‘The Walking Dead’ Season 5 Finale Review: All Hell Breaks Loose in ‘Conquer’
Recap and review of The Walking Dead – Season 5 Finale – Conquer:
For all the talk online of how we would need our Kleenex boxes handy for The Walking Dead Season 5 finale, “Conquer” is somewhat subdued. A lot of things happen, to be sure, but this finale feels more like the dynamite being ignited, with the explosion coming next season.
But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, I’d argue it’s actually a good thing. No unnecessary, shock value deaths that add nothing to the story beyond a water cooler moment to talk about at work on Monday morning. No total warfare with an opposing force. Just a clash between two ideologies, with one ideology prevailing over the other, as Rick (Andrew Lincoln) proves to Deanna (Tovah Feldshuh) that Alexandria needs to change in order to survive. This was a wise move for the show, even if it resulted in a somewhat muted episode. Only spending half a season in Alexandria would have been a waste of a great, new location, so I like that the story mostly centers on how Rick (Andrew Lincoln) is inevitably integrated into the society, not through the value of who he is as a human being, but through what he can provide via brute force and grim necessity. The episode spends the better part of its 90-minute runtime depicting Rick as a man caught between his duty to the people he’s sworn to protect, as represented by his desire to take over Alexandria, and his desire to avoid lying to those same people. But, as Carol tells him, “Oh, sunshine, you don’t get both.”
In essence, Rick can’t be both a conqueror and an honest man. He simply can’t afford any more half-measures. By episode’s end, he’s not only defending Alexandria from the walkers that Gabriel (Seth Gilliam) allowed to get in, he’s also defending the stability of Alexandria after Pete (Corey Brill) accidentally kills Deanna’s husband, Reg (Steve Coulter), during an angry tirade at the campfire meeting to decide Rick’s fate. When Deanna tearfully looks up from her husband’s body and gives Rick the go-ahead to kill Pete, saying little more than “Rick…Do it,” we know that Rick’s place in this community has been sealed. Whether she wants to admit it or not, Rick is right, and Pete is a problem that should have been dealt with far sooner than now. I don’t feel like this is a return to the “Ricktatorship” of old, since I see this as a partnership with Deanna, in which he helps steer Alexandria in a more self-reliant direction under Deanna’s more bureaucratic style of leadership. But this does mark a significant upgrade for Rick’s overall standing in Alexandria, and that’s likely to be a significant development, moving forward. At least as big a development as the arrival of Morgan (Lennie James).
Few things in this finale were as badass as Morgan taking out two members of The Wolves, that roving gang that’s been carving Ws into foreheads at every turn. And yet, that opening sequence for the episode ties into Morgan’s overall journey, as he finally meets up with Rick’s group, rescuing both Daryl (Norman Reedus) and Aaron (Russ Marquand) from certain death after the Wolves’ booby trap leaves them surrounded by walkers at a food processing plant. It’s a subplot that adds to the sense of insurmountable anxiety that pervades a world like this. Daryl struggles with being in Alexandria, away from the constant threat that being outside its walls presents. As he explains to Aaron, he feels more like himself in these dangerous situations, even though Aaron feels nowhere near that same level of calm resignation. He views his job as a scout as a moral obligation, a duty to correct the past mistake of inviting back three people who ended up needing to be banished for their behavior. We don’t get many details about the party other than it was two guys and a girl, which has me wondering if perhaps they were any of the walkers tied to trees with Ws carved into their foreheads. Maybe those people are part of the Wolves themselves? It’s hard to be sure, but I do like that the episode is further developing the friendship between Aaron and Daryl, as Aaron refuses to allow Daryl to go on a diversionary suicide mission, vowing that if they’re going to live or die, they’re going to do it together. Morgan showing up is just the icing on the awesome cake (well, that, and Daryl lashing the heads off of three walkers with nothing more than a length of chain). Yet, things go horribly wrong when Daryl and Aaron bring Morgan back to Alexandria, since the first thing Morgan sees when he gets back to their camp is Rick murdering another human being. Morgan seems disappointed and horrified, since he’d put so much hope in Abraham’s map to D.C., which declared that “The New World’s Gonna Need Rick Grimes.” Although Morgan likely didn’t see the context of Rick’s actions, it doesn’t seem to matter here. Rick comes across less as a man who can change the world for a better, and more as a man consumed by that world. If nothing else, it’s a hell of a cliffhanger (well, more so than the post-credits scene in which Michonne decides that maybe, just maybe, she ought to start wearing her sword again after all).
