Spoiler warning: Do not read on unless you’ve seen “The Walking Dead” season five finale, titled “Conquer.”
After a season that unflinchingly racked up the body count, this year’s “Walking Dead” finale was a surprisingly forgiving affair, with all of our group members surviving the hour, despite close calls for Glenn, Daryl, Sasha, Rick and Gabriel (although I’m not sure anyone would mourn the flibbertigibbet priest at this point — especially after he left the gate open and allowed who knows what inside). After all the teases involving Glenn and baseball bats, I’m glad that he made it through another year relatively unscathed.
The most satisfying surprise of the episode was how much of a role Morgan played — Rick’s first post-apocalyptic buddy has been elusive this season, but the hour opened with a much more lucid Morgan than we saw when he last encountered Rick in “Clear,” seemingly at peace with himself and his surroundings.
He had no trouble dispatching a couple of Wolves with nothing but a stick like a regular Jedi Master, seemingly warning them to leave him alone for their own good rather than for his benefit. If only he’d sealed the deal and killed them outright, poor Red Poncho Guy and his survivalist mosquito repellent techniques might still be with us — sadly, “all life is precious,” including bloodthirsty murderers, so Morgan opted to leave the Wolves breathing… a decision that may come back to bite the group next season, quite literally.
Obviously, something transformative happened to Morgan between “Clear” and now — something that allowed him to push past his grief and find a new focus: to track Rick down at any cost. From season one, Rick and Morgan served as a kind of distant but ever-present tether for each other — a last vestige of civilization in an otherwise brutal and unrecognizable world. While Rick found others to help ground him and maintain his humanity — including his wife (for a while) and son, Morgan represented a counterpoint to Rick’s journey; someone who lost a family instead of gaining one. It’ll be fascinating to explore the catalyst that restored Morgan’s perspective next season, and see whether he can share a little of his newfound clarity with the equally damaged members of Rick’s group.
And thankfully, despite the roaming Wolves, Morgan was around right when Daryl and Aaron needed him most. After falling for the Wolves’ trap and inadvertently releasing a truck full of walkers that left them cornered in a car, Morgan swooped in to save the day and prevented the duo from going on a kamikaze run through a sea of zombies. I found myself getting unexpectedly emotional when Morgan handed Daryl the map that Abraham previously gave to Rick; Morgan has come so far and been alone for so long, so it was exhilarating to see him come so close to his goal. I only wish we could’ve seen that moment of realization when Daryl must’ve confirmed that he knew exactly where Rick Grimes was. Between Rick and Morgan’s season one walkie talkie plan and Rick’s encounter with Morgan in “Clear,” you have to imagine that Daryl knows about Morgan and figured out who he was once he introduced himself, and while I understand the need for narrative expedience, it would’ve been satisfying to see that moment play out. Instead, we got a newly zen Morgan rolling up Alexandria just in time to watch Rick put Pete down like a rabid dog, which is a fairly inauspicious reunion, no matter how much meditation you’ve been doing lately.
“Conquer” featured three similar stories running along parallel tracks — the building pressure between Rick and Pete (and thus the Alexandrians as a whole), Glenn and Nicholas, and Sasha and Gabriel. All three confrontations resulted in bloodshed, but Rick was the only one who actually pulled the trigger on Pete, after the selfish and abusive doctor accidentally killed Deanna’s husband Reg in an attempt to get to Rick.
Both Sasha and Gabriel have been dealing with survivor guilt for the back half of the season, tempting fate by trying to sacrifice themselves to the walkers but unable to ever fully let go and give up the fight. It’s hard to tell which one of them wanted to die more during their desperate brawl, but at least Gabriel seemed to finally reach a place where he was able to admit to himself (and others) that he was responsible for the deaths of his parishioners, and hearing Maggie agree with him and acknowledge his sin appeared to give him some kind of peace. I’m still reeling from the potent image of Sasha lying down in the grave with the walkers — an eerily poignant image that spelled out her weariness loud and clear, and one that made the later shot of Sasha, Maggie and Gabriel peacefully joining hands in prayer even more powerful.
Elsewhere, Glenn was reminded that no good deed goes unpunished when Nicholas used Rick’s stolen gun and shot him in cold blood out in the woods. Granted, Glenn’s previous pep talk about Nicholas’ penchant for getting his allies killed wasn’t particularly encouraging, but Nicholas’ reaction felt a little out of proportion. A bruised ego isn’t really justification for murder, and he was pretty brutal, first in hunting Glenn down (and purposefully beating on his gunshot wound) and then leaving him for dead when the walkers descended on them.
