Not many genre series have their best moments five seasons in, but that’s how long it’s taken AMC’s The Walking Dead to accrue the history required to deliver an impact more meaningful than just the loss of a fan-favorite character or the letdown when a destination inevitably fails to be what our core group of protagonists had hoped. With four seasons’ worth of character development informing character interactions and decisions, Walking Dead has molded its characters into a fiercely loyal family that’s at once both a force of savage brutality and civility. Having imbued them with such a distrust of outsiders and forced them to adapt to a dangerous world, we now see them face the series’ hardest question: can they ever really assimilate back into a society? Or will any society that attempts to assimilate them be forced to change to accommodate the mindsets Grimes and company learned out in the wilderness?
After a dull fourth season both teased and dispelled the paradise of “Terminus” in far too rapid a succession, the fifth season couldn’t stand to make the same mistake. This made the introduction of yet another idyllic society midway through the season feel somewhat lazy. Would the writers really repeat the whole “this society isn’t what it seems” concept that they’d already used with the Governor and then Terminus? The Walking Dead had spent the last two seasons harping on the theme that other humans were just as, if not more, dangerous than the zombies that had overtaken the living. Luckily, the fifth season learned from past mistakes and chose to try something new: give the characters something genuinely good and see how they handle it.
Of course, they have to earn it first. In the world of The Walking Dead that means escaping from the prison of Terminus that they ended up in at the conclusion of the fourth season and then miraculously reuniting with the key collection of characters we’ve come to root for: Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), his son Carl (Chandler Riggs), and katana-wielding Michonne (Danai Gurira); survivalist soulmates Daryl (Norman Reedus) and Carol (Melissa McBride); newlyweds Maggie (Lauren Cohan) and Glenn (Steven Yeun); PTSD sufferer Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green); and the relative newcomers Sgt. Abraham Ford (Michael Cudlitz), Dr. Eugene Porter (Josh McDermitt), Rosita Espinosa (Christian Serratos), and Tara (Alanna Masterson). Their road to a new civilization is long and marked with an untrustworthy priest (Seth Gilliam), loss, vengeful survivors of Terminus, a detour to save a friend they thought dead, and a drought that threatens to wipe them all out with dehydration.
When the plot finally gets around to the introduction of Alexandria and its community of survivors (11 episodes into the season), we’re more than ready to see Rick Grimes and his family get a break, unfortunately everything we’ve followed them through for the past four seasons means every action and word that greets them in Alexandria is met with suspicion. Is the community as genuinely wholesome as its matriarch Deanna Monroe (Tovah Feldshuh) would have them believe? And if so, how has it survived in the modern world of scavengers and zombies?
Alexandria presents the most interesting scenario for The Walking Dead since the first season, and the writers smartly take their time letting characters reveal facets of the society, its imperfections, and the ways that it is exactly what Deanna claims. For once we’re given a scenario where the most sinister villain isn’t the hidden intentions of a secretly evil populace but rather the frustrations and naiveté of a group of people who’ve lived so long inside of a bubble that they’re unaware of how bad things have gotten on the outside. Watching Rick Grimes’s crew quickly step into leadership roles (by fighting off a horde of the undead from a construction site, or search for survivors in the wild) is a richly satisfying outcome for the characters after all they’ve been through, but it’s not without its share of genuinely fear-inducing moments as one of the series’ best characters goes head-to-head with one of Alexandria’s more cowardly inhabitants in the woods. The conclusion of the season signals more growing pains ahead for Alexandria as well as a return to the norm for the series as a new band of scavengers is introduced as the likely foes for the sixth season.
As a final note: few moments in this season were as sublime as the return of Lennie James as the incredibly badass, staff-wielding Morgan Jones. His most triumphant scene both highlighted how much he’s changed in the years since Rick Grimes left him in Atlanta and the kind of people our heroes will be facing next year.
Blu-ray Bonus Features
The Blu-ray set includes the entire season as an Ultraviolet digital copy, as well as an impressive number of featurettes covering the production, the creation of Alexandria, supplementary materials on how Beth, Bob, Noah, and Tyreese got to where they were, days on set with Michael Cudlitz and Josh McDermitt, and a piece on the zombies themselves. Audio commentaries and deleted scenes are also included.
"The Walking Dead: The Complete Fifth Season" is on sale August 25, 2015 and is rated tv-14. Action, Drama, Horror. Directed by David Boyd, Greg Nicotero, Jeffrey F January, Julius Ramsay. Written by Charlie Adlard, Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore. Starring Andrew Lincoln, Chandler Riggs, Danai Gurira, Lauren Cohan, Melissa Mcbride, Norman Reedus, Steven Yuen.