THE SHOW "The Walking Dead"

WHEN | WHERE Returns Sunday night at 9 on AMC

WHAT ITS ABOUT The last words of Rick (Andrew Lincoln) as the huge doors on the cattle-train car where he and the others are imprisoned slam shut? They don't know whom they are messing with. Or words to that effect. The inhabitants of the Terminus (Terminators?) are about to find out. What exactly is the Terminus -- that way station en route to Washington, D.C., where a cure may be? You'll find out -- and also find out what Carol (Melissa McBride) and Tyreese (Chad Coleman), who play a huge role tomorrow night, are up to. Fans will also get to learn a little more about Rick's latest archenemy, Gareth (Andrew J. West), the putative leader of the Terminus.

MY SAY Greg Nicotero directed Sunday's opener, which -- for true "Dead"-heads -- should be indication enough of what to expect. He's "The Walking Dead's" grindhouse auteur, for whom no death can be truly grisly enough. Not quite enough blood on that corpse, dead or undead? Well, maybe we should add a little more, along with some viscera, brain matter and a couple of scoops of undifferentiated goo. One of Nicotera's insights this season -- a good one -- is that walkers should have deteriorated after all these long months of decay. Evidence of that arrives in "No Sanctuary," too.

But here's the thing: As the denizens of the Terminus make their intentions known, Nicotera also has living victims to add to his palette of gore. He has novel ways of dealing with them as well, notably in the opening minutes.

You have been warned.

Does "The Walking Dead" outdo itself with this season premiere? Of course, but "outdo" is what "The Walking Dead" does. This is not a series content to recycle visual ideas over and over even if it's a little less resistant to recycling thematic ones. The Terminus is basically just the next iteration of Woodbury: a chop-shop hell full of sloganeering monsters who cling to one quaint slogan in particular. ("You're either the butcher or the cattle.") Gareth is the Governor Redux, and since Rick needs living as well as dead enemies, he certainly has found another formidable one.

Producers say the fifth season promises to pursue one core theme -- "who do they become?," with "they" referring not just to the core cast but to all of the living. Tyreese represents one extreme -- the gentle giant who holds baby Judith in one arm and shields Carol with the other while refusing to shed his fundamental humanity. Gareth, representing the exact opposite, is perfectly content to shed (and -- spoiler alert -- shred too).

The basic idea in the fifth is that "character defines you." However, in a world overrun with rotting walkers, and Gareth, that undergoes a slight modification: "Character also destroys you."

BOTTOM LINE A wallop to the gut. Fans will approve.

GRADE A