WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD FOR SEASON 5, EPISODE 1, “NO SANCTUARY”. PROCEED ONLY AFTER WATCHING.
Let me begin with a caveat: I absolutely abhor gore porn. I have never seen a film from the Saw or Hostel franchises, I don’t troll faces of death websites, and while I admire the incredible realism and artistry that makeup, prosthetic and special effects artists can create, I have no desire to see a visual of what a human being’s intestines look like as they are carved out in a splattery spray by a guy in a ski mask. That said? I will defend to the undeath, as a storyteller, why it was appropriate—maybe even necessary—that the season five premiere of The Walking Dead was perhaps the bloodiest yet.
I am, despite the aforementioned caveat, a huge zombie movie fan. People ask me what I see in them. They aren’t, fast zombies excluded (and I, like Simon Pegg, prefer the hoards of shamblers to the rotters on speed), particularly scary monsters. You can outrun them. Outthink them. Hell, you can stop them in their tracks with a piece of chicken wire fence. The truth of it is, I have never been interested in the monsters. I have always been interested, as I have with all dystopian fantasy, in the people. Who were they once? Who are they forced to be now? And what, in the face of unimaginable horror, will they become? Are other survivors threat or relief? Will they cling to their humanity or succumb to a life as empty as the monsters they face? Do they feel charged to protect and assist the vulnerable, or do they see them as a disposable commodity? This part of the story is what fascinates me and terrifies me. It makes me question—what is it, exactly, that separates us from a soulless devourer? Why are they less than? What makes us more?
The most fascinating (and most chilling) part of season five’s premiere was its bookends. Before it aired I was certain: Terminus was full of cold, empty murderers. Cannibals who no longer, for whatever reason, had the sanity to recognize the sanctity of human life in a world where it was nearly gone. I wanted them dead—nowhere near the characters I loved so much—and, I’ll admit with a bit of shame, I was looking forward to Rick and the gang taking them down bloody.
The bookends served an incredibly important purpose. They showed how kind, decent, generous men and women became the type of people who could crack a man’s skull without thought, slit his throat, and bleed him out into a metal tub, while their foreman took inventory and wrote notes in a ledger. They explained with their terrifying quote, “You’re either the butcher or the cattle,” how victims detach and become those they once feared. It was brutal to watch. Seeing human rib cages hung like sides of beef, looking at Glenn’s eyes as he watched the thick swirl of his fellow captive’s blood creep toward the drain, hearing the shrill whine of the saw as limbs were dismembered to fit on a grill. Gareth, who we now knew once watched his mother returned to him after weeks upon weeks of vicious rape and abuse, once saw his people slaughtered in front of him, and lost his home and sense of self because he chose to care, became a man who could decide who was family and who was food. We needed, viscerally, to understand why.
We watched our gang do what was necessary, too. Rick shot humans down with the same cavalier accuracy that he shot the undead. Carol coated herself in black blood and rotten tissue to sneak in and murder whomever stood in her savior’s way. Even gentle giant Tyrese beat a man to death when he threatened little Judith’s life. There was fire and bullets and stabbing and slaughter. Yet it was not gratuitous. It was necessary to the story because it made us question—why is Gareth a monster and Rick a hero?
The violence illuminated, too, the pureness of true human connection. Carol emerged clean in the woods to hold a desperate and needy Daryl in her arms. Judith’s clothes remained as unblemished as her little heart. Despite all that was going on around her, how bloody and dirty and stained her father and her protectors were, she remained a beautiful symbol of hope. The smear of crimson on Carl’s forehead told us he had seen way too much, but the freckles on his ivory cheeks told us that he had been saved, too, by Michonne and his dad, who love him so deeply. We had a respite from the savagery of their fallen world. We were reminded as Glenn said when he tried to save those unable to be saved, of who we are. Who we have to be.
Watching the horrible (and sometimes all too based in reality) things that people are capable of doing to one another sickened me deeply, in a way that the show couldn’t have without the blood and brutality. The Walking Dead has always been about examining the exaggerated best and worst parts of ourselves as travelers of an often unkind and dangerous planet. The saving grace of the episode was Rick’s acknowledgment that Terminus was not, in fact, a sanctuary, but knowing that that didn’t mean he didn’t have one. As our survivors walked the tracks leading them God knows where we saw, relieved, that their sanctuary was each other. Their found family. Their refusal to let their humanity die. Most important? Their solace comfort was found in the love they share. Love. It is better than any gun or knife or even a Samurai sword. It is the only real weapon we have in our fight to stay us.
Photos courtesy of AMC.com