The Walking Dead stumbles into its fifth season Sunday with all the imbalance of its star flesh-eaters. The fourth campaign was wildly uneven, lurching from inspired installments involving that one-eyed governor and those two dead girls to frustrating go-nowhere episodes on the slow crawl to Terminus, a hoped-for safe haven where the living could find refuge from the not-so-living. There were too many characters, too many plots and tonal shifts. Critics and fans were losing patience.
TWD needed to pick up again with a blunt-force streamlined statement — and hoo boy, does it. The only word to use about Sunday's season premiere is "cutthroat," which will make sick, darkly comic sense after you see the first few minutes. Fair warning: It's upsetting stuff, gang.
With all due respect to Spoiler Nation and the leaks-averse folks at AMC, the highest-rated scripted program in cable history solves its core narrative problems with Sunday's premiere hour. Will it solve them for good? Who knows? But both literally and figuratively, this episode, titled "No Sanctuary," carves away fat and embraces pure intensity, as our heroes try to escape Terminus and its matter-of-fact cannibalistic leader Gareth (the unnervingly good Andrew J. West).
The hour is scant on dialogue and narrative; it ignores most of its sprawling cast, including typical tuchus-kickers Carl and Michonne. The simmering subplot about heading to D.C. to find a cure is pretty much dormant.
Still, "No Sanctuary" is the most breathless, jarring installment in the series so far, even more than the prison battle and Hershel's severed noggin. From an eight-minute opening that offers genuine horrific squirm (reminiscent of Eli Roth's torture-foul Hostel flicks) to a rescue mission led by the group's toughest action hero not named Rick Grimes, this one's a doozy.
(That said, Rick, played by an increasingly nutso Andrew Lincoln, gets off a great Schwarzeneggerian line early, as Gareth asks what weapons the heroes have: "There's a machete with a red handle. That's what I'm going to use to kill you." High-five!)
Written by showrunner Scott Gimple and directed by effects maven Greg Nicotero, "No Sanctuary" is an assault on characters and viewers, as the living battle the living while dodging the undead. Budgets for ammo, blood, explosions are blown out.
And the vicious law of the land, for heroes and villains, is survival at all costs. A recurring line spouted by the baddies — "You're either the butcher or the cattle" — works for everyone now. Humanity is for suckers, and the show will thrive with less of the moral dilemma. When Glenn (Steven Yeun) risks his life to save a stranger — and that stranger turns out to be loony and immediate zombie bait — Daryl (Norman Reedus) shoots his pal a look: No mercy, bud. Tyreese (Chad Coleman) finally learns it's kill or be killed, too.
The episode ends with a slew of chummy reunions, including one that's genuinely Kleenexian. (I misted. I did.) And yet, my hopes for a killer season faltered a bit at a closing shot of the cast, now wandering nowhere in particular and riddled with half-characters, people about whom we've never cared, people who have a tendency to speechify and, you know, not get killed off. But I'll keep watching. After all, tonight's episode flat-out cooks. Plus there's a machete with a red handle out there. And sooner or later, Rick is going to use it.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @seandalypoplife.