'The Walking Dead' Season 5: TV Review

Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC
"The Walking Dead" returns Sunday night.
The fifth-season premiere wraps up some loose ends of season four and catapults the characters from "safety" to whatever might be around the corner. 

Sunday's premiere might push the series in a new direction — but the cost of living remains the same.

As The Walking Dead enters its fifth season, the element that makes it so much more than a zombie series is driven home pretty quickly – this is a show about the living, and what a horrible mess that can be now that the social fabric isn’t just torn but obliterated.

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Sunday’s season premiere accomplishes a lot – no spoilers – with enough resolution and forward momentum to springboard into a new phase. What hasn’t changed is the basic notion of staying alive, which, as seasons three and four in particular showed repeatedly, isn’t always about avoiding “walkers.”

It looks like – and creator Robert Kirkman and showrunner Scott Gimple have hinted at this – the show might be heading into a phase where the cumulative effect of constant survival has finally chipped, perhaps irrevocably, deep into everyone’s sense of morality.

It will be particularly interesting if season five moves into a realm where worrying about what’s right and wrong – the battle that ate away at Rick – gives way to less introspection and, in turn, the consequences of that.

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The Walking Dead, like most television series that strive for greatness, has been able to operate on different levels for different viewers. Part of that is the construct, of course – people love mobsters (The Sopranos) in the same way they love zombies or any other inherently action-based creation. As long as there’s enough of that surface distraction for a certain audience, then deviations into morality and existentialism are more or less tolerated.

Those issues are, however, what makes great shows work. There have been a lot of creative zombie movies with variations on the theme of what it means to be human in a dark new world, but let’s not kid ourselves -- essentially they are two hours of running like hell in an effort to not be eaten. Episodes like the Gimple-penned “The Grove” from last season underline what a serialized television series can achieve at its best, as it explores the same subject but gets at so many other more interesting issues.

Survival is (relatively) easy. It’s the living that’s hard.

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Having not read any of the source material – it’s important to remember that the vast number of viewers haven’t – season five seems about the right time to accentuate what happens when relentless acts of moral impunity take their toll. The (expansive) cast of The Walking Dead has gone through all kinds of dashed-hopes and horrors, and the last two seasons in particular have proven that “home” and “safety” are essentially pipe dreams.

If that keeps them moving in season five – the show seems more electric when the characters aren’t seeking shelter but instead moving forward because that’s the only real option – it will be a welcome shift. Yes, people who have read the graphic novels know about the direction ahead (that is if Kirkman and Gimple don’t shake it up, which on some level seems to be their intent for the series vs. the book), but the thrill of the series is in not really knowing what’s around the corner, much less behind a tree. Sunday night’s premiere reassembles a lot of loose ends and hints that it will break certain patterns from past seasons.

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To that, let’s toast. Being uncomfortable suits these characters best. What bears watching now is what they’ll do when they’re comfortable staying alive without moral qualms.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine