After wrestling all season with the question of whether our heroes were too hardened to re-acclimate to life inside a safe, civilized haven, tonight’s finale of The Walking Dead finally answered it definitively.
No. No, they cannot.
And that’s a very, very good thing.
From start to finish, this episode—aptly titled “Conquer”—was the knockout conclusion that this incredible season deserved, a fact made all the more surprising by the way it didn’t deliver what fans have come to expect. There was no Big Bad rolling through Alexandria’s gates in the show’s final moments; there was no beloved longtime character saying goodbye forever from the Talking Dead couch after the credits rolled. Instead, this final episode left us where The Walking Dead leaves us best: on tenterhooks, hearts filled to the brim with a potent combination of equal parts hope and dread.
I, for one, loved every minute.
And that started with minute one, the cold open, in which Morgan Jones finally made his long-awaited reappearance. Unlike the rest of our survivors, life on the road seems to have had a soothing influence on Morgan. No matter what he’s doing, he always looks happy and at ease: sleeping in the backseat of a car, for instance, or warming water for a cup of noodles, or even being accosted mid-meal by a gun-toting fellow with a letter of the alphabet carved into his head.
Which he is, thus giving us the second big payoff we’ve been waiting for: An explanation as to just what’s up with the ubiquitous forehead Ws, which have popped up this season adorning walkers and people alike. Unfortunately, it’s not an explanation that makes a whole lot of sense—but I guess that’s to be expected when you’re getting your exposition from a self-mutilating, crazy man who wants to kill you for your noodles. Anyway, here it is:
“You know, the first settlers here put bounties on wolves’ heads, brought the natives into it, made them hunt them. Didn’t take them too long to kill them all,” says W, then gestures to his forehead. “They’re back now.”
So, as near as I can figure it, the W is for “wolf,” which is what this guy and his compatriots think they are, at least on the inside… which makes them a roving gang of murderous otherkin, basically. There’s no time to laugh about this, though, because the W man wants a) Morgan’s noodles, and b) Morgan’s life. Morgan politely declines to give up the latter, and then kicks the bejesus out of both W and his friend (a.k.a. W2, a.k.a. The Human Tax Form), all while repeatedly suggesting to the Ws that they stop this nonsense and go away, which is good advice that the Ws sadly don’t listen to. Ultimately, Morgan knocks out both of them and puts the unconscious bros in a car, where they’ll certainly be very embarrassed to wake up spooning with each other.
And so concludes the best cold open of the season—which, along with the amazing Jurassic World trailer that immediately followed it, is definitive proof that the TV gods love us and want us to be happy.
With Morgan’s presence in this episode officially established, we now return to Alexandria, where a heavily-bandaged Rick is being confronted by Michonne. She’s not happy about her fellow constable’s little husband-beating, window-breaking, gun-waving incident, and her reasons are the usual: That she and Rick and everyone else need to stop acting like they’re still in emergency survival mode.
“We had to stop being out there,” she says.
The problem is, maybe Rick can’t stop being out there. I mean, [points to Rick’s head], it’s kind of looking like out there is in here, y’know? See: Rick suggesting to his gathered friends that they might need to kill the Alexandrites with knives before all is said and done. See also: Carol delivering some real talk vis-a-vis the group’s ability to play well with others. Not only does she have no faith in the good people of Alexandria, but she doesn’t even trust her own chosen family to show the necessary toughness if things get hairy, leading us to the first trademarked Badass Carol Quote of many in this episode:
“You said you don’t want to take this place, AND you don’t want to lie?” she asks Rick. “Oh, sunshine. You don’t get both.”
NEXT: Carol scares up another casserole.[pagebreak]
Speaking of which: When did Carol officially eclipse Rick as the most hardcore mercenary character ever to grace our beloved show? Because she has! As hard-asses go, Rick might have buns of steel, but Carol’s posterior is made of a marble block 16 feet thick and reinforced with titanium rods. And this brings us to her second big moment: A long-awaited confrontation with Pete, who is sulking after having been relocated to a new home, which is really putting a crimp in his busy wife-beating schedule. Carol, who has basically started a niche business delivering combination baked goods and death threats, demands that he check on Tara’s welfare, and holds a knife to his throat for good measure.
“I could kill you right now,” she says. “Who’s gonna believe I did it because I didn’t like you? No one.” And then, because there is no end to this scene’s capacity to surprise and delight us, she actually, literally, says, “COME AT ME.”
Sadly, Pete does not come at Carol. Instead, he accepts the threats, and the casserole—although he hurls it on the floor right after she leaves, and then freaks out off camera.
“THIS ISN’T MY HOUSE!” we hear him shouting. It also sounds like Pete is busy breaking every stick of furniture in not-his-house, as he rails against the not-his-house-ness of it all.
Meanwhile, let’s not forget that two of Alexandria’s residents have no idea what kind of trouble is brewing back home. Daryl and Aaron are still on the road, looking for new recruits to the community. Daryl takes the opportunity to ask about the folks Deanna sent away—a group of three, two men and a woman, who were driven far from Alexandria’s gates and left outside with food and water but no weapons. (Sidenote: My family tried this same move in order to “exile” a rodent that kept breaking into our attic in 1989. It worked about as well for us as I expect it to work for Alexandria, which is to say, I spent several months during my childhood cohabitating by force with a squirrel named Arthur Peanuts.)
