When we last left the heroes of "The Walking Dead," things looked especially dire. Six-and-a-half months later, things haven't changed much.
Locked in a boxcar with few options, save for waiting to become dinner to a community of non-zombie cannibals, Rick and company's situation was as bleak a cliffhanger as the show has ever done. Even Rick's defiant final words, "They're screwing with the wrong people" didn't so much rouse the audience as make them slink further into their seats and cover their eyes.
No way around it: There's going to be some awful bloodshed ahead.
As the fifth season premiere rolls out Sunday on AMC, we find them all still locked in that darn boxcar. Yes, they're busy prepping for war, but it's the audience that's had to deal with some real hardship.
It's been a brutal summer out here in reality — violent clashes in the U.S., brewing war overseas, wildfires and drought in the West, the lingering images of videotaped beheadings on our screens and the fear of deadly infectious diseases pervading human interaction. Sometimes, on bad days, it doesn't seem as if the apocalyptic world of "The Walking Dead" is that far off.
So what's a massive hit drama to do when the grimness of the outside world threatens to upstage its own gritty escapism? Focus on the good.
Make no mistake, "Walking Dead" remains one of the most brutal shows on TV. If close-ups of a zombie eating a man's nose off don't do it for you, there's a particularly clinical scene involving baseball bats to the heads and slit throats cattle-style that certainly should.
If the season opener is a harbinger of what's to come, the speed of the story has picked up. It's a welcome change in pace compared with the second half of last season, when the story slowed as the group split apart and meandered toward Terminus. You didn't really expect Rick to stay in that train car forever, did you?
But the path that led to Terminus, the one that reaches into the darkest parts of humanity, can only go for so long before fatigue sets in. It's a dead end in more ways than one and, thankfully, the writers seem to realize that.
So what's being set up here is no longer just a battle for survival, but a battle for life itself — how will the characters choose to live out their remaining days before they eventually become zombies themselves? We're rooting for them not so much to kill anymore as to do the right thing, no matter the cost.
Midway through the episode, titled "No Sanctuary," Daryl (Norman Reedus) casually remarks of his captors, "They ain't people." But they are people, and to forget that is to travel down the same path the cannibals did.
As we begin the fifth season, only a handful of characters from the show's original crew are still alive. Among them are Daryl, Rick (Andrew Lincoln), Rick's son, Carl (Chandler Riggs), Carol (Melissa McBride) and Glenn (Steven Yeun), who have all somehow managed to survive without becoming zombie chow.
But their distinction only serves to highlight just how commonplace shocking character death has become on the show. You can only grind through so many cast members before the audience becomes as numbed to death as the characters on screen.
When death no longer holds the dread it once did, what's left is the fear of what life can become. And that is the boogeyman with which the characters must now wrestle.
In the near pitch-black opening moments, we see a group of frightened people, locked away and awaiting a cruel fate. But it's not Rick and his crew; it's Gareth and the residents of Terminus back before they became a group of cannibals.
Apparently, once upon a time, they were actually decent people. Kind of like a certain former deputy sheriff and his ragtag semi-improvised family. Except somewhere along the way, this group lost that spark of compassion and caring that our heroic crew have fought to maintain.
As a woman screams in the distance and one of his people laments the choices they made that brought them to this point, Gareth reassures him, "We were being human beings."
"What are we now?" is the response.
That's the question everyone must answer this season. As one Terminus resident puts it, "You're the butcher or you're the cattle."
'The Walking Dead'
When: 9 p.m. Sunday