The Walking Dead Season 5 Finale Review: “Conquer”
Photo by Gene Page/AMC
Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson review The Walking Dead each week in a series of letters.
Finales do not come much better than that.
There’s so much to digest here, and it’s not just because the episode was 90 minutes long, although that certainly helps. So let me start at the end and say that if the goal of a finale is to provide enough resolution to satisfy the viewers who have stuck you with for a full season, but also introduce the elements that lure us in for the next, then mission f’ing accomplished. The meeting by the fire, invoking Lord of the Flies, managed to pack more tension than a thousand zombie attacks. It was all because so much hung in the balance, and the results could go ten different ways. Would Rick’s gang have to kill Deanna and the rest of the Alexandrians? Would she have a backup plan? Would they pardon Rick, or would an uneasy truce continue? As it turned out, it was a zombie break-in and a late intervention from Pete the irate surgeon that finally opened their eyes. With one command, Deanna sacrificed the thin veneer of civility that had sustained them since the walls went up, and gained a dose of realism that might help them survive.
That’s the big news—in order to truly unite as a community, one side had to join the other’s level, and Rick’s had been out in the “shit,” as Abraham put it, for far too long to ever go soft. That meant the Alexandrians needed to at least commit to hardening themselves, or the conflict between the two sides would lead to inevitable violence and death. But the minor themes in this episode made it possible for the huge pay-off, and I think we need to touch on a few of those.
1. MORGAN! Holy shit, Morgan’s finally back! And, thank God, he hadn’t turned psycho and begun writing his first initial upside-down on the foreheads of innocents. Through his sojourns, he has maintained his humanity, and made Rick Grimes a kind of savior. Everything has been geared toward finding him, and along the way, he saves Daryl and Aaron’s bacon after they fall into a really insidious zombie trap. The minute he finally makes it inside the walls of Alexandria, though, he witnesses Rick shooting another man in cold blood. That’s the image we closed on for the season, and it will remain unresolved for now—will Rick be diminished in Morgan’s eyes? When Daryl asked him why he undertook the rescue effort, he spoke about the value of each life, and now he’s just watched his own personal symbol of goodness take a life without apparent remorse.
2. The Wolves — How eerie was the scene, during the grand finale, when they lured the zombies back into the trucks with that music? The poor man in red—he died never know how close he came to being rescued. From what I gather, the goal of the two nut jobs is to zombify everyone they come across, for the purpose of adding them to the army inside the gates. Beyond that, we don’t know their aim, but I have a guess: They know about Alexandria, and when they have enough dead gathered, that’s going to be part of the attack plan. Get the trucks inside the walls, open the doors, and unleash hell. Then again, I may be giving them too much credit—this weird stalking and killing might be its own reward. After all, one of them says “welcome home” to their latest victims, which sounds like it could be some kind of cult-speak.
3. Glenn and Nicholas — FUCKING KILL HIM, GLENN. JUST KILL HIM. HE DESERVES IT LIKE EIGHT TIMES OVER. I KNOW YOU’RE A NICE GUY, COME ON.
4. Father Gabriel fails at suicide — Neither suicide by zombie or suicide by Sasha panned out, and at the end there appears to be a sort of catharsis, as he, Sasha, and Maggie pray together. All I have to say about this, Josh, is that he better start being useful, and soon. We’ve been pretty patient with Father Gabe, but all he’s given us are some weird looks, a good amount of creep factor, and a tendency toward betrayal.
I’ll leave it there for now, but there’s so much more to say. I welcome all your thoughts, and I’ll leave you with this question: Did you feel as relieved and practically joyful as I did when Michonne proved loyal to Rick? I don’t think I could have handled a full defection to the Alexandrians, even if it made sense.
There was so much to unpack in that episode. The Walking Dead has made a habit of tense, epic and surprising finales, and Season 5 upped the ante with 90 minutes of action and drama. You covered the bulk of it, but also…
5. Sasha’s breakdown has been one of the least interesting things about the season so far, but seeing her lay down in the grave of zombies and stare up at the sky really brought her storyline home. She’s as broken as Father Gabriel, and ironically it’s his crazy self-hatred that he directs at her, along with the timely intervention of Maggie, that snaps both of them out of their fatalism.
6. Carol the doting housewife pulls out the shiv! Facing what was once her biggest fear—an abusive husband—she handles herself cooly, cowering the giant that is Pete with confidence and menace. She has become much greater and stronger than that which always sought to keep her down. This was a triumphant episode for Carol. She may still be playing helpless homemaker—and still may be a little psychotic—but she had a nice win over at Pete’s house.
7. Glenn getting shot was so out of the blue that I almost fell out of my chair. What? Asshat shot Glenn? I was with you in the moment that he should have pulled that trigger, then I was glad Glenn still retained enough humanity not to kill him. Then I came back to my senses. This show is like a warning against mercy in the zombie apocalypse. Andrea spares the Governor, and lots of people die. Tyreese spares the Terminus bro, and lots of people die. Morgan spares the Wolves, and lots of people are probably going to die, starting with red poncho guy. And now Glenn spares Nicholas. I’m sure Nicholas will eventually get his due—this show doesn’t let cowardice and evil go unpunished. But a lot of innocents may pay for that act of mercy.
