(Spoiler alert: Do not read on if you have not yet seen Sunday’s Season 5 finale of AMC’s “The Walking Dead” entitled “Conquer.”)
To say farewell to its fifth season, AMC’s monster hit “The Walking Dead” expanded to 90 minutes on Sunday. As anticipated, there were deaths to contend with, as well as both new and familiar dangers. But, the episode was mainly about breaking points and what happens when people are pushed too far.
Unlike most season finales, though, “Conquer” wasn’t about burning down the existing narrative and thrusting the characters off into new adventures. It was more about doubling down on the dream that Alexandria could be, while acknowledging its vulnerability in a larger world. As such, it left things very much unresolved, hanging on an unexpected death and a welcome return.
Once again, the walkers took a back seat to character interaction and the human response to this world. That’s not to say we didn’t get to see walkers in unique and interesting ways — though in this case it was how humans were using them against one another that was clever. If there’s one thing history has taught us, it’s that humans will never stop coming up with innovative ways to kill one another.
It’s a welcome development for a show that has evolved into a truly impressive piece of fictional narration over the past five seasons. Zombie schlock has been done and overdone in the movies, so it’s far less interesting than seeing how humanity responds to the new world dynamic. We’ve seen depths of darkness already, and now we’re seeing an almost unbelievable bastion of hope in Alexandria. But can it survive as it is?
Alexandria has been an oasis of innocence isolated from this dark and twisted world, but it’s an innocence that has not yet been tested. And while some could argue that they need Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) and his people to face the realities of the world outside their walls, it could also be argued that Rick and company were the ones who brought those realities inside with them.
As Rick’s little “family” expanded, it grew to include people like self-proclaimed coward Eugene and Father Gabriel (Seth Gilliam). The latter’s suicidal guilt over the death of his flock nearly destroyed Alexandria after he left a gate open on this season finale.
The creators avoided the cliche of having a herd of walkers storm the open gate and decimate the population of Alexandria — been there, done that — and instead used it simply to prove Rick’s value. He quietly found and dispatched the walkers, bringing one to Deanna’s (Tovah Feldshuh) impromptu meeting to make a point. The world is nasty and it’s just not going to stay on the other side of that wall, and he’s not just talking the dead.
Let’s remember that Deanna and her community are not all sunshine and roses. For all her speeches about trying to build a civilization, Deanna was essentially just going to let Pete (Corey Brill) continue beating on Jessie (Alexandra Breckenridge) because of his value as a surgeon and because she really didn’t know what else to do about it. This is a different kind of moral compromise perhaps than Rick and company have had to make in the wild, but it is a compromise nonetheless.
And while it perhaps escalated to a cartoonish finish in the closing moments, with Pete accidentally lashing out at the meeting and killing Deanna’s husband (Steve Coulter), the moment served to prove that the darkness of the world can’t be held at bay by walls. Of course, it was at this moment that Daryl (Norman Reedus) and Aaron (Ross Marquand) returned with Morgan (Lennie James), who was more than a little surprised to watch an execution as his welcome to Alexandria.
Morgan’s return has been hinted at throughout the season, and finally it was clarified that he was still the good man fans had come to know and love through his brief appearances dating all the way back to the pilot. In a harrowing Rube Goldberg contraption utilizing several truck trailers full of walkers, viewers were introduced to the people behind the “W” markings on the walker’s foreheads.
Opening a trailer triggered a series of pulleys that opened the fronts and backs of all the trailers at a canned food place Daryl and Aaron were checking out. Surrounded, their only option was to pile into a nearby car, where they were quickly surrounded by walkers. Aaron found a note warning that this was a trap and bad men were on their way.
Morgan met two of them in the show’s cold open, where he learned how casually they were willing to kill and steal from others. But this is a guy who has been surviving on his own in the world for awhile now. I’m not sure where he picked up his skills with a bo staff, but he was cool and confident when he walked into a swarm of walkers to rescue Aaron and Daryl from a car.
Morgan’s quick rescue meant they were gone before the bad guys showed up, but a quick scene showed just how casually evil this new group was. They killed one of their own as a distraction and then proceeded to reset their trap, luring the walkers back into the trailers.
This is the threat looming for Season 6, and now they know a little something about Alexandria, having gotten Aaron’s recruiting photos. Rick takes a stand and tells the people of Alexandria he’s decided not to kill them in order to save them, but rather to change them.
Can he change them in time? Or will Deanna’s grief-stricken death sentence for Pete signal an even more severe change in the community? Tovah Feldshuh has been compelling to watch as a leader trying to do the best by her people, so it’s exciting to imagine how she will evolve, and what will happen to people like Jessie.
This season finale was a little light on death, though I was a little worried about Glenn (Steven Yeun) there for a minute when Nicholas (Michael Traynor) tried to shoot and kill him to cover up his own role in Noah’s death. But neither men died, with Glenn surviving Nicholas and a group of walkers only to beat him down and once again drag him home.
Gabriel tried to die, both at the hands of the walkers and at Sasha’s (Sonequa Martin-Green) hands, but he may have finally reached a turning point in his own need for self-forgiveness in a prayer session with Sasha — battling her own demons — and Michonne (Danai Gurira).
It looks like everyone is determined to try and make things work at Alexandria, standing at a crossroads as the end credits began to role. They’re going to have to learn to survive one another and get on the same team if they want to be ready for what’s coming for them next season.
“The Walking Dead” returns for Season 6 in the fall, but before that we get to take a look at how this world began in the spinoff series “Fear the Walking Dead,” launching its six-episode first season this summer on AMC.