In the leadup to last night’s fifth-season finale, the Hollywood Reporter’s Tim Goodman argued that “The Walking Dead” has “stumbled” this season, burning through too much story too quickly in a rush to get to the good bits from Robert Kirkman’s comic books. At 90 minutes long (or more like 64 once you edit out the commercials), “Conquer” at least got to breathe a little easier than most “Walking Dead” episodes, and paradoxically felt faster-, or at least better-paced than most. As Goodman argues, the show has so many characters to drag around at this point — so many of them underdeveloped, or going so many episodes between significant character moments that it’s hard to keep track of who’s meant to be where — that it’s hard to develop a sense of where more than a few are meant to be at any given moment. Much of the strength of the fifth season’s first half came from splitting up the group into subsections and departing from a strictly linear timeline so there were, narratively speaking, fewer mouths to feed.
The second half has suffered mightily from having the group back together, and adding in the new characters of Alexandria, while still pushing onward towards what we now know will be the Big Bad of season 6: the Wolves. There’s plenty of speculation about who they might really be, whether they’re the early residents the Alexandrians expelled or the people who turned the Terminans from hopeful homesteaders into ruthless cannibals (my money’s on the latter), but if the show’s not going to seriously wrestle with what it means for Rick and his group to leave behind what use to be their humanity, they might as well get back to giving them satisfying enemies.
Ultimately, though it has played successfully with form, “The Walking Dead” is afraid to stray too far from formula, which means that Rick and co. never really stood a chance of going “soft” inside Alexandria’s walls. It’s been a kick to see Carol role-play the part of a chirpy housewife — “These people are children, and children like stories” is a beautiful summary of her deception — but we were always going to come back around to the idea that the new world doesn’t have room for the weak. Having abusive husband Pete stumble into the campfire circle wielding Michonne’s sword and cutting architect Reg’s throat was a pretty clumsy way of doing it, and an even clumsier way of getting Deanna, Reg’s freshly crowned widow, to let Rick play executioner, but we might as well get it over with.
“Conquer’s” most satisfying thread was also its most simple: Daryl and Aaron track a survivor in a red poncho into the wild, happen upon what seems to be an untouched cache of food cans, and spring a trap set by the Wolves which ends up with them trapped in a car surrounded by walkers. It gave Morgan (the much-missed Lennie James) a badass way to re-enter the show, paid off the lingering post-credit scenes from the season’s front half, and guaranteed we’ll have Morgan around for at least a little while. James is only guaranteeing “one more episode,” but it’s hard to believe the show would spend so much time setting up Morgan’s return if they weren’t going to make him a fixture — and considering that James can act circles around most of the show’s actors, I certainly hope that’s the case.
Say this for “Conquer,” at least: After several episodes in which “The Walking Dead” felt very much adrift, it restored a solid sense of purpose, and left me with some genuine excitement for season six. That’s more than it’s done in quite a while.
Reviews of “The Walking Dead,” Season 5, Episode 16: “Conquer”
Noel Murray, Rolling Stone
All signs point to a serious confrontation next year between these self-styled gang of “Wolves” and the dangerously tame residents of the Safe Zone. Alexandria’s best hope looks to be Rick, who at the end of “Conquer” abandoned his secret coup plans and stood before the tribunal that was debating whether or not to kick him out, where he announced his intention to turn them all into the cold-blooded warriors. Which they’re all going to need to be: Judging from what little we’ve seen of these barbarians that will literally be at their gates soon, these new enemies look like they could put the Terminus cannibals and the Woodbury thugs to shame.
Zack Handlen, A.V. Club
Instead of giving us an ambiguous situation in which Rick’s time outside made it hard for him to adjust to “normal” life again, we get a bunch of soft idiots who need to be taught a lesson in how to stay alive. Any pretense otherwise from earlier in the season is gone. Pete is a joke, and Jessie flat out tells Rick he was right. We can pretend the shocked look on Morgan’s face when he arrives just in time to see Rick shoot Pete will mean something, and maybe it will; but deep down, this show will always go back to the only answer it ever has. If that’s the case, we’d be better off watching our heroes struggling against enemies even worse than they are, instead of dabbling in philosophical debate that no one has any intention of ever taking seriously.
Tim Surette, TV.com
Crazy Rick was right about something. Alexandria is full of stupid people, both native and newcomer, who defy all expectations and somehow, against the will of nature and logic, have survived the zombie apocalypse long enough to be a major part of Season 5. “Conquer” had its season-finale moments with a late-episode assault of wrestling and gun-pointing, but the culmination of these storylines never had the impact the writers intended because how hard is it to close a fucking gate? To quote the Internet, you had one job, dude. What was most disappointing about “Conquer” was that “The Walking Dead” loosened the reins and actually lightened up on some of the season’s more interesting ideas.
Alan Sepinwall, HitFix
Speaking of a well that’s been gone to many times, let’s talk about the Wolves. The season didn’t rush their introduction — certainly not to the extent it rushed Gabriel’s attempt at a suicide-by-proxy, or the larger conflicts between Rick and the Alexandrians — and while they seem relatively smart, based on the elaborate trap at the food warehouse (and how they were able to reset it by playing loud music to herd the zombies back into the trucks), season 6 is going to have to do a lot of work to distinguish them from the Termites, or the Governor’s soldiers, or Joe and his crew of claimers, or… The series needs conflict, and this Alexandria arc in particular needs some outside threat for Rick to train the people against, but listening to Morgan’s new friend explain his philosophy, it felt like we’d heard this particular tune a time or three on “The Walking Dead” already.
Kevin Fitzpatrick, ScreenCrush
Season 5 has undoubtedly proven “The Walking Dead’s” most transformative yet, beginning the year in an attempt to escape one sanctuary, while closing it with a firm settlement in another, giving Season 6 more possibilities to look forward to than ever prior. Tonight’s finale itself may not have delivered much in the way of lasting consequences for that transition, though worth considering is the moment in which Rick instinctively refers to Alexandria as “home,” telling Carl to avoid the meeting that decides his fate. “The Walking Dead” too has found more home than it realizes, a meaningful base of operation with which to keep things both poignantly exciting and explorative.
Lesley Goldberg, Hollywood Reporter
What the finale does do is set up a sixth season that could likely see Rick and Morgan’s relationship further explored — especially after he returned to see Rick execute Pete. The duo last saw one another during season three’s wildly hailed “Clear,” when Morgan — who first appeared in the pilot and helped save Rick’s life — wasn’t the most stable person in the world after witnessing his son Duane be bitten and killed by his zombie wife. Morgan’s arrival at Alexandria comes after he took out two of the Wolves in the opening scene, offering key intel on the group. The return should come as no surprise as showrunner Scott M. Gimple previously told THR that “there’s a Morgan story to tell,” when the character resurfaced in a post-credits scene during the season five premiere.