8. Even Abraham and Eugene had a nice moment of grace in this episode. Eugene changed his tune enough to get out an actual heartfelt apology to Abraham, and Abraham responded with one of his own. “I did almost kill you,” he admits.
9. Maggie and Michonne right now are doing the most to bring both sides of Alexandria together. I was glad to see Maggie get more screen time tonight. She’s a great character who’s been underused lately.
But back to Zen Master Morgan! I’d forgotten that Rick had asked him to go to D.C., so I couldn’t imagine how he was ever going to be reunited with the gang. But seeing him fight off those two Wolves with just a quarterstaff was glorious. Lennie James is one of the show’s best actors, and I’m so glad to have him back.
I don’t think the Wolves knew about Alexandria until they found Aaron’s satchel with the photos. But you know their eyes got wide when they saw it. Those guys are a whole different kind of evil than we’ve seen, but their zombie trap seems set up to lure in supplies rather than having to go out to gather on their own. Except, you know, when they run through a camp at night, slaughtering everyone in it. Morgan should have killed them when he had the chance. Not every life is all that precious in the apocalypse.
And yes, I’m very thankful that even after she knocked him out cold, Michonne is eternally Team Rick.
So looking back on this season, did the finale satisfy all the threads that the writers have been weaving this year? Did it leave you excited for next season? And what do you think about the spinoff in L.A., Fear the Walking Dead?
Starting with your last question first, my honest reaction when I saw the Fear the Walking Dead promo was, “I don’t think I’m up for that.” I may end up changing my tune, but a show like this requires a good deal of investment, and it almost felt like being asked to climb a second mountain when you’ve just reached the peak of the first. I need a moment, and by “a moment,” I mean forever. I’m good with Rick and the gang for the moment, and I don’t think I can handle the commitment and added tension levels of a spin-off. Then again, I’ll probably get roped into the pilot episode, love it, and stay with it for 15 seasons. Then they’ll introduce another spin-off, and soon my entire life will be just watching different versions of The Walking Dead and having terrible dreams all the time.
As for this show, I’m definitely excited for next season, and yes, I tip my cap to the writers for managing to keep a level of ambiguity while giving us a satisfying conclusion. I’m glad to hear there’s no full-scale Alexandria invasion planned yet by The Wolves, but you’re right, the photo-ogling seems to imply that it’s imminent.
My favorite resolution last night, as you implied, was Bob and Sasha, and I only say that because both of them have left me pretty cold this whole season. Bob has been an afterthought, and Sasha just seemed to be careening pointlessly out of control. But—good call by you—the shot of her lying in the grave had a heartbreaking poignancy, as did Gabriel’s attempts to sacrifice himself. For the first time in a long time, I actually care about them both, and coming into the finale, I would not have guessed that was possible. Huge kudos to the writers on that, because I think they MacGyvered that one—making something pretty effective with very little in the way of raw material.
I don’t even know what to think about Carol, Josh. When I want to write her off as a deranged maniac, she comes out with some top-notch perspective, and when I think she’s redeemed, she threatens to kill a 10-year-old. I think I’m going to have to resign myself to ambivalence with her.
Here are a few last questions for you before we send this season off into that inviting darkness. One: What kind of music would The Wolves listen to (not counting their zombie-luring tunes)? Two: The inevitable one…as far as your memory allows, where do you rank this season among the other four? And three: Does the semi-peaceful resolution last night indicate a new era of stability inWalking Dead universe, or is it just the calm in the chaotic storm. In other words, is Alexandria the fortress they’ve been waiting for, or just another prison, bound to be destroyed from within or without?
One: From what we’ve seen of The Wolves, from the sadistic forehead carvings, the woman tied to the tree to be eaten by zombies, the strange conversation with Morgan and the crazy zombie trap, I think the Brian Wilson song they used to repack the trailers with walkers is appropriate. They’re clearly psychedelic pop fans, starting with the capital-Z Zombies and Harry Nillson and continuing through Beechwood Sparks and Of Montreal. Eventually Carl’s garage band will record “Yoshimi” with the intro, “This is a song The Wolves stole from The Flaming Lips, and we’re stealing it back.”
Two: I rank the seasons thusly: 3, 1, 5, 4, 2. But there’s not a big gap between any of those, and I could make an argument that it’s simply gotten better as we’ve come to know the characters more deeply. This season certainly wasn’t a let up in any fashion. And it ended really strong (though most seasons have).
Three: The stability in Alexandria is definitely just the calm before the storm. I’m not completely caught up on the comics, but The Wolves seem like a new creation, meaning the TV writers have delayed introducing the best villain Robert Kirkman created (better than the comic-book version of The Governor). I’ll be shocked if he doesn’t show up in Season 6.
And finally, unlike you, I can’t wait for Fear the Walking Dead. We’ve spent so much time in the aftermath of the apocalypse, that I’m anxious to see it from the beginning. I don’t know if I’ve just become desensitized, but I haven’t had terrible zombie dreams since Season 2. Fear the Walking Dead just might change that. But I’m still planning on roping you in for more letter-exchange recaps.
Please don’t die, Daryl Dixon. And thank you for not dying, Glenn.