Despite critical acclaim, fans felt The Walking Dead's fourth season had inconsistently juggled its highs and lows. There were complaints from episode one that things were moving too slow. That there was too much emphasis on the fighters and not enough on the biters. To be perfectly honest, such criticism blows my mind. I've tried to make sense of it, but then I remember just how many people turned their back on The Sopranos because characters weren't getting whacked every week. I mean, I get there's a number of viewers that tune in to AMC each Sunday because, "Huh-huh, cool! Zombies!" But am I alone in thinking anyone that clings to this mentality is just as lost as the hordes of zombies they're clamoring for? That they're completely failing to recognize and address the contextual meat of the show? The question that plagues me about The Walking Dead most, however, has been, "How much attention do the execs pay to this ‘gimme gimme' crowd?" Television is a business, after all, so if these complaints are loud enough, they might feel compelled to deliver another season three, where meaningful character development gets sidestepped to appeal to the lowest common denominator. So, how the showrunners approached the fifth season was pivotal for me as a viewer. If they stuck to their guns and focused on survival and the human condition, I'd stick around. If not, well… let's just say I didn't expect my interest to reanimate.
One major reason I tune into The Walking Dead is to see which thematic ideas come into focus, and how the ever-growing - and often disposable - cast of characters respond to them. The fourth season pondered if humanity was a choice, or if it could be involuntarily washed away by post-apocalyptic tides. It took a lot of blood, sweat, and especially tears, but Rick and his band of survivors decided to hold on to who they were no matter what the cost. An idealistic dream, perhaps, but choosing hope over fear was the only way they'd ever be able to find some form of sanctuary… and to that end, all roads lead to Terminus. Unfortunately, the alleged safe-haven was a death trap, and the fifth season begins with Rick, Daryl, Glenn and Bob quite literally on the chopping block. After an explosive escape, our band of wandering souls once again find themselves on the road. There's some hiccups in their journey, of course, but they ultimately decide they need to stick together and get Eugene to the safe zone in Washington DC.
What struck me the most this season was how it dissected what ‘sanctuary' really means in a world gone to hell. Fortifying a small patch of earth sounds like a good idea, but to what end? After all, an established settlement is worth nothing if it's to be governed by fear and paranoia. Fortunately, as Rick and his crew stumble upon new locations, they'll see firsthand how fragile seemingly stable environments can be.
Again, it wasn't enough for the Terminus community to be protected by high fences and strong walls. No, they baited wanderers for miles around so they could dispose of them in the least dignified ways imaginable. For the audience at home, the people of Terminus were nothing but monsters… but how dissimilar were they compared to Rick and his group, really? Weren't they living by the same code of doing ‘what needs to be done'? It's an intriguing parallel for sure, and the entirety of the fifth season is chock full of ‘em.
A bit later they find Gabriel, a soul-shattered priest who's barricaded himself within a church. Readers of the comics will recognize him instantly, but the timing of his reveal here serves to contrast the unabashed survival techniques by those in Terminus. Instead of drawing people in under false pretenses, he's pushed them away and kept an entire pantry of food for himself. Not because he's evil, mind you, but because he was afraid of allowing zombies and desperate savages through his doors. He wasn't about to break his only line of defense, because he had everything he needed within those four walls… except people. Without any sense of community or companionship to keep him grounded, he's practically lost his mind. However, Rick believes we ‘get to come back' from that. Will Gabriel come to the same realization, or become a liability?
Meanwhile in Atlanta, a pseudo-society has been established on an upper floor of a hospital. They use the roof for growing food, have a doctor to cure the ill, police officers to keep them safe, and zombies have no way up. It sounds like paradise, but there's a catch: The cops are abusing their power and demand subservience from other residents, meaning they're expected to do all the cooking, cleaning, and everything in between. Those with a badge see this as a fair trade - sort of a ‘our job is to protect, so yours is to serve' sort of thing - but the residents obviously don't see it that way. ER scrubs are used like prison wear and voicing concerns can lead to some serious beatings. Still, they play along because it's better than ending up in the jaws of walkers. So once again the word ‘sanctuary' isn't all it's cracked up to be. The boys and girls in blue have created a military state in place of an actual community. This echoes a similar conflict brewing within Rick's group. He (mostly) understands how to balance brutality with humanity, but with everything they've been through, his fear of outsiders may shutter them from genuine opportunities.
Which brings us to Alexandria, a walled-off town where people carry on as if the zombie apocalypse never happened. The locals have established the usual social cliques, kids play outside without fear, and there's even a semi-functional government. Even so, our hardened survivors have trouble letting their guard down, because they know better than anyone that walls only get you so far. They've seen fences buckle under swarms of zombies and concrete barriers obliterated by the will of man. The citizens of Alexandria have been sheltered from such things however, which makes them naive, unprepared, and ultimately a risk to the survival of Rick's group. So, the protagonists have to decide what comes next. Do they take the town by force and dispose of anyone who dares to oppose? Perhaps argue their experience beyond the wall makes them natural leaders, and that everyone should fall in line? Or do they keep their mouths shut and try to fit in? It's no coincidence these choices echo what they've seen in Terminus, the hospital, and Alexandria itself. But is there another way? Can people come together for the greater good and actually make it work?
