The Walking Dead: 516 “Conquer” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
Previously on The Walking Dead: back when season five opened, Rick and crew were locked up in a train car in Terminus. In the fifteen episodes following their swift escape, the group have lost plenty of members, encountered several psychopathic bad guys and found a new home that isn’t quite the safe haven the group dreamed of. Did the season five finale provide a satisfying capper to an impressive season?
The season finale, Conquer, opened with a moment that’s been teased all season – the full return of Morgan Jones. Morgan was a little nuts the last time Rick encountered him, but the character was somewhat recalibrated here, with his sanity firmly back and an interesting distaste for violence acquired. Morgan was already a firm fan favourite after just two episodes, and it’s easy to see why the character has this reputation – Lennie James is an extremely likeable performer, and Morgan’s Zen-like characterisation is original enough to stand out from the pack, yet sports enough elements of the archetypal Walking Dead character (capability and actual emotional stability) to not feel overly grating.
Meanwhile, out on a run, Daryl and Aaron discovered an ingenious trap set by a mysterious enemy, leading to some of the strongest walker action we’ve seen this season. The Walking Dead’s walker scenes work best when there’s as many of the aforementioned walkers as possible, and Conquer delivered on this front, with a walker-packed scene that felt extremely tense and thrilling (with a couple of neat walker kills from Daryl, who survives yet another season finale), as the recruiters found themselves in a sticky situation.
Aaron’s introduction a few episodes back was a breath of fresh air for a season that had become a little too dour, so it was pleasing to see him receive a little more screen-time than normal; and in a satisfying moment, show that not all Alexandrians are cowardly weasels (if there’s been a particularly weak element of the Alexandria storyline, it’s been the influx of irritatingly useless characters). Daryl and Aaron’s meeting of Morgan may have felt a little contrived, but it was worth it just for the satisfaction of seeing Morgan come to their rescue in a great moment that reminds viewers how good it is to see Morgan back.
Closer to Alexandria, several characters found themselves in equally dire straits – and worst of all the plights Rick’s group found themselves in, Abraham was forced to talk to Eugene for the first proper time since Eugene’s confession way back in episode five. Their mutual apologies neatly and satisfyingly tied up a plot point that had been unresolved for over half a season – emblematic of a finale that managed to pull several dangling character arcs together and bring them to a conclusion.
Season five has been strong, but it’s somewhat lacked the tight structure of previous seasons; an entirely new paradigm was introduced four episodes off the finale, the conflict set up in the previous finale was firmly wrapped up three episodes in before the show moved into a far less exciting conflict with the hospital, and the first half of the season was packed with bottle episodes that did little to advance the plot. Therefore, the way Conquer managed to cohere the season as a whole was impressive, allowing an episode in which the central conflicts (the Wolves, Rick and Pete) only had a few episodes of build up to feel like a true conclusion to the past 16 episodes.
However, not all these conclusions to character arcs worked quite as well – while the extended runtime of Conquer generally felt like a boon, Father Gabriel’s misery proved to be fairly uninteresting. Taking aside the satisfaction of seeing the pacifist get his first walker kill, Gabriel’s subplot never quite had the coherence of the rest of the episode, with his nastiness towards Sasha at the end and willingness to die after deciding not to go through with his suicide attempt coming across as contrived and inconsistent with his prior actions. It may be realistic to include a character who can’t quite cope with the apocalypse in Rick’s group, but Gabriel still feels frankly annoying at this point, so here’s hoping that the character will develop a little more steeliness in the coming season.
Nicholas has been perhaps the worst of Alexandria’s many cowardly weasels so far – but the character managed to outdo himself in Conquer in the coward stakes; shooting Glenn and leaving him to fend off three walkers while bleeding out. Nicholas may be a frustrating character, but his conflict with Glenn was one that felt very much necessary after the events of Noah’s death – and in an episode where most Alexandrians were relegated to bit parts, Nicholas’ cowardice and Glenn’s eventual mercy were important reminders that despite the brutality of Rick and co, they’re far stronger people than the Alexandrians will ever be.
Despite an off-screen escape from Glenn that strained credulity, these scenes were extremely tense to watch – they may have lacked this tension had they been located in a regular mid-season episode, but the fact that it was the season finale heightened the tension a great deal. Neither eventually died, but it certainly felt like both could – and Glenn’s choice to not kill Nicholas actually felt like a shock, given the high-stakes tension of the preceding scenes.
After several teasing instances of Ws carved into walker heads, the truth was finally revealed about this mysterious foe here – the symbols were the work of a psychopathic group of scavengers called the Wolves, whose MO is essentially killing and burning everything alive. While we only saw a couple of members, Conquer did a good job of establishing the threat that the Wolves pose to Alexandria; they’re able to serenade walkers and use them to their advantage, can rig complex traps and essentially show no mercy to anything or anyone.
It’s hard to imagine that the Wolves will be a particularly long-term threat for Alexandria – by episode’s end, they’re already fully aware of Alexandria’s existence, so a mini-arc lasting two or three episodes like the Hunters early next season seems likely. However, the set-up of this group has been effective enough to illustrate that the Wolves aren’t going to be an easy foe to beat – and despite speculation that they’d be a straightforward adaptation of the comics’ generic Scavengers, their control over the walkers gives them an intriguing unique selling point that should lead to a very different conflict when they rock up outside Alexandria’s walls.
After a heart-pounding final half hour, Conquer concluded by setting out the stall for what will come next. The season appeared to be leading to a conclusion where Rick would either learn the error of his ways or go full Ricktator and take Alexandria by force – so the choice to go for the middle path was a dramatically interesting one. Rick’s speech was a well written, impactful and effectively performed one that should help bring about some much-needed changes in Alexandria. The Alexandrians’ hesitance and cowardly attitude was becoming frustrating to watch, so Rick’s insistence that the group had to change promises a much-needed shift in status quo for next season.
Conquer’s final moments saw this need to become tougher spelled out in appropriately bloody style. Deanna insisted last episode that Pete could only be exiled if a punishment was required – but this more laid-back attitude had dire consequences for Deanna, as her husband Reg found himself on the receiving end of an accidental katana attack (the worst of ways to die). Fittingly, season five concluded with Deanna finally doing what had to be done, ordering Rick to execute Pete immediately in a moment that, like last year’s final moments, was ripped straight out of the comics. Alexandria’s leader may have had to learn the hard way, but it looks like it’s finally time to toughen up for the leader of the Alexandria Safe Zone.
And then there was Morgan – returning at the worst moment possible to see Rick covered in blood post-execution. Their reunion is a bittersweet one, with the joy of seeing each other again slightly overridden by the unfortunate circumstances. With Morgan’s declaration early on that all life is precious, it’s looking likely that the two old friends are going to have trouble reconnecting…
We’re left until October with Michonne taking up arms and a walker shuffling by an ominous, familiar slogan we last saw fleetingly in the ruins of Shirewilt Estates. The Wolves are not far…
Conquer was a thoroughly satisfying conclusion to season five, providing plenty of meaty character development, tense action and intriguing set up for season six. October seems a long way off!
Scene of the Episode: Morgan Returns III: An Unfortunate Reunion – Rick and Morgan finally reunite, precisely in the wrong place and at the wrong time.