Published on March 30th, 2015 | by Bean0
The Walking Dead Season 5 Finale “Conquer” – Review
WARNING! MASSIVE SPOILERS!
Another year, another gut-spilling, nail-gnawing finale. I’ll confess I spent considerable portions of this episode on my feet or clawing at the sofa. The Walking Dead has never found it difficult to ramp the tension, or unleash violent rampages, that is their wheelhouse; sustaining continuity of purpose or sense between melees is the challenge. Their season finales have been riveting since day one though, allowing Rick to make a major statement about their mission’s evolution at each turn.
Season 1’s explosive CDC escape saw Rick leaping out of the fire into the frying pan, choosing to fight, not hide or give up. Season 2 made it’s claim that “this isn’t a democracy anymore”, and with that declaration Rick’s de facto leadership was cemented. By Season 3’s end Rick was welcoming outsiders from Woodbury into the fold, despite the burgeoning war between communities. So much happened in the ensuing year – the Governor’s attack, the group’s split and reunification – that a new kind of determination fuelled our heroes at it’s climax; “they’re screwing with the wrong people”. If anything, Season 5 has debated what being “wrong people” means, if not who exactly falls into that category.
Much has been made in the last season of the things the group has had to do to survive. The new characters we have encountered have been happy to throw the blame around but have done things too, with Father Gabriel holding the most guilt through his denial to acknowledge the betrayal he committed. Eugene and Abraham bear their own burdens but make progress and achieve a kind of wary forgiveness. Deanna admits to having banished people from Alexandria, and accepts that that was a death sentence for those cast out. Everyone is culpable, one way or another. So who gets to judge whom? There are certainly many people looking for counsel in “Conquer”, from one another, from their God, from their pastor or their leader, searching for absolution. And nobody has any answers, though a few still have hope.
Boldly using their cold open not to simply pick up where the last episode left Rick and Michonne at odds, the show instead draws in the long held-back thread of Morgan Jones, a Season 1 alumni, and old pal of Rick’s. His contact with the ‘W’olves in the forest proves the weak man of old has grown mighty, and yet still magnanimous. The wisdom of letting clearly psychotic murderers go un-dealt with is dubious, as we later see, but this is another running theme. The merciful actions have as many ramifications as the brutal.
We’ve watched Morgan weave in and out of The Walking Dead, nearly always on the peripheries of the action, for years. This season he has been searching out his former friend, stating “the world’s gonna need a man like Rick Grimes”. Many characters re-iterate this assertion throughout “Conquer”, advocating the necessity for a strong leader who’ll act when they need to. It is important that this defence comes from others rather than Rick, who must be unrelenting in his viewpoint and authority. The distinction between Glenn and Morgan who choose to let the dangerous humans be, who do not feel an executioners responsibility, and the Rick and Carol camp who will deal out a killing blow, is becoming ever clearer.
Carol continues to grow more resilient with every step the story takes. This episode she gets to face the ghost of her own painful past of domestic violence and claim dominance. Melissa McBride’s performance in the scene with the repugnant wife-beating Pete is extraordinary; she has never been so self-assured and calmly honest. Whatever Carol goes through gives her more depth and ability than could seemingly be conveyed in a look or a line, and yet… Somebody give this woman an Emmy.
Another character showing an impressive arc is Carl. It is a sign of his maturity that when his father tells him he’s not coming to the town meeting, he doesn’t protest or complain, but rather engages Rick on his plans, urging for the middle way to protect the new community. The relationship between Rick and Carl has achieved an admirable balance in the last season; gone is the adolescent power struggle or the over-protection and resentment. There is a real sense of mutual respect that infuses their scenes now, and it’s a pleasure to watch Chandler Riggs and Andrew Lincoln stretch out in their newfound companionship.
What “Conquer” does extremely well is fuse many climaxes into a thrilling whole. The episode hops relentlessly between the politics in Alexandria, the breakdowns of Sasha and Father Gabriel, the face-off between Glenn and Nicholas and the search party crisis of Darryl and Aaron in the Wolf-laid trap. Each sub-story is allowed the time to play out, something granted by the unprecedented 63 minute run-time. The extension is deserved; while the narrative bounce about leaves your head spinning, it never loses it’s pace or sense of escalation.
So what is Rick’s mission statement at the close of Season 5? He tells the people of Alexandria “I was wondering ‘how many of you do I have to kill to save your lives?’” He gets to be honest with them, but their leader chooses to believe him too late to save her husband; their luck runs out and so the only course chosen is retribution. Each community talks about the origins of civilisation in “Conquer”; the Wolf-theory and the cavemen. The show has seldom made such primitive philosophical comparisons out loud, opting to infer rather than announce, but a season finale is as good a time as any to cut to the chase.
When Rick says “You’re gonna change”, The Walking Dead plays its hand in one fell swoop and Deanna’s decision to execute Pete is swift, reactive, a primal instinct. In the new world, Morgan is wrong. All life is not precious. You must earn your right to survive, be you ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Who the ‘wrong people’ are when these judgements are made is a vast grey area, a wasteland of conflicting principles. Ultimately, the ability to feel the impact of your actions, as Rick does, is what prevents psychopathy, but it cannot save the damned.
Review by Nina Clark – roll on October!
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