The Walking Dead has never been a show that embraced speed. Every unwieldy season, always broken into two parts so AMC can use its hit show year-round, has shambled around like its titular zombies, eventually granting viewers some satisfaction (the collapse of the farm, the slow downfall of the prison, the demise of the Governor) but only after stalling for as long as possible. So far—and we’re only two episodes in—the show’s fifth season seems much more propulsive, setting up new plots and then moving through them with surprising haste.
Given previous seasons’ pace, one could have expected the showdown at cannibal camp Terminus to last a good six episodes. Instead, the place got burned down within a week. Now, for the first time in years, the central gang is all together with a mission: to get to Washington D.C. so that relatively new recruit Eugene can carry out his stated aim of wiping out the living dead with some kind of pathogen. This show is never better than when it’s on the move. Every time the cast has settled into a homier situation, be it the farm, the prison, or Woodbury, it’s been dramatically stagnant.
Sunday’s episode, “Strangers,” keeps things moving with the introduction of new character Gabriel Stokes (Seth Gilliam), a priest who shrivels in fear at the sight of walkers and has been hiding out in his church. Rick’s interactions with him offer a nice re-settling the group dynamic as everyone gets to know one another again—since the survivors have been splintered for so long, there’s plenty of drama to be wrung from their reunion. Early seasons of The Walking Dead suffered from a lack of dynamic characters, outside of Rick, Michonne, and Daryl, but that’s not the case anymore. I’m particularly fond of this gun-toting badass version of Carol and newfound pacifist Tyreese, an intriguing pair who have re-grown some humanity since leaving Rick’s group.
How they’ll contend with Rick, whose shades-of-gray morals grow ever darker, should be fascinating. Last week, Rick was only dissuaded from returning to Terminus to wipe out any survivors by news that his baby daughter Judith was alive. This week, he adopted Gabriel into the group only with the utmost caution, warning that he’d kill him without a second thought if he posed a threat. Rick issues a similarly paranoid warning to his son midway through the episode, prompting Carl to sigh, “Everyone can’t be bad.”
Is Carl right? The end of the episode reveals that people-eating Terminus honcho Gareth (Andrew J. West) still lives, along with some of his companions, and takes poor old Bob hostage and cooks one of his legs. Rick, it seems, could have been right in his bloodthirsty notion to wipe the stain of Terminus off the map once and for all. The most frequently recurring theme of The Walking Dead—the extent to which Rick and company must embrace inhumanity to survive—is surfacing again, but it’s at least being explored with more nuance than usual.
A lot of that is perhaps due to the unsettling, almost banal nature of Gareth’s evil, unlike the totemic madness of The Governor. Last week’s premiere saw Terminus dealing with captured humans as if they were cattle, bashing them with a bat before slitting their throats on a killing floor, to prepare them as food for the colony. What could provoke such blank, mechanical malevolence? Brief flashbacks gave us a glimpse of Gareth and his family’s humanity being hammered out by unknown invaders, who captured the then-sanctuary of Terminus and tortured and raped its inhabitants.
Humanity’s capacity for monstrosity in a lawless world is another frequent theme on The Walking Dead, but Gareth and the Terminus folks represent an interesting new spin at the very least. With their city-sized base of operations torched, the show moves away from its familiar trope of malevolent sanctuaries. Gareth has gone mobile, and in doing so has become more terrifying, capturing Bob out of nowhere and (possibly?) scoring the trees with some kind of death symbol.
It’s fitting that given the new developments, and as Rick has further crises of compassion, a man of God would be introduced into the mix. Like any new Walking Dead character, Gabriel seems to nurse some secret from his past—in one scene, he recoils at a female walker wearing glasses, and only later does it become clear that he knew her when she was alive. Hopefully this secret can be drawn out quickly—I only have so much patience for everyone’s dark mysteries at this point—so that Gabriel (right now a stuttering mess) can more effectually balance Rick’s increasing nihilism. As Carl said, everybody can’t be bad.
My fear, as always with The Walking Dead, is regression to the mean. I have started many a season of this show with eager anticipation for its new direction, having shed whatever previous dull storyline or characters I decried. I am a fan of the current core group and situation, but who’s to say we won’t spend the next six weeks camped out in this church dissecting how bad everyone feels living in a zombie apocalypse? The audience can only pray for momentum and actually compelling character dynamics. So far, there’s reason to hope.