Unlike Rick, though, Glenn continues to try and see the good in people — he recognized Nicholas for the coward he was and took pity on him instead of shooting him — more as a way to maintain his own humanity than because Nicholas was actually deserving of a second chance. Still, Nicholas might be a bully, but he doesn’t seem to be cut from the same cloth as Pete, and I don’t think he’ll be coming at Glenn with a sword next season after Glenn chose to spare him. Some people just need a little tough love before they get the message, right?
Once again, Carol stole the show with a few sharp scenes, first bringing over another Casserole of Doom to Pete’s house so that she could threaten him, giving her the opportunity to say to him all the things she was never able to say to her own abusive husband. That scene felt immensely cathartic and also darkly hilarious, since, as Melissa McBride later noted on “Talking Dead,” she was basically serving Pete’s balls to him on a platter (or a casserole dish, as the case may be), and despite the difference in their size, Pete was rendered completely impotent in the face of Carol’s cool fury.
Even in an action-packed episode, character moments like that really gave “Conquer” its power — from Michonne’s quiet reassurance to Rick that no matter what happened at the forum, she would always be on his side, to Maggie’s desperate plea to Deanna to treat Rick fairly, to Carl’s unwavering faith that his father would do the right thing.
While we’ve gained a little insight into Abraham this season (and Michael Cudlitz’s performance is engaging enough to mostly make up for the lack of character development on the screen), Eugene and Rosita remain the weak links of the group. Rosita probably had more lines in last week’s episode than the rest of the season combined, and I still don’t have any sense of who she is as a character or why she and Abraham care so deeply for each other; and Eugene, like Gabriel, seems to serve as one of those characters that you’re just praying will get bitten and put everyone out of their misery, which makes it all the more frustrating when fascinating characters like Tyreese and Noah get the chop. Likewise, the show doesn’t seem to know what to do with Tara, and the only solution seemed to be to put her in a coma for two episodes.
While season five has arguably been “The Walking Dead’s” best yet, propelled by compulsive story threads and fascinating character dynamics, the show’s one weakness is the ever-increasing size of its ensemble, which leaves some characters underserved or left to languish offscreen entirely for weeks at a time. We’ve now added even more characters in the Alexandrians (and I’m sure we’re all hoping that Morgan gets to stick around after so long in the wilderness), so it seems like the herd is destined to be culled again next season, which feels like a bit of a waste. Instead of introducing characters that are simply going to be pushed to the backburner before we get to know them, it would be nice to keep the group somewhat contained and take the time to establish the players we already have, instead of adding more to the pile only to be discarded a few weeks later. (Alas, Noah, we hardly knew ye.)
The weight of so many competing story arcs certainly brought a breathless quality to the finale — similar to “Game of Thrones” and that blockbuster show’s sprawling ensemble, each character probably got a cumulative five minutes of screen time while showrunner Scott Gimple worked to tie up multiple loose ends. Although “Conquer” never felt ponderous, it also felt less like a finale than many of the show’s previous season closers; less of an edge-of-your-seat cliffhanger than a winking “to be continued…” as if the story could quite easily resume uninterrupted next week. And given the brutality of this season’s premiere, it’s entirely possible that the show’s October return will deliver at least one of the main character deaths we were anticipating for the finale, just to keep us on our toes.
Still, for those of us who watch for the characters instead of the gore (although there’s been plenty of that too), season five represents a marked improvement over the stagnation of previous years, with the promise of Alexandria breathing new life into the series, offering our group a form of opposition that isn’t inherently wrong, unlike The Governor or the Termites. Even within Beth’s sojourn to Grady earlier this year, those characters were flawed, but their motivations were understandable, allowing the show to wrestle with the moral implications of surviving in a world where “civilization” has become a foreign concept. It’s been fascinating to watch Rick’s group struggle with the Alexandrians, knowing that their motives are good, even if their methods aren’t.
This season has been a tour de force for Andrew Lincoln, whose rousing speech at the end of the episode proved unequivocally why these people need to put their faith in him (even after he admitted that he’d been trying to decide how many of them he needed to kill — great bedside manner, as always). The Alexandrians remain too naive, too insulated to recognize the real threats in their midst, and they’ll need all of Rick’s strategizing to face the impending threat of the Wolves.
Who they are and what they want remain unclear — outside of general death and destruction — but given the photos of Alexandria that one of them was thumbing through at the end of the episode, it’s safe to assume that at least one of them is one of the three Alexandrians Deanna chose to exile early on. They’re certainly doing a good job of creating an army of walkers — but is overrunning Alexandria their endgame? We’ll have to wait until fall to find out.
What did you think of “The Walking Dead” season five finale? Were you relieved that everyone survived, or were you hoping for another death? Weigh in below.