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The time which all fans of The Walking Dead have both craved and dreaded has finally arrived. A season which saw major changes to the core group as well as the setting of the show has drawn to a close with the ninety-minute season finale, and that final installment did not disappoint.
The episode opened by reintroducing a character whom longtime viewers have been clamoring for as Morgan Jones (played by the always-brilliant Lennie James) demonstrated precisely how much of a poetic bad-ass he really is. In our first up-close meeting with a member of the much-teased Wolves, Morgan shows that he may be both harbinger of and salvation from the threat they pose. His conversation with the (as-yet) nameless member of the Wolves whom he encounters highlights the driving theme of this episode, specifically the ways in which human interaction has grossly changed along with the world.
That theme is pounded home time after time throughout the episode. We are shown roads grown over and covered in leaves, used to provide visual representation to the disintegrating pathways which once connected person to person.
As Reg Monroe says, “Civilizations starts when we stop running. When we start living together. When we stop driving people away.” The problem with that is that the changed world of The Walking Dead has stripped many of the means by which the people surviving in it used to form relationships. There are no more common interests beyond survival. The struggle of Rick and the survivors to adapt to life within the walls of the Alexandria enclave is almost entirely due to the lack of ability to bond through shared experience. Their journey beyond the walls resulted in an entirely different collective set of reactions than the survivors who have lived out their days inside of Alexandria. If the two communities are to finally come to terms, it will have to be as a result of a mutual movement towards the middle: the Alexandrians hardening and Rick and the survivors softening. Michonne is right when she says, of Rick “What he is… is what you’ll become. If you’re lucky.”
In the end, where the lack of connection imperils the survivors within the walls, the strength to push past the damage and re-form those connections is what saves them. Glenn’s willingness to lift up the man who tried to kill him and Maggie’s willingness to reach out the hand of friendship to the emotionally and spiritually shattered Father Gabriel illustrate this better than anything else in the episode.
If this episode can be seen as any indication, the writers are showing us very clearly what to expect as the show moves forward next season. If civilizations begin when we stop driving people away, then the Alexandrians’ decision not to drive Rick away is the real beginning of the new civilization which will shape the changed world.
Despite the wonderful themes being explored, the episode did have some shortcomings in terms of its exploration of the characters, at least in comparison to previous episodes.This episode was far more plot-driven than character driven, and almost seemed like it prioritized setting up and establishing the elements which will feature prominently in the sixth season. Where the last several installments have given various members of the cast the opportunity to enjoy close-up moments which truly shone spotlights on the emotional trauma they’d experienced and how they were coping with it.
Though the plot did move forward at a breathless pace which left the extended-length episode still feeling too shot, the sacrifice of character moments did set it apart tonally from the rest of the season post-hiatus, and made the episode come off as somewhat emotionally hollow.
Though excellent overall, the season finale of The Walking Dead felt less like a conclusion and more like the first installment of a new season. Its exploration of complex ideas and the things it’s setting up for the coming season are enough to earn it a high rating, but not enough to eclipse the episode before.
The Walking Dead season finale, “Conquer” earns a solid but imperfect 8.5.