The Walking Dead: Season 5, Episode 16 – Conquer

“Rick just wants his family to live. He wants all of you to live. Who he is, is who you’re going to be. If you’re lucky.”

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(SPOILER WARNING!)

So, I wasn’t quite accurate last week when I referred to this season finale of The Walking Dead as “double length”. AMC’s bold assertion of a “90 minute season finale” actually referred to the timeslot in which it was broadcast, with its attendant commercials. In actual fact, this ep ran for nearly 65 minutes, about half again as long as the usual 42ish. The show’s done this before, but not since the season two opener; here, though, it wasn’t to provide big budget Walker spectacle but to give some quite complex character drama room to breathe, which it did very well.

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If you were expecting a slam bang action spectacular as in many series’ season finales, you may well have been disappointed. Instead, this was a measured, even low key affair, which spent as much time setting up plotlines for the next season as resolving the ones from this one. But then, Walking Dead finales have rarely been big budget extravaganzas; that tends to be reserved for mid-season breaks and season openers.

As ever, there was much speculation as to which of the regular characters in this bloodthirsty show might be for the chop to give the finale dramatic impact. In the event, we lost none of them; but the script seemed to cleverly play with our expectations, putting Rick, Daryl and Glenn – the most likely candidates – in some pretty nailbiting jeopardy.

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Having established the characters’ apparent new home in the walled community of Alexandria, and set up the tensions therein, this ep focused very heavily on the themes that have been building over the last few weeks. Specifically, whether Rick and his crew can adjust back to a normal life (well, as normal as you can get in a zombie apocalypse), and whether all that time spent “outside” has traumatised them so much that now they’ve become “the baddies”.

Certainly Rick’s manic tirade at the end of last week’s ep didn’t exactly sell him as a rational man with a plan to bolster Alexandria’s defences. Michonne’s clobbering him to shut him up seemed to indicate that she’d gone native, but apparently not; as she explained to Rick this week, “I didn’t do it for them. I did it for you”. That’s all very well, but it’s worth remembering that Rick never trusted her enough to confide in her his scheme to take the place over if necessary.

The bulk of the ep was spent in Alexandria dealing with the characters’ tensions and demons, but we did get a couple of other subplots that were at least as interesting. Scott Gimple and Seth Hoffman, writing this week, stoked the tension by catching us up with the wanderings of Morgan Jones before showing us what became of Rick.

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Thankfully the season hasn’t dwelled much at all on Morgan’s quest to find Rick; in fact I bet you’d forgotten all about him, hadn’t you? The very occasional glimpses of him trailing Rick’s gang were enough to whet the appetite without becoming frustrating when he always seemed to be several steps behind them. Presumably it also gave the much-in-demand Lennie James time to work on other things.

This week though saw him taking part in the action proper, along with Daryl and Aaron as we finally got to see some of the mysterious “Wolves”. The friendly smile of the genial chap who sat down with Morgan over the campfire seemed pleasant enough, but he never lowered his gun – enough to make us suspicious from the outset. But he served a narrative purpose before the fighting began – he was there to give us some insight into this mysterious band of marauders. Not only do they carve W’s into the foreheads of the Walkers, they wear them themselves too; though apparently not actually cut into them.

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They also set up some very elaborate traps, into one of which fell that plucky duo of Daryl and Aaron. Obviously still unaware of the tensions back home, they still seemed to be getting along fine, but Aaron still disregarded Daryl’s very valid concerns about raiding that food warehouse. I think Daryl may be slipping; I spotted those highly suspect tin cans on strings attached to the trucks, but neither he nor Aaron seemed to make anything of them.

The subsequent outpouring of Walkers was a good moment, well-handled by director Greg Nicotero. It was a thrilling sequence that provided enough Walker action to counterbalance the more character-driven bulk of the ep. There’s been much speculation (as there is every year) about whether the show would have the guts to kill Daryl, possibly its most popular character; the script seemed to play with that here as he volunteered to lure the Walkers away from Aaron, having what looked very like the condemned man’s last cigarette.

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But that was quickly subverted by Aaron’s insistence that they go together or not at all. That nicely served to demonstrate that these two have indeed become good friends – and that Aaron is every bit as noble/foolhardy as Daryl. Clearly they’re well matched. In the event they got a last minute save from the conveniently nearby Morgan; I wondered how he could see through that horde of Walkers that there were people in that car needing to be rescued, but I suppose the hungry dead wouldn’t be crowded so heavily around it if there wasn’t some chow inside.

