The Walking Dead 5×16 ‘Conquer’: Wolves not far

The Walking Dead 5x16 COver

Okay.  Season finales have to feel like season finales.  Consider the novelistic approach that more television shows are taking in today’s era, especially after the great success of The Sopranos and the critical reception surrounding The WireBreaking Bad and Mad Men both structured their seasons with clear, definitive arcs that have beginnings, middles, and ends (with the exception of Breaking Bad’s first season, which was largely deformed by the writer’s strike).  Within that novelistic approach, season finales are often either a conclusion to the main arc or fallout from the climax.  HBO’s television shows are now notorious for placing the climax in the penultimate episode and then using the finale as a way to bring everything to a close.  I bring this up because, knowing that The Walking Dead extended its runtime to 90 minutes for its season finale, I assumed that there was so much content to run through that they NEEDED the extra time.  You know, with the teasing of The Wolves and the impending explosion between Rick’s group and Deanna’s.

But no.  “Conquer” was certainly a better finale than “Coda”, but more frustrating in that it squandered the majority of the promise that the half-season placed into it.

The Walking Dead 5x16-3

Source: AMC

You can try to blame it on the knowledge that there was a sixth season coming, but it’s really no excuse.  This latest season of Girls was aired with a fifth season in mind, as it was renewed before the fourth season even aired.  And that season finale felt almost like a series finale, where they completely shook up the story and upended the world that the characters inhabit.  But “Conquer”, for all that happened, felt like it didn’t actually have anything happen.  The Alexandria conflict really only took up the final 5 minutes of the episode, and it was resolved so sloppily and so quickly that it was drained of almost all of its tension.

Let’s talk about that ending first, because it was the most bifurcated point in the episode.  Rick basically reiterated his crazed speech from the previous episode, which was now received differently because there were walkers let into the city and he dragged a walker corpse to the meeting.  This time, everybody was far more receptive to his speech, basically forgetting about how unstable he was the day before.  And to back up his point, Pete stumbles in with one minute left in the episode, kills Reg, and then is executed immediately by Rick on Deanna’s orders.  And, of course, Morgan, Daryl, and Aaron arrive back at camp as soon as Rick carries out the execution.

The Walking Dead 5x16-4

Source: AMC

Let’s unscramble all of these events for a moment.  As part of the story, these plot points aren’t inherently bad.  Sure, I’m not a fan of Pete being a raving lunatic (that’s a REALLY simplistic way to portray an abusive man, where they’re far more devious and complex than some psychopath that beats his wife).  But everything else is solid stuff.  The moment when Morgan witnesses the execution is a genius inversion of the Rick/Morgan juxtaposition we saw back in Season 3’s “Clear”.  The issue is that it’s crammed into the last three minutes of the episode, where there isn’t any time for tension building, for the reaction of the characters, for really anything other than a robotic recitation of the event.

The Walking Dead 5x16-2

Source: AMC

Because everything else that happened in the episode, minus Glenn and Nicholas’ fight, which could have been condensed considerably, was basically filler.  Sure, Sasha and Gabriel were struggling to come to terms with themselves this season, but neither of their characters were drawn well enough for those struggles to feel real.  We can understand why Gabriel wanted to die, but we don’t know enough about what happened to really empathize with him.  Maybe if we got to see the people close to him, how they died, how scared he was in the moment, it would make sense.  But it doesn’t, just as Sasha’s PTSD isn’t more complex than “I’m sad Noah and Tyreese are dead”.  Even Daryl and Aaron’s travels, which are certainly interesting, could have been condensed in order to make Alexandria the emphasis of the episode.  And, by the way, Daryl, Aaron, and Morgan had some of the high points of the episode, with Morgan’s opening sequence as its most tense moment.

But the real issue is that “Conquer” didn’t feel like a season finale.  It was a tease for what was to come.  The Wolves made a vague appearance in the episode, but weren’t featured prominently, their presence a mere tease for what I assume will be a full appearance next season.  So yes, my assumption that The Wolves would be the finale’s villain was indeed wrong, but what was the point of teasing them all season if they weren’t going to be in the season?  Bringing The Wolves into Season 5 at all is now only a detraction from the real conflict, which was the fighting between Rick’s and Deanna’s group in Alexandria.