This is the stuff that keeps me coming back for more. Zombies are cool and all, but they simply cannot drive a plot device without a human behind the wheel. Needless to say, I'm thankful the showrunners have allowed introspection to remain at the heart of the show. But thrill seekers needn't tap out either, because everyone has the potential to walk away from The Walking Dead's fifth season satisfied. There's plenty of action, blood and gore to satiate the fans who thirst for excitement. Hell, it has one of the most gruesome on-screen deaths in recent memory, on this show or otherwise. I don't know how the creative minds managed to pull it off, but they finally made a season that can appeal to both the casual and serious viewers amongst the audience.
There's still room for improvement, though. The hospital stuff felt like a detour so the show wouldn't catch up to the comics, and because I couldn't have cared less about the character that brought us there, I found myself growing impatient. The saving grace for these few episodes is that they fit so well thematically. Also, The Walking Dead is still pretty bad at telegraphing who the new ‘red shirts' are among new cast members. Still, the positives far outweigh the negatives. At the beginning of this review, I told you I was worried which direction the series would take, but my expectations were met and then some. Not only is this a solid season, but it very well might be the best one yet.
The Walking Dead - The Complete Fifth Season was shot on 16mm film, and it doesn't shuffle or shamble onto Blu-ray (AVC codec, 1.78:1, 1080p), it sprints there with confidence. People treat ‘grain' like a dirty word, but despite the fact it's integral to the amount of detail we see on screen, it also provides a sense of grime and grit that was perfectly suited for this post-apocalyptic scenario. Even if it had been a matter of budget over intent, it's hard to argue just how great these episodes look in high definition. Detail is immaculate, the image has a natural sharpness that never feels overly processed, and its contrast and black levels are spot on, too. Colors can range from muted to natural, as it depends on how the talented folks behind-the-scenes have chosen to present Robert Kirkman's bleak ‘reality'. After all is said and done, it's a faithful recreation of the source and much better than what my, and probably your cable company provided during the season's initial run.
I love that a show like The Walking Dead doesn't skimp on its audio presentation. When you have hordes of zombies looking to devour you from every angle, why stop at 5.1? The Complete Fifth Season proves to be an immersive experience thanks to its lossless 7.1 Dolby TrueHD track. Zombie moans pour through each channel, gunfire and explosions rock dynamic range and LFE output, and there's always that unsettling ambience of the environment to look forward to. Of course, there's plenty of dialogue to bridge the many hair-raising moments throughout this batch of episodes, so you may wonder if you're getting your money's worth at times. But don't worry, it won't take long before you see just how much those extra channels add to the show. Simply put, this mix is a real winner as it flawlessly replicates the original design and artistic intent.
The discs in this set are identical to the standard set released in August of 2015, right down to the artwork, so there are no new features to report. The Walking Dead's Complete Fifth Season didn't need a new set of bells and whistles though, as it was already pretty jam-packed.
Audio Commentaries - There's a total of seven commentaries spread across the first four discs, and they're loaded with information that fans of the show won't want to miss. Every aspect of production is covered, from creative technical work to musings from the cast. A lot of commentaries in the home video market tend to miss the mark by having a lot of dead air, or just not presenting their information in an engaging way. In this set however, it's clear that everyone involved is interested in what they're talking about, and happy to share every facet of the process with their fans.
No Sanctuary with Writer/Executive Producer Scott M. Gimple and Executive Producer Gale Anne Hur. There's a second No Sanctuary commentary with Executive Producer/Special Make-Up Artist/Director Greg Nicotero and Actor Melissa McBride. Self Help with Actors Steven Yeun, Lauren Cohan, Michael Cudlitz, Josh McDermitt, Christian Serratos, and Alanna Masterson. What Happened and What's Going On with Executive Producer/Special Effects Make-Up Artist/Director Greg Nicotero and Actor Chad L. Coleman. Them with Director Julius Ramsay and Actors Normal Redus and Sonequa Martin Green. Remember with Executive Producer/Special Effects Make-Up Artist/Director Greg Nicotero, Executive Producer Tom Luse, and Actor Danai Gurira. Conquer with Executive Producer/Special Make-Up Artist/Director Greg Nicotero and Writer/Executive Producer Scott M. Gimple.
Inside The Walking Dead - This is a series of episode specific featurettes that discusses characters, stories, overall themes and more. This is a great addition for those who like supplemental content, as it provides an 'in episode' perspective as well as one of 'throughout the season this evolves into'. Each episode of the season is treated to one of these, and are highly recommended.
The Making of Alexandria - One of the most important locations of the season, this mini-featurette shows how it was brought to life.
.... Journey - There are four character specific mini-featurettes, and they give an overview of the role each had played in the series. It's worth noting that I have refrained from listing the actual featurette names, because they could be considered spoilers. It's my strong recommendation you watch the entire season before delving into the supplements!
A Day in the Life of Michael Cudlitz/A Day in the Life of Josh McDermitt - These mini-featurettes show a typical day on the set for the actors who play Abraham and Eugene.
Rotters in the Flesh - An intriguing look into some of the best practical effects of the season. The only downside is that this clocks in at just under five minutes.
Deleted Scenes - Deleted scenes from Four Walls and a Roof, Crossed, Coda, Remember, Forget, and Spend.
The Walking Dead returns in its fifth season with a vengeance. There's a few episodes in the middle where things get a little uneven, but because the showrunners ensured the gore-hounds could enjoy this program alongside thematic and character analysts such as myself, it's still the best season to date. This limited edition boxed set also comes with an asphalt zombie figurine atop a plastic box that houses the digipack. The detail and paint job are equally impressive and will tempt many a fan, but a higher than expected price tag may give pause to some. That minor caveat aside, this set - made possible by the partnership between AMC and McFarlane Toys - easily earns the coveted DVDTalk Collector Series rating.