Contains mild spoilers.
On reflection perhaps I was a little lenient with Season 4. Sure it was every bit the high-jinx and nigh on pitch perfect post-apocalyptic zombie soap opera we're now completely besotted by. It's just that maybe, it could be accused of being a little light; on occasion a tad drifting and superfluous in its narrative and pacing. The heavily orchestrated design, to maximise each half-season's grand pay-off, also maybe relied a tad too much on non-substantive filler to both contrast and build up the stakes. I'm not saying it was bad; not by any stretch; it was what it was, and the second half series of single episode self contained stories genuinely offered something new, fascinating and authentically indulgent, but put up against Season 5, I can readily agree in terms of moment to moment substantive content, it perhaps struggles to keep pace.
Season 5 starts with a wake-up explosion of gratuitous and excessive violence. Whether intentioned as a rebuke to any accusation the franchise was in danger of pandering to an ever increasing and more mainstream audience, or not, it certainly acts as a reminder that little Billy shouldn't really be up watching it; which after any cursory glance over social media, we know he is. Scott M. Gimple, now firmly entrenched as the show's main-man presents Rick and the gang's escape from Terminus, the cannibal slaughterhouse, in every bit as sickening, challenging and gruesome a way as he possibly could, with scenes that could slide easily into any Saw or Hostel chapter. It's breathtakingly refreshing and both a reminder, should we need it, that The Walking Dead is horror, with deep zombie roots, and the post-apocalyptic undead world Kirkman painted was really quite depressing, depraved and dangerous, and certainly never held it's punches. It's also an episode that begins the Season's meta-narrative of cascading moral degeneracy as a necessity to survive; of not just losing humanity but finding ways to justify increasingly deplorable acts.
As regards content and pacing, Season 5 is full-on and unremitting. There may be an overarching moral narrative, but Rick and the group's physical day to day journey from cannibal central to eventual restitution and respite in Alexandria, is a full on and desperate battle for survival with new foes, new challenges and death around every corner. The shift in pacing is palpable with some powerful sub-stories that previously may have filled whole half series themselves. Along the way there, new deep, flawed and interesting characters join the fray namely Father Gabriel Stokes (Seth Gilliam) and Noah (Tyler James Williams) and as is the way, others part company, some painfully under-utilised and before their time, but all sadistically and brutally. Once reached, the sanctuary of Alexandria drastically changes the dynamic and offers, as we will see with Season 6, a huge shift in narrative structure and scope. It arrives at the right time for the franchise and injects much needed freshness and not just a whole set of new problems but a fine array of new personalities and dynamics, all sumptuously delivered by a top class array of acting talent.
With Season 5, the ongoing moral conflict that's been at the heart of the walking dead, that of extreme pragmatism and the will to do what must be done in order to survive, versus being good despite everything, and without condition is truly put to the test. But it's never straightforward. The cannibals may symbolically represent the worst of people; a truly detached and perverted inhumanity; but as with all the moral conflict this season, alongside the very real depravity there's always some dark but deeply sad backstory and perhaps some ambiguity with even some sympathy and understanding. The walking dead world has always mandated grey morality and some license to move outside the traditional framework; but here even some of Rick's and the groups most basic and fundamental beliefs are not only challenged but forced into redefinition. A new world order needs a new moral framework; one where murder may even be the 'better' choice, and the very definition of what it even means to be good is fluid. The introduction of a Episcopalian priest and later the rather protected and naive citizens of Alexandria further adds to the incongruence, allowing for some wonderful interplay, as beliefs are challenged, people fall apart and illusions shattered.
Season 5 is a non-stop barrage of violence, action and blood and has certainly raised the ante when it comes to guts, gore and zombies with moments that Romero, and even Fulci would have been proud. Episode 1 aside, it was two scenes in episode 14, 'Spend' and a nasty full on, Day of the Dead, open gut munch, and a particularly gruesome close quarters face ripping that took the proverbial eye. If you'd have asked me, I'd have said Seasons 1-4 were just as visceral and gory, yet Season 5 just feels more old-school gratuitous, and traditional zombie, where the style and staging of a zombie kill is as important as the narrative impact. It's also like zombies are somehow important again. Seasons 3-4 saw a transition to people providing the main cause for concern, and rightfully so some 600+ days into the new post-apocalyptic calendar, but perhaps the swing was too great with zombies taking too much of a back seat so as to lose some of their menace and threat. With these emphatic and cinematically brutal zombie killings, perhaps Season 5 serves to remind us who the real monster is.
A return to a form I wasn't sure we'd really lost. Perhaps I'm being a tad disingenuous with Season 4; but such is the greatness of 5; such is the pacing, the tight intelligent narrative, the sophistication and nuance of the characters and their development, and such is the audacious, brave and visceral depiction of the post-apocalyptic landscape and its inhabitants, that it really stands out as the pinnacle of what not just The Walking Dead, but the genre, promises - 10/10.