In fact, it’s kind of a miracle that the episode ends there, since the entire 90-minute spectacle seems to be building up to a major death. I admit, I figured it’d be Glenn (Steven Yeun), considering his final words to Maggie (Lauren Cohan) before going out into the woods are “I Love You”. But while he nearly gets killed, he does manage to survive through sheer tenacity. In short, Glenn tracks Nicholas (Michael Traynor), who shoots him in the shoulder. A fight ensues and walkers circle the scene. Glenn basically has to fight tooth-and-nail to keep the walkers off of him, and not only is it a miracle that he survives, it’s astonishing that he’s even able to catch up to Nicholas at all. The climactic fight is one of the more exhilarating this season, as Glenn is pushed to the edges of his morality. He gains the upper hand on Nicholas and points a gun at his head, and Yeun does a great job of communicating Glenn’s internal struggle. Can he really afford to let Nicholas live? Can he afford NOT to kill Nicholas? It’s a fitting moral debate that echoes Rick’s own dilemma with Pete. At what point do you just accept that someone is always going to be a dangerous liability, and just neutralize them before they can cause more damage? While Glenn ultimately can’t bring himself to kill Nicholas, I found it to be a pleasant surprise that, in this finale at least, that decision doesn’t come back to bite him. It basically says that unpunished morality can still exist in this world. Sure, maybe Glenn will pay down the line, but right now, he’s able to stick to his principles and stay alive. In this world, that’s basically having your cake and eating it too.
The rest of the episode is fittingly dramatic in ways both big and small. One of the smaller, more understated moments of the episode was Carol (Melissa McBride) threatening Pete with a knife if he didn’t check on Tara (Alanna Masterson). I say “understated” because McBride is doing an extraordinary job of making Carol’s menacing qualities feel both chilling and necessary, without coming across as too forceful. She really has grown to be one of the best parts of the show, and I’d love to see her get some Emmy recognition for it, even though this isn’t the type of show the TV Academy tends to go for. A similarly excellent little moment was Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) and Eugene (Josh McDermitt) apologizing to one another for how they’ve acted towards each other. An apology might seem insufficient considering that Eugene gave his friends false hope, while Abraham nearly beat Eugene to death with his bare hands, but it’s so beautifully acted by Cudlitz and McDermitt that it felt like a genuine mending of fences. And hey, Tara wakes up, to boot! I mean, it was clear they weren’t going to kill her after she managed to make it through all of last week without just passing away suddenly in the night. But it was still a hopeful, pleasant way to close things off for her character.
At the very least, it managed to be far more engaging than the interminable business with Father Gabriel, who goes out on his own, kills a walker, and then collapses in the ground in a puddle of tears. He then nearly gets Alexandria taken over by purposefully leaving the gate open, since his apparent death wish means taking everyone else with him. It isn’t until episode’s end that we get any kind of idea why he’s acting the way he is, as he lashes out at Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green) for getting Bob killed, before confessing that he’s a fallen man for allowing his congregation to suffer as they did. It ends in a prayer circle between the two, along with Maggie, in a moment that probably should have had more emotional weight than it did. But I just can’t stand Father Gabriel or his storylines, and Sasha is becoming similarly tiring. Hopefully, these characters can move forward in Season 6 and offer something more to the story. Otherwise, I can’t really see what purpose they serve other than to round out the ranks of Rick’s group.
“Conquer” wasn’t the perfect season finale for The Walking Dead, but I was riveted just the same. I imagine it wouldn’t be as strong on a rewatch, since we know none of Rick’s people die. But in the moment, the finale is packed with palpable dread, as this show presents the whole “nobody is safe, not even your favorite character” vibe better than just about any show on TV not named Game of Thrones. I’m already excited for Season 6, and all the places this story could go.