rick and Carol, to a lesser degree, Gareth was pushed to extremes — to reclaim what he’d lost, and to survive. It’s looking like Rick has a bit of the butcher in him, too. This season seems prepared to delve deeper into that question: What happens when good people do very bad things?
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