[This is a review of The Walking Dead season 5, episode 16. There will be SPOILERS.]
If there were one word to describe The Walking Dead throughout most of season 5, it would probably be: confident. It was a confidence that likely came from just how good the first half of the season was, and how promising things seemed to be just after the season premiere. And although the second half of the season wasn't quite as tight (and fell back too often on some of the more tiresome tropes of the series), the first half was strong enough that it's easy to overlook some of the shortcomings of these last eight episodes.
So, it's really no surprise that 'Conquer' would come in and deliver a 90-minute episode that felt as confident as it was, even when it wasn't necessarily justifying its extended runtime - or when it was relying on a series of transparent plot contrivances to get Rick and the people of Alexandria to the place they needed to be. But at least that place is somewhat unexpected.
The last few weeks have been building up towards another simple conflict between two groups - who have no reason not to get along other than the fact that they are two different groups. Hence, it was something of a surprise to see the Alexandrians seemingly enthralled by Rick's speech. Naturally, Rick's monologue didn't have much of an effect on the key members of his group, mostly because they've already been drinking the Kool-Aid - and, for a handful of them anyway, they've already heard this speech before. It was basically the same thing Rick said at the end of season 2, when he looked out and saw bunch of people in need of a no nonsense leader, and he told them to deal with it or walk.
Here, Rick takes a slightly edgier approach, by telling the surprisingly sparse audience that he was worried he'd have to kill a bunch of them before they finally started listening. For whatever reason, it seems as though this speech is captivating enough that no one speaks up, or even challenges Rick's logic. Rick had the Alexandrians' attention long before the idiot Pete showed up with Michonne's sword and inadvertently slit Reg's throat (which, coincidentally was enough to convince Deanna that people need killin', and Rick's just the sort of guy to get that job done). And while the final sequence demonstrates how overly concerned the finale was with letting Rick have way and be right about everything, it does seem to flip Father Gabriel's concerns about Rick's group on it ear.
When Gabriel came to Deanna, he told her that Rick's group didn’t deserve to be in a place like Alexandria – a place he likened to paradise. What Rick's little speech does is suggest that it is the naïve residents - surviving off of a mixture of Reg's ingenuity and a whole lot of luck - who are undeserving of a life of relative comfort. Alexandria should belong to those who are capable of protecting it. It's not especially deep or poignant, but maybe Rick has a point? It's hard to tell with the people of Alexandria, since the only person aside from Deanna who seems at all moved by Reg's death (and Rick's hasty execution of Pete) is Morgan.
If nothing else, that last little moment between the two acquaintances offers the series a chance to show just how much both men have changed since last their paths crossed. For one thing, Morgan has become Caine from Kung Fu; he's just walking the earth, and kicking some serious ass with his bo staff, while, you know, being a pacifist who thinks all life is precious. That is in stark contrast to Rick, who is so gung ho to kill people, he tells those he's trying to protect how much he thought about killing them, just to make a point. What this means for season 6 is anyone's guess - but with Morgan on hand to challenge Rick's ideology, there might be the chance for some interesting conflict within Alexandria (while the residents wait for the conflict brewing on the outside to reach them).
Morgan's arrival is promising, as was everything having to do with Daryl and Aaron and their discovery of an elaborate trap being set by the Wolves. But while the trap was an intriguing addition, and it even led to a thrilling sequence wherein Aaron used a license plate to dispatch a walker, the basic motivation for this new band of villain already feels tired. Aside from their branding, and method of killing their prey, the Wolves aren't distinguishable from the other groups The Walking Dead has pitted against its protagonists in previous seasons. In fact, given what we know about them, it's hard to tell how different they are (or will be) from the easily terminated Terminans, or even the Governor's people.
And speaking of motivation, the least 'Conquer' could have done was deliver a more compelling example of Father Gabriel's suicidal tendencies, rather than have him take a brisk, unarmed walk in zombie territory, only to chicken out at the last second and later become a plot device for the front gate to be left open. The same can be said for Nicholas leading Glenn out into the woods in an apparent attempt to kill him…because why? His feelings were hurt?
Although Glenn's trip to the woods, and Father Gabriel's death wish provided plenty of tension, the reasons for the threads happening brought up so many questions asking "why?" that eventually both threads simply rang false. There's some weight in showing that Glenn and Maggie are still compassionate individuals who will help those in need, even when those in need have betrayed or even tried to kill them - but the ends don't entirely justify the means in this case.
Overall, season 5 was a lot like the finale: it was confident for the most part, but that confidence sometimes led to some bad or just lazy decisions. Still, season 5 is a structural and creative leap forward for the series. And given how much the show has grown under the direction of Scott Gimple, season 6 will have a lot to live up to.
The Walking Dead will return with season 6 in October of 2015.