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The thing about cliffhangers—especially season-ending cliffhangers—is that nobody ever thinks about the follow through. We remember Picard getting turned into a member of the Borg, or Mulder getting trapped in a train car full of dead alien bodies. We don’t remember how those crises ended, mainly because a resolution is almost never as interesting as the crisis itself. A cliffhanger makes for gripping, “Gotta see what happens next!” storytelling, but it also forces writers into a trap where the next thing they deal with has to be the most obvious thing. It’s not a horrible situation, exactly, and the Picard-as-Borg twist actually led to a pretty great episode (albeit one that happened after Picard himself was officially rescued), but… well, you remember Christmas when you were young? (Or a birthday, if you didn’t celebrate Christmas.) The stress/excitement/anticipation of waiting to get presents is always more memorable than the event itself. Before the thing happens, anything can happen. Afterwards, all you have is reality.

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Last season of The Walking Dead ended with our heroes in a tight spot. Tighter than usual, even; after following a series of sign posts promising “sanctuary,” Rick and the others (all except for Carol, Tyreese, and Baby Judith) found themselves in Terminus, a seemingly nice town that turned out to be not so nice at all. “No Sanctuary” picks up about where we left off, with Rick et al. stuck in a cargo container, waiting for something horrible to happen. After a brief prologue from the past, we hear everyone in the present exchange information (a nice, efficient way to show the group, which had been separated since the prison collapse, getting up to speed), and gird themselves for war. But it turns out that there are some things you can’t be prepared for, no matter how hard you try. Sometimes, you need a little help from your friends.

What’s most striking about “No Sanctuary,” apart from its attempts at thematic resonance, is how quickly and brutally the question of Terminus is resolved. If you’d asked me beforehand, I would’ve guessed that it would take at least a couple of episodes before Rick and the others could free themselves. I wouldn’t have been exactly excited about that, because the longer you stay in a community full of murderous cannibals without any major character being killed, the more the tension just drips away, but it seemed like a reasonable assumption to make, especially when taking into consideration how tricky it was going to be to build the rest of the season. Without the prison home base or an obvious major villain (goodbye, the Governor), we need something to create structure—a group of psychos who harvest human flesh seems like too good a concept to dispose of immediately.

And yet that’s pretty much what happens. After a terrifically intense scene of dudes getting their heads bashed in and their throats cut (although you’ll notice that none of the people who die are our people; in a miniature, it’s a perfect example of the problem I just mentioned—once you realize that the scene has been carefully arranged for the brown shirts to die first, some of the suspense goes away, no matter how many times that one dude gets ready to swing at Glenn’s skull), there’s an explosion, and we drop back in time a bit to catch up with Carol, Tyreese, and Baby Judith. The trio come across a citizen of Terminus setting up fireworks; they take him captive, and Carol, realizing what’s going on (the asshole, né Martin, was chatting about Michonne, among others), decides to go investigate in the middle of a convenient zombie herd. After greasing herself up with walker guts, she blends in enough to get close to the settlement, sees a gas tank and takes aim. Things pretty much proceed from there as you’d expect.

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There are no major twists in “No Sanctuary,” and no heart-wrenching deaths. At one point, the Asshole threatens to snap Baby Judith’s neck, but that doesn’t work out so well for him. (He makes the mistake of thinking a small group of zombies could take out Tyreese. The Asshole is very stupid.) Apart from that, our heroes by and large have the upper hand. It’s a little disappointing to see the Terminus group, who looked so competent and well-organized, getting their asses handed to them this easily, although I suppose that’s part of the point; after the dead rise, it doesn’t matter how prepared you are—sooner or later, the shit is going to go down, and you’ll be left with fires and the screams of your nearest and dearest. (Once again, the show did not shy away from the gore. We got at least two scenes of women being eaten alive, among other horrors.)

