The Walking Dead's Understated End to an Epic Season

The show's fifth-season finale wisely chose story over the typical explosion of violence.

Gene Page / AMC

Every week for the fifth season of AMC's post-apocalyptic drama The Walking Dead, Lenika Cruz and David Sims discussed the latest threat—human, zombie, or otherwise—to the show's increasingly hardened band of survivors.

Cruz: "This is a nightmare. Nightmares end." Or so said Bob, the fifth season's first major casualty, reminding Rick and viewers of how hope still lay within reach for a tribe leading completely absurd lives, gritty realism of the post-apocalyptic world aside. Where does the bad end and the good begin? (Or vice versa?) How much longer until everything will be all right again? Is there any use in hoping?

Such deeply distressing, existential questions have always characterized The Walking Dead to a degree, but never had they been illuminated with so much originality as they had in season five. After Terminus, largely gone were the cartoonish external antagonists; in their place were completely normal (and completely flawed) people who tested every limit Rick and his group had established. Every week seemed to draw them closer and closer to a reality where community was impossible, and rugged isolationism would prevail. And yet the prediction-defying, 90-minute season finale, "Conquer," ended not with a long-expected mass bloodletting, but with something more astonishing: redemption and forgiveness.

The episode looked, on the surface, like a story about people's thirst for vengeance and a soulless impulse for destruction. The Wolves made their debut, attacking both Morgan, and (with the help of their bizarre booby traps) Daryl and Aaron. Glenn and Nicholas appeared set for a fight to the death, stalking each other in the woods outside Alexandria. Father Gabriel seemed ready to commit suicide-by-zombie before he and Sasha went head-to-head back at the chapel. Rick prepared to take the entire town.

But when the moment of decision came, each major character chose (painful) restraint. Glenn and Sasha refused to pull their respective triggers. Gabriel, Maggie, and Sasha gathered together to pray. Glenn and Nicholas stumbled back, bloodied but together, to the town. And Rick waited for Deanna to give him the call to execute Pete after he slit her husband's throat in front of the entire town. Contrast that to the Wolves, who will undoubtedly be the antagonists of season six. But when the time comes, Alexandria, thanks to Rick and company, will be a bit more cynical, but stronger as well.

David, we've been unofficially declaring since October that The Walking Dead's fifth season is the series' best yet. But, after "Conquer," I think a proper coronation is in order. Though it sped through several plot threads, the finale offered the same character development, narrative intensity, and knuckle-clenching action that has largely defined the last 15 episodes. All wrapped together in a solid script by the inimitable writer and showrunner Scott Gimple (the show's saving grace) and Seth Hoffman. My favorite line? Carol's snake-tongued rationale for lying to the Alexandria group: "These people are children, and children love stories."

How about you, David? Was the finale (and season) everything you hoped it would be?

Sims: Yes, although I maybe wasn't quite as universally satisfied as you are. This finale had a lot to do, and it nailed some of its crescendos a little more smoothly than others. Think of all the overarching plots that are coming to some conclusion in "Conquer." There's the central question of the Alexandria Safe Zone and whether Rick and company will stay and who will die at their hands. There's Gabriel wrestling with his faith, there's Daryl and Aaron confronting the Wolves (who have been teased for a while now), Sasha taking out her PTSD in risky ways, and there's Morgan on the road to Rick, a storyline that has played out over five whole years. Like you, I liked that the episode wasn't just a bloodbath, which would have been a repetitive and grim note to end things on. But some parts felt like they came out of nowhere.

I'll admit I still don't fully understand just what is up with Father Gabriel or what value he really adds to the show at this point. Even though this episode felt like a major breakthrough for him—he's finally acknowledging his survivor's guilt and self-hatred—it didn't exactly feel like anything new. This is what Gabriel keeps running up against, and he keeps creating dangerous situations through his recklessness, this time leaving the Alexandria gate open (perhaps maliciously). His final confrontation with Sasha was well-staged, and his moment on the road with the noose-wearing zombie was wonderfully performed by Seth Gilliam, who has done a lot with some thin material this season. But how can the group keep forgiving him when he behaves so erratically and dangerously only to break down again? Of all the redemptive plotlines of this season, this one felt the least involving. The loss of Gabriel would not have been too much to bear (though not at Sasha's hands, of course, since she has to come to terms with not shooting her way out of every situation).

Morgan's journey, on the other hand, worked beautifully, even though there's been next to no explanation for his development into a masterless samurai who takes down enemies both human and undead with a wooden stick. Who knows how Morgan picked up this latest skill, but what's important is Lennie James, who can hold the camera's attention like few other members of The Walking Dead's (talented) ensemble. The most wonderful moment of the episode was the final one, as Morgan (who the audience is practically guaranteed to side with) walks in on Rick coldly executing Pete and stares at his hero, aghast. Is James finally joining the cast for season six? Can he represent Rick's opposite on the ideological spectrum now that the Alexandria folks have been shown up as paper tigers?