None of this told us much about the Wolves, but to set up something that elaborate there must be more of them than just the two we saw here. The devastation wrought on Noah’s community would seem to indicate large numbers. Despite my prediction, the ep didn’t see them launch an assault on Alexandria; again, the showrunner seems to be playing a long game and setting them up as villains for the next season. Later, we saw them thoughtfully looking through the photos they’d retrieved from Aaron’s dropped backpack – photos of what looks like a nice little town…

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It looks like they may have missed their chance to make easy pickings of Alexandria though. Most of this ep was spent following up on the conflict between the Alexandrians’ philosophy of survival and Rick’s more pragmatic, ruthless one. I said last week that, ironically, Rick is now making all the same arguments for ruthlessness that Shane once did; and the ep played with that throughout, as you wondered how far he’d go to stay in – and maybe even take over – the formerly tranquil community.

Of course the tranquillity was really an illusion, and it’s taken the arrival of our hard-headed heroes to quickly turn over a few rocks. The violently abusive (and rather two-dimensional) Pete was being studiously ignored, and nobody seemed to have noticed the utter incompetence of their scavenging team, which had already got four people killed before the demise of Aiden and Noah. This ep may not have provided an anticipated confrontation with the Wolves, but the enmity between Nicholas and Glenn certainly did reach a head. Luring Glenn outside the walls, Nicholas using his purloined gun in a concerted effort to kill the more competent scavenger who’d shown him up as an idiot.

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Again, since we were wondering whether Glenn might not make it this week, it was a genuinely tense sequence – particularly when, injured, he was set upon by three Walkers at once while Nicholas fleed. But when the inevitable happened and Glenn got the drop on his enemy, furiously pointing the gun at his forehead, it became clear what the central drama was about this week – whether our “heroes” would go the whole hog and become proper bad guys.

Glenn’s fury was intercut with Sasha’s, as she faced a near identical dilemma. Having met up with Gabriel in the community’s makeshift church, it was clear that putting the group’s two most unbalanced members together in a small room with a gun was unlikely to end well. So it proved, as the suicidal Gabriel goaded Sasha on to kill him, having previously chickened out of letting a Walker chow down on him.

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In the end, both Glenn and Sasha took the more civilised course; though Sasha at least had to be talked down by Maggie. It may even be that Gabriel is starting to forgive himself, as we saw the three of them holding hands in a circle. Glenn, meanwhile, was seen helping the injured Nicholas back to Alexandria. It felt like a choice had been made. Our gang may be hardened by their experiences, but they’re not going to become the baddies.

That choice, between morality and pragmatism, was amply demonstrated by Rick in the closing minutes of the ep. Having taken care of some Walkers that wandered in through a combination of Spencer’s negligence and Gabriel’s mania, he gave a speech that clearly showed how Shane’s ruthlessness could have been balanced by morality: “I was thinking, how many of you do I have to kill to save your lives. But I’m not gonna do that. You’re gonna change”.

Just in case there were any doubters, the point was amply reinforced by the now utterly bonkers Pete staggering in waving Michonne’s sword about, and inadvertently slashing Reg’s throat in his efforts to get at Rick.

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After all Deanna’s ‘civilised’ protestations, it was she who gave Rick the order to “do it” and blast Pete in the head. After her refusal to consider executing him last week, it was as clear an indication as possible that Rick’s worldview – even if not the man himself – has won this battle.

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Gore of the week

Not a massively gory ep this week, but still a fair bit to see. The usual head-squishing was very much in evidence as Daryl and Aaron fell into the Wolves’ trap, but the best moment was probably Daryl swinging a chain, Hell’s Angel-style, to decapitate three of them at once:

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Not to mention the one which unfortunately got its head stuck while Aaron repeatedly slammed the car door shut:

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Later, Aaron gave us at least the show’s second tribute to the classic machete-in-head routine from the original Dawn of the Dead:

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Gabriel’s failed attempt at suicide-by-Walker ended with him using the handy noose around the creature’s neck to neatly pull its head off:

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And the poor anonymous survivor it had previously been chowing down on was not in a good way:

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A thoughtful season finale, then with a reasonable amount of Walker action but dominated by the character conflicts that have been set up since the show’s mid-season return. The show has clearly reinvented itself again, with the more liveable haven of Alexandria likely to prove more of a challenge to defend than the likes of the prison. And we’ve obviously got another set of antagonists on the way in the form of the Wolves – let’s hope for Alexandria’s sake that they haven’t got a tank like the Governor did. However, I’m betting that when the show returns in October, we’re going to see a leaner, more battle ready community under Rick’s auspices. He’s a harder man now than he was facing off against the Governor – as I think the Wolves will find out.

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