The Walking Dead 5x16-5

Source: AMC

And even the real conflict is problematic, as Rick’s speech and its reception drained all subtext from the Alexandria plot.  Yes, we still see Rick as a little crazy, but everybody believes him to be their savior now, with Deanna letting him do things his way, executing Pete because of Reg’s death.  We can read this storyline as Rick bringing out the monster in the people around him, but we can also read it as Alexandria being ridiculously incompetent (which is the reading with more evidence in this episode).  Between the door being left open, Nicholas trying to kill Glenn, Pete killing Reg, and the townspeople basically ignoring anything bad that happens, it’s hard to see Rick as not saving these people from themselves.  It’s also hard to believe that the Alexandrians were able to survive this long if they’re so incompetent, with nobody guarding the perimeter long enough for zombies to get in.

But, in the case of Rick, his soul isn’t necessarily redeemed here.  He tears apart zombies with his bare hands.  He executes Pete at point blank.  In order to lead people to some sort of safety, he has to be the vicious man that he was when he tore out Joe’s neck, or when he executed Gareth in Gabriel’s church.  But it’s disappointing that the season landed on this answer to the conflict for Rick’s soul.  It’s a cop out to say that Rick is dangerous and violent, but it’s kind of okay because he needs to be in order to survive.  Because, while Pete needed to die and while the Alexandrians have to be better prepared, there has to be a middle ground between committing extreme acts of violence and living in ignorance of the outside world.  And if The Walking Dead is truly to get any better, it needs to analyze this question with more depth than it is right now.

So what do you think is going to happen next season?  Do you think The Wolves are going to end up killing any of Rick’s group?  Let me know in the comments!

Michael St. Charles

is just a Michigan State University grad who loves a good story. If he’s not off teaching the young ones how to solve quadratic functions or to write an expository essay, he’s watching old-school HBO shows, indie horror movies, or he’s playing Resident Evil 4.

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  • Guillermo

    I think the problem with this finale boils down to two main things: One being the existence of episode 10, the other being hinting a lot about the wolves rather than this episode being the first hint of them.

    Episode 10 was a problem because, as you mentioned, all it covered could’ve been covered in The Distance. Just bring up Aaron at the end of What’s Happened and What’s Going On and jump there, and that would’ve been one more episode to flesh out elements of Alexandria earlier and thus finish them earlier. And then there’s all the hinting to the wolves, which ended up in nothing this season. Frankly, had they been introduced just this episode, I wouldn’t mind so much, but building them up the way they did just to end up hinting more at them rather than doing something bigger feels like a waste.

    I did feel the episode was good, though, and it did some things very much right, I feel. For one, plotlines I feared would drag out (Pete and Nicholas, for instance) have been resolved. Morgan’s new mindset could lead to some interesting developments, seeing how he and Rick have pretty much swapped places. Carol keeps having interesting developments, too, which shows how far her mistrust of everyone goes, even of her own, and while easy to miss her moment of stopping Rick when Pete gets to the meeting and kills Reg is pretty important: Rick could have prevented Reg’s death, but Carol sees a place where the people of Alexandria can witness some of the brutality they’ve seen. And the stuff with Daryl and Aaron was great, even though a bit longer than it needed to be, I actually did feel that Daryl could go for a moment there. If there was any fitting place, it was there, getting a heroic death of sorts.

    But I do agree that it doesn’t really feel like a finale, and that’s a disappointment. Rather, it feels like a buildup to Season 6, and I wouldn’t mind if all of the developments within Alexandria had reached their peak last episode, but they didn’t. So it falls flat. It would’ve been pretty good as another episode and not being as long as it was.

    The good thing, though? At least we have solid elements ready for Season 6. The Wolves are there and we’ve seen how dangerously clever they are (that trap with the trailers was very interesting) and now they have Aaron’s backpack with the pictures of Alexandria and whatnot, Morgan is there which might just mean he’ll pull Rick out of the darkness he’s at the way Rick did for him back in Clear, and now that they’re out of the only surgeon in Alexandria I have the feeling Beth’s hospital plotline might not be entirely pointless: The only other doctor they know of is there, so I have the feeling Daryl and Aaron won’t have that much rest before heading out again. And this time, it’ll be for longer. Considering how ridiculously comic-like Daryl can be at points (the tank at Too Far Gone, anyone?), I think we’ll feel more pressure when the Wolves hit Alexandria as we won’t have a mostly invincible character.