The Walking Dead: “No Sanctuary” – Religion at its Gorey Best

So, here’s my prediction: this season will be all about Religion in all its forms: faith, superstition, institutionalization, belief, protest, survival.

Trailers and teasers for the next episode already reveal several religious trappings: a church, a pastor (or priest). That, however, is just the tip of the ideological iceberg my friends. Even without those sure-fire religious images strewn across the screen, episode 1 – “No Sanctuary” – laid the groundwork for the exploration of religion, spirituality and its opposite (whatever that is) in a desolate, brutal world.

The episode opens in dark cattle car, almost devoid of any light. The camera pans across the black darkness before anyone can realize there are the faint grey outlines of a man’s shirt. Then the outline-like figures appear, almost silhouettes save the faint light on their arms, their cheeks, their feet.  The first sounds are screams. Each figure, sits, barely moving, waiting … just waiting. One man finally chokes out the words “we never should have put up the signs.”

Then, from a scene of total blackness, Gareth’s face emerges, unapologetic for the act that brought evil into their midst. “We were trying to do something good. We were being human beings.”  We find out that referring to that group as human beings, even if by its leader, in the past tense, is entirely accurate.[i]

As the scene ends, Gareth’s face is half-enclosed in darkness, half-revealed in light. He is, as we know, a man whose soul has been split. It’s not an ambiguity, or a conflict, it’s a rupture that turns him into something worse that the villains he faces in that moment. We learn later he’s not crazed and he’s worse than enraged. He’s just split apart.

The next scene takes us to our group’s cattle car and the stark difference between the groups. We see a hand grinding something against the floor of the car, snippets of conversations as the group communicates, shares information. Then, Daryl and Maggie discuss Beth’s situation. “A black car with a white cross” is what took her.[ii]  This is not a group of victims waiting. Even later, Eugene, in his pessimism, makes the choice of action and resistance over passive victimization: he believes he can “compromise this door” should Rick fail to return.

The group, however, showing remarkable faith and belief, quash his pessimism before it can be contagious. Carl and Maggie come forward in their belief and urge preparation for Rick’s Coming. It is almost biblical when Maggie echoes Carl’s assurances that everyone will return:

“They are. And we need to get ready to fight our way out with them when they do.”

They last saw Rick basically hog-tied and prone on the ground guarded by bad people with guns. Her faith is biblical. And, as it turns out, very accurate.

The scene at the trough echoes back to previous episodes. In “The Talking Dead,” Chris Hardwick noted that the blond kid on the end was “Hippie Sam,” from the episode where Rick banished Carol. Rick and the young man exchange looks of recognition. There’s a message here about the interconnectedness of us all, how the world is always smaller than you believe. I think there is.

What struck me however, was the echo to the season four’s Governor. Bob pleads for his life saying they can return the world to some prior state. Sorry Bob, but I don’t believe it either, much as I hate to agree with Gareth. When Gareth almost glibly replies that “We can’t go back, Bob,” I immediately remembered the scene on the trailer, where the Governor clubs his former chief minion with a golf club. While I might not believe you can recapture Eden, I’m not in for Gareth’s and the Governor’s psychopathic response at that realization either.

Sometimes, no matter how bad it is, and it can get bad, the only way forward is through. I hate it too, folks, but there it is.

{About the killers}

And then, just as a baseball bat is about to hit Glenn’s head … gunshots, a rocking explosion.

What the?

It’s what we folks from creative writing classes know as deus ex machina. (Gosh-darn-it that’s hard to work into conversations at holidays, so I gotta use it when I can.) But remember that, because when I say “God out of the machine,” I’m not exactly being a glib show-off here. I actually want to tell you something.

We don’t have to wait long to know the What or Who … our next scene (act really) reveals Tyrese and Carol with little baby Judith trekking along the train tracks, Carol notably skeptical.[iii]   She’s going to make sure they’re safe, then go. Yeah. Okay.

I’m going to skip the part with Martin and Tyrese right now and save it for my book I hope to sell you all later to finance my failed education and my love of kitchen appliances.

I love Carol. There is the whole issue about a depiction of a woman in my age group who is actually living a life and a protagonist, not a foil figure as a mother or mother-in-law or aunt. Yes, you can be middle aged and a badass, thank you very much.

Carol’s core ethic is simple but elegant: first: survive, second: protect your loved ones and community, third: do whatever’s required to serve the first two. In keeping with my thesis here, though, Carol reminds me of Old Testament heroines such as Deborah and my personal favorite Judith. Her story, for me anyway, resonates with the story of Judith: a widow, dismissed by the passive male leader of her besieged community who takes matters into her own hands to protect her community. She acts dispassionately, deceptively and brutally. So, when she emerges from the wilderness to approach Terminus, for me she is a blood-drenched angel ready to act.

There’s a lot of emerging in this episode: Gareth’s face emerging from the blackness in “Then,” Carol emerging from the wilderness several times. Toward the end of the episode, at the reunion, Tyrese emerges from the hut a changed man, almost a disciple of Carol’s saying: “I had to. So I did. I could.” This is his response to her urging to kill at the beginning of the episode: “You’re gonna have to be able to.”

Once Carol’s explosion breaches the fences, she camouflages herself among the walkers. In a separate shot, we see the walkers emerge from the flames, like demons of retribution from the fires of hell to feast on the very people who feasted on others. She seems to move effortlessly as she progresses through the compound until she comes upon Mary.

The room is part sanctuary, part memorial. Painted in huge letters across the walls are the group’s new ideaology, formed as they emerged from their own suffering:

“Never Again” –that’s a fairly legitimate idea for someone terrorized, victimized and otherwise exploited.

However, it’s the foundations they build on that notion, their own personal ethic that is a bit troublesome. Hint: it’s not “Love Thy Neighbor.”

“We First Always”
“Never Trust”

And then there’s the one tenant of the Terminus belief system that Mary explains, the one that must have been too long to write on the wall: “You’re the butcher, or you’re the cattle.”

Throughout her time with Carol, Mary uses religious, metaphysical language to describe her group:
“The signs were real …”
“This place was a sanctuary …”
“We heard the message …”

But it’s not a message of faith, not a message from any source more profound that the brutal existence everyone finds themselves fighting. It is “what the world is telling you.” That same world with the zombie virus that’s infected all of humanity and toppled modern global civilization. I don’t think I want to be taking that world’s advice. As Mary finds out, it wasn’t a very helpful message.

In the end, in Terminus, Mary finds herself the victim of her own fallacies: being the butcher causes her to be the cattle.

Throughout the rest of the episode, we see the outcomes of the differences between the two groups: one, an autonomic, institutionalized group that Martin describes as “a bunch of assholes I stay alive with,” versus a community of “friends,” as Carol and Tyrese try to convey to the very nihilistic Martin.

As The Talking Dead post-show panel noted, Gareth’s community is very soulless and regimented, which we see when Gareth comes in for “shot counts.” Rick’s community acts out of the soul. Glenn urges Rick to release people held in a cattle car “We gotta let those people out. …. That’s still who we are. It’s gotta be.” And Rick listens – this is the evolution from the Ricktatorship of seasons past.

As they make their way across the compound, we see the “turned” butcher from the slaugher room, the same guy who didn’t heed the gunshots or the bomb blast because “it’s not our job.” He’s now a walker. It wasn’t much of a career change.

As Rick unearths[iv] the hidden guns in the woods, Maggie and others urge Rick to consider a form of forgiveness – just letting it go and moving on. No retribution, no violent recrimination. Just move on. Again, Rick listens. This is a core difference between the soul of our group versus Gareth’s.

Moments later, Carol once again emerges from the wilderness. This begins the series of rewards for the group. Carol and Daryl are reunited (that scene took my breath away); Sasha and Tyrese are later reunited as are Carl and Rick with Judith.

That Carol is the means by which families are reunited reinforces her role in this episode as a rescuer, a means of salvation. After all, we’re saved by our relationship with others, by the relationship we choose to have with the rest of humanity and the world.

Throughout “No Sanctuary,” we see the Termites’ brutal, nihilistic, relationship with the world born out of their own passivity and sense of helplessness, and our group chooses and forms its relationship of belief, hope, humanity, action and resistance.  For that, they are rewarded.

And with Morgan hot on their heels, I can’t wait!!


[i] I’m as gullible and innocent as they come, and I have to admit that putting up a bunch of idealistic signs saying “come on in” is inviting trouble. What was their security? How did they screen? What culpability did Gareth share?

[ii] Okay guys, here comes the religious foreshadowing. Normally, I’m about as astute with foreshadowing as I am with lunar module landings, but this one I got.

[iii] I can’t take credit for this observation. It came out in The Talking Dead. Doggone that Chris Hardwick. Of course, he gets preview episodes I bet.

[iv] I really want this to be a hint of a foreshadowing about a theme of resurrection, or birth of good things. I do.


One thought on “The Walking Dead: “No Sanctuary” – Religion at its Gorey Best

  1. There is the whole issue about a depiction of a woman in my age group who is actually living a life and a protagonist, not a foil figure as a mother or mother-in-law or aunt. Yes, you can be middle aged and a badass, thank you very much.

    EXACTLY. The novel I’m writing at the moment has a female protagonist as well as a female antagonist, and several other strong female figures. It’s YA because I feel as if there aren’t enough stories about young women being able to take the lead… I want my daughters (and sons) to know that women can be the heroes, and that good stories don’t always have to be about boys.

    But as I was thinking about it (and another story) recently, it occurred to me that there are not many stories about women my age. If young women are struggling to be seen in fiction or film, middle-aged and older women are conspicuous in their absence. They don’t have major roles, they are, as you write, mothers or aunts. Advisors, not front and centre.

    I want to write a story about women my age, but without it being Jodi Picoult (not that there’s anything wrong with that), you know? I have some ideas. But it’s very interesting to read about your analysis of how these people work together. I can only imagine the reunion between Daryl and Carol 🙂 Obviously not having watched for a while, some of the characters are not familiar to me, but I still really enjoyed reading this review. Great job!


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