Season finale review: ‘The Walking Dead’ – ‘Conquer’: Wolves at the door?

A review of tonight's “The Walking Dead” finale coming up just as soon as I want my dish back clean when you're done…

No matter what happens in the middle of a season, good or bad, “The Walking Dead” tends to do premieres and finales very well. This is the first time, though, that the series has ended a season with a 90-minute episode, and while the extra-long “Conquer” had some excellent things in it, it also had a number of stupid things, even if the latter occasionally got overtaken by the former.

Case in point: the open gate. There is giving Rick an opportunity to prove to the Alexandrians how naive and defenseless they are, and there is having Deanna's other idiot son asking Father Gabriel to close the gate for him, then bolting for no particular reason (maybe he had to do some upper body work before the town meeting?), and having no one else in this community(*) notice that the gate was left unlocked for the next several hours. If they're careless idiots to that degree, then it's impossible to imagine them having survived all this time, even with the walls that Reg set up.

(*) Weirdly, the relative cheapness of the Alexandria set-up, in terms of the number of extras production hired, worked in its favor here. The meeting seemed attended by maybe two dozen people, and if that's really all there is inside those walls, maybe nobody noticed. But every conversation about the town has created the impression the population is much larger than that, or else Rick's group alone would be close to equaling the previous residents.

And speaking of Reg, his death at Pete's hands felt like “The Walking Dead” writers hadn't quite telegraphed Noah's death enough a few episodes ago with the Noah/Reg conversation, and wanted to have Reg involved in an even more blatant bit of foreshadowing with his speech to Maggie. Once he placed himself so firmly on the side of both community in general and keeping Rick around in particular, I kept waiting for the anvil to drop onto his head, which took much of the power away from his death, even as it was the thing that finally convinced Deanna to let Rick kill Pete.

But I did like seeing the gate reopen at that exact moment for the return of Daryl and Aaron, now with Morgan in tow, to complete the role reversal between Rick and Morgan. When last they saw each other, Morgan was the one who had gone feral, and Rick was the relatively human one. Now, Morgan's the one who spares the lives of the two Wolves who try to kill him, and who rescues Daryl and Aaron simply because “all life is precious”(**), while Rick is the savage one who can barely be around people. I smiled at that moment of stunned recognition, though that may just be because I'm glad Lennie James is now going to be around for a bit, after the producers have been teasing his arrival since the end of the season premiere back in the fall. The show is much better for having this guy around.

(**) Morgan has also somehow become a bo staff-wielding ninja since last we left him. I look forward to a Morgan/Michonne sparring session at some point in season 6.

Or look at the business with Father Gabriel. This is a character the show lost sight of almost entirely in the second half of the season, before trying to squeeze an elaborate heel turn and redemption arc into two episodes (spread out over three weeks, no less). Seth Gilliam's a really good actor, but that was all a mess – including Maggie not bothering to tell anyone (whether the other members of the group, Deanna, or even Gabriel himself) about what she overheard a few episodes ago – that was only barely redeemed by his admission of guilt to Maggie and the prayer circle moment at the end (which was in turn enhanced by Maggie having mentioned Hershel earlier, and thus reminding us that she comes from a deeply religious family).

And even something as relatively straightforward as the cat-and-mouse game in the woods between Glenn and Nicholas didn't entirely work. We never got a good explanation for why Nicholas was even hopping the fence to go out into the woods (unless he was somehow hoping to lure Glenn out of the compound), and the show has absolutely exhausted its limit of leaving one of our heroes seemingly overrun by zombies, only to have them improbably escape the ordeal, without explanation, to turn up at the best possible moment later in the episode. (They pulled that stunt twice with Tyreese alone, and he was both much stronger than Glenn and not badly wounded either time.)

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.

Up until the fall finale, the first half of season 5 represented probably the show's best sustained creative stretch to date. This winter/spring batch was much more uneven, though the Alexandria setting at least promises something we haven't seen before on the show. But the execution could use a lot of work before we return come Halloween time.

Some other thoughts:

* I expect some enterprising online t-shirt retailer to be churning out merchandise by morning bearing Abraham's wise words from the town hall: “Simply put, there is a vast ocean of shit that you people don't know shit about. Rick knows every fine grain of said shit. And then some.”

* Also, I was amused by Rosita deliberately knocking things over to wake Eugene up and force Abraham to converse with his longtime traveling companion.

* Carol's role playing as a weak woman in need of rescuing – both to hide her strength from the Alexandrians and to get them to relate to her – remains the best part of this arc so far. Though knowing abusers the way she does, you would think she would have known what Pete would do in the wake of her holding a knife to his throat. (Unless, that is, this was all part of her plan.)

* I liked Aaron's license plate hunt turning from character quirk into self-defense mechanism, as he used the one from Alaska as a weapon when he and Daryl were under siege.

Before we go to the comments, it's time once again to explain how this blog's No Spoiler rule applies to this show:

1. No talking about the previews for the next episode.

2. No talking about anything else you know about upcoming episodes from other sources – and, yes, that includes anything Gimple and Kirkman have said in interviews.

3. No talking about anything that's happened in the comic that hasn't happened in the TV show yet. (Or anything that's been revealed, like character backstory and motivation.) As with “Game of Thrones,” the goal is to treat “The Walking Dead” TV show as exactly that, and not as an excuse for endless comparisons with the comics. If you want to talk about the comics, feel free to start up a discussion thread on our message boards.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at