To a certain degree, the decision to burn through this plot this fast makes sense. It kicks off the season with a bang, and there’s no sense of stalling to fill time. Maybe the writers are still gun-shy after the nightmare that was Hershel’s farm (all the way back in season two). Maybe the plan for the rest of the season has so much going on that it would be impossible to spend any more time dealing with the people who eat people. It’s abrupt, but at least we already have a clear direction in place: the quest to get Eugene to Washington, D.C., where he can use his special knowledge of diseases to rid the world of the zombie plague once and for all. I can’t imagine he’ll succeed, which means yet another brief glimpse of hope to be dangled in front of our heroes before Fate (the writers) cruelly swipes it away, but it’s something. And there’s nothing that says that everyone in Terminus is dead, or that they won’t be hungering (ha!) for revenge. Hell, we don’t even know for sure if the Asshole that Tyreese beat up is actually gone. Tyreese tells Carol he killed him, but we never see a body, so… who knows.

But that will have to wait for next week. The other pressing concern in “No Sanctuary” is the question the show always comes back to: What kind of person do you have to become to survive after the end of the world? Again we have good people (this time Tyreese, primarily) running into a situation where they should kill someone, but they can’t bring themselves to do it, with nearly disastrous results. But the episode also takes time to show us a brief glimpse of the citizens of Terminus before they decided to murder strangers. It turns out that the signs offering sanctuary weren’t originally meant to be a trap—the group honestly wanted to help, right up until another group showed up and took them captive, raping the women and beating up everyone.

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As theme goes, this isn’t deep stuff. The Terminus people learned the same thing Rick and the others have learned over and over since the series began: Kindness makes you vulnerable, and being vulnerable will get you killed. The problem with asking the question “what kind of person do you have to become to survive the end of the world?” on a TV series is that the answer is always “It doesn’t matter, you’ll live until the writers decide it would be more interesting to kill you and/or it costs too much to keep you on the show.” The message only goes so far.

Still, there is something interesting here. This is presumably an omen for what’s coming for our band of survivors, and given Rick’s temporary eagerness to go back to Terminus and murder everyone after they escape (he’s only convinced otherwise by the discovery that his infant daughter is still alive), I’m sure the question of ruthlessness as protection is going to come up again. There’s also the fact that, intentionally or not, the fate of Terminus undermines the “you have to be cruel to live” idea. They were organized, they were ruthless, and they offered no mercy. They treated strangers like cattle. And eventually, they died for it. They thought they learned the right lesson from the earlier assault, and maybe they did, but that didn’t keep them alive.

Most important, though, is the attempt, however fleeting, to create empathy for characters who, in the present, are just utter and absolute bastards. The two scenes set in the past are unsettling stuff, and put you on the Terminus folks’ side; that doesn’t last for long (Denise Crosby’s speech to Carol is really the only moment in the present where the Terminians get even a little depth), but it lingers, and reminds us that, as triumphant as Rick and the others’ escape may be, there’s still a certain kind of tragedy here. Last season, the writers tried to show us what happened to the Governor without a town to govern, with mixed results. But there’s potential here. The Walking Dead is, by its premise, an inherently limited series. Hope is always a temporary thing. But by trying to encourage us to see all the people on screen as individuals, and not just heroes and villains, there’s at least the chance of finding some empathy buried under all those bodies.

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Stray observations:

  • Which was more touching: Carol and Daryl reuniting, Tyreese and Sasha renuniting, or Rick seeing Tyreese with Baby Judith? It’s nice that everyone is friends again. I wonder how long that will last.
  • Hey, remember Beth? Daryl finally did. (I wonder when/if we’ll see her again. I doubt she’s gone for good, although “kidnapped by randos in a car” makes for a funny exit scene.)
  • The first time the dude with the baseball bat gets ready to kill Glenn and stops mid-swing worked. The second time, it was a little silly.
  • More visual storytelling: The two men dismembering a corpse in the background when Rick and the others are brought in; the room with hanging, bloody torsos; and Rick covering over the sign and writing “No” next to “Sanctuary” at the end.

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