It's hard to know if that's what the future holds for The Walking Dead, given the introduction of the Wolves. The arc of Rick's semi-sane leadership strategy, unpredictable and cruel in part as a reaction to the unpredictable, cruel world he lives in, has been fascinating in this fifth season. While Rick always represents the safest alternative to every corrupted vision of humanity the gang comes across every season, here the audience at least experienced real doubt at his usefulness as a clear-headed leader when Michonne bonked him on the head. But this episode walked a lot of that back, and probably in the right direction—it would be too much to expect a fracturing in the group's core over the idiots who live in Alexandria, and the portent of the Wolves suggests that Rick is, of course, right. The world out there is terrifying, and Alexandria's laissez-faire attitude isn't going to help when they're besieged by someone organized.

Still, going back to the theme of redemption—the crucial choice Rick makes is not to be the monster he's encountered so many times, ruthlessly killing just as the quickest means to an end. His chance to kill Pete came a little too easily—it figured gentle Reg was the one to die, given his kindly attitude to the town newcomers—but it did underline the group's philosophy that killing is a necessary evil, not a means to power and control. Whether the show can stay as interesting in the face of more obvious evil, the Wolves, remains to be seen, of course.

Cruz: While I probably wouldn't have cared too much if Father Gabriel had died (I found part of myself rooting for Sasha to just end his misery), I loved how the show subverted my bloodlust in favor of larger point. Yes, Gabriel is useless, unlovable, selfless, and frankly, quite destructive. But as Morgan said: All life is precious. It's a stunning position for the show to take via its major characters, who have made the tough decision to take so many lives.

In the finale, the moral relativism that grew grayer and weaker as the show went on suddenly snapped back, in some ways, to a kind of absolutism that has always been part of the survivors' approach to life. Yes, "kill or be killed" is still the easiest route to safety and the best way to stave off betrayal. But it's also not the only answer. And allowing people as repulsive as Nicholas and Gabriel to live means allowing the show to explore a different, perhaps more enlightened outlook as the survivors commit to this idea of a bigger community.

But while Glenn, Sasha, Gabriel, and Nicholas have learned that the world doesn't have to operate according to bleak ultimatums, Deanna, the former champion of level-headedness and second chances, has been converted to Rick's way of thinking. All she needed was to suffer one more loss, and she understood. As a force, the group has solidified into a single entity; but morally and emotionally, things have bisected. And so fittingly, Morgan, believer in the preciousness of human life, encounters Rick-as-executioner again sticky and covered in blood. Rick, who once saved the life of a lost and grieving Morgan; Morgan, who once saved the life of a lost and grieving Rick.

That their lives have dovetailed with such unlikely elegance in a chaotic world seems meaningful and poetic in a way that so few things ever are for the show's survivors. Which goes back to Bob's optimistic words at the end of his life: That nightmares end. It's a position that I doubt Rick will be too eager to embrace (for him, Deanna, and others, the nightmare is all they have for the foreseeable future). But the more compassionate members of the group proved that, even within a nightmare, personal suffering shouldn't be taken as a license for cruelty, however justified.

Sims: Deanna's conversion felt a little too easy—but of course she was going to ask Rick to kill Pete, considering her husband was dying in her arms. This was the biggest problem with the finale, and the Alexandria arc in general. Deanna was set up as quite an interesting, clear-headed alternative to Rick, but her role was quickly undermined, and her philosophies proven flimsy. Pete was an example of truly lazy writing on one end—not a character at all, just a collection of evil impulses designed to cause problems for everyone. But on the other end, he provoked some of the best performances of the year from Carol, whose inner darkness is so compellingly written and has such authenticity.

Carol's outlook is not some one-dimensional reaction to suffering abuse in her past, nor does it ever feel callous. She's not some devil on Rick's shoulder egging him on. Rather, she represents one end of an ideological spectrum that has shed much of the personal connection other characters on this show still cherish. Her decisions are sane, and tie back to her state of mind during the silent search of Atlanta with Daryl in the first half of the season. The Walking Dead's exploration of the rationality behind Carol's, Rick's, and others' mercenary approaches to human life has been one of its biggest strengths this season.

Still, as Morgan says, all life has value. Abraham and Eugene finally reach an understanding in how much one has helped the other on their journey to Washington, D.C., despite Eugene's lies. Glenn suffered a horrible vision of Noah's death that should have been enough to scar him permanently, but he's not so deadened that he can simply take another man's life when that man is begging for mercy. Carl seemed uninterested in the other youths he met in Alexandria because they were so normal, but his facade of strength is beginning to crack. And Rick's philosophies of leadership, no matter how necessary they may be, are fallible, as this season has so brilliantly explored. While I think it made a few leaps of storytelling logic to arrive at this conclusion, I can't help but salute the overall achievement of The Walking Dead this season.