Aaron and Daryl are also tracking a possible Alexandria newbie, a guy with a red poncho and a working knowledge of natural mosquito repellents. But they lose him, and find something else: a giant canned goods warehouse, emblazoned with the promising logo, “How the harvest gets home.” Seems legit! Definitely not getting any sort of a “trojan horse” vibe, here, nosiree. And because apparently neither Daryl nor Aaron remembers their ancient Greek history, they are shocked—shocked!—when it turns out to be a series of elaborate traps, rigged to spew zombies all over the parking lot. Zombies with Ws carved into their foreheads! Hoo boy, this is some kind of mess! Even with Daryl’s awesome ability to decapitate the undead with a chain, three at a time, he and Aaron can only make it to the safety of a stalled car, which is immediately surrounded by slavering corpses, and which contains a note inside that reads:
BAD PEOPLE COMING
This is where Daryl expresses a desire to make a break for the fence, sacrificing himself to the horde so that Aaron can escape—and also where a certain recapper began to actively consider breaking the television, because this is a Walking Dead season finale and nobody had died yet. But Aaron won’t have it. Aaron, as it turns out, does not share the Alexandrian ideal of leaving people behind to save oneself.
“We go for the fence,” he says. “We do it together. Whether we make it or not, we do it together. We have to.”
And then Daryl says, “Ready?”, and I would just like to say that no, personally, I was not ready, and that’s why it’s so marvelous that at this exact moment, Morgan Jones makes a second appearance and saves the whole damn day. Not only that, he hands Daryl the map with Rick’s name on it, and the look that passes between the two men is like understanding, wrapped in brotherhood, doused in hope, and smeared with delicious Crazee Cheez.
It would be a beautiful moment, truly… if only Glenn hadn’t just been shot.
NEXT: Did I mention that Glenn just got shot?!![pagebreak]
Oh, yeah, P.S., Glenn has been shot. After a brief rendezvous with Maggie—who plans to spend all day on the Mercy for Rick campaign trail before the town meeting to discuss his fate—Glenn makes the very dumb mistake of following Nicholas the Coward over the wall, and into the woods. Why? So he can walk right into a trap wherein Nicholas shoots him right in the shoulder, that’s why. And though Glenn manages to escape, Nicholas follows his blood trail through the woods, and Glenn tries to get the jump on Nicholas, and then Nicholas sticks his finger in Glenn’s bullet hole, and Glenn screams, and we all know what happens when you scream in the middle of the walker-infested forest, you guys. The zombies descend, chomping, snarling, and things are looking very bad for Glenn Rhee as we head into the finale’s home stretch.
Before we get to that, though, let’s check in with the rest of our survivors, including one whose fate has been deeply uncertain since two episodes ago. The good news is, Tara is still alive, albeit unconscious. The better news is, even while unconscious, she’s still the one member of the crew who can reliably inspire two warring parties to make peace with each other, which is just what Abraham and Eugene do at her bedside. First, Eugene explains that all he did was give Abraham the opportunity to be a hero, by concocting a story that would motivate him; the credit for getting them to Alexandria is all Abraham’s. And Abraham, for his part, says he is sorry for almost killing Eugene, though Eugene declares said apology “emphatically and completely unnecessary.”
The bad news: Neither man seals this moment with a fist bump, which just seems disrespectful considering that Tara would have definitely insisted on it.
Meanwhile, the last time we saw Gabriel, he was doing his best to sabotage the group’s chances at remaining in Alexandria—and having done so, he’s apparently ready to meet his maker. He walks outside, fully intending to sacrifice himself to the zombies.
“I’m ready,” he says.
But Gabriel, who is wrong about basically everything, is wrong about this, too. He can’t help it; he wants to live! He wants it badly enough to kill both the zombie that attacks him and the hapless dude that the zombie was in the process of eating. And then he collapses in the road and cries like a little weenie, because he is.
And finally, with the town meeting that will decide his fate only a few short minutes away, Rick decides to come clean to the one person who truly matters: Michonne. His trusted friend, his fellow leader. He tells her the truth about why he took the guns, and why he lied to her about taking them. And in return, Michonne reveals her own truth: That she didn’t wallop her co-constable on the head to save Alexandria from Rick Grimes. She did it to save Rick Grimes from himself.
“I think you can find a way,” she tells him. “We can find a way. And if we don’t, I’m still with you. Something’s gonna happen. Just don’t make something happen.”
And whatever happens between Sheriff Rick and Jessie-Next-Door, one thing seems clear: That Michonne is the partner Rick needs and deserves, maybe in more ways than one, but definitely in at least one. What he lost—in Shane, and in Lori—he has back now, and then some, in Michonne. And the best part is, in this moment, they both seem to realize that.
If nothing else, I think we’ve just witnessed the beginning of a beautiful friendship… and a necessary one.
Because this is where The Walking Dead enters the breakneck final thirty minutes of its extra-long finale, and there will be blood.
NEXT: And out come the Wolves.[pagebreak]
There will be blood spilled in the woods outside the walls, when Glenn somehow emerges intact from the darkness of the trees and pounds the sniveling Nicholas within an inch of his life, but not to the end of it, because Glenn Rhee is a hero the likes of which this show has never had, and don’t you dare forget it.
There will be blood spilled in the streets of Alexandria, as Rick finds the gate left ajar, the walls breached, and the hungry dead wandering inside, ready to make one of his new neighbors into a fresh, hot meal.
There will be blood spilled in the name of redemption, of friendship, of family, as each of Rick’s brothers and sisters in survival stand to speak on his behalf. (Abraham sums it up best, saying, “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.”)
And there will be blood spilled in the name of survival, as the good people of Alexandria learn that safety, true safety, means sacrifice. As the last remaining members of civilized society talk about the possibility of exiling Rick, Rick shows up to teach them all a little lesson about the dangers of clinging to civility: a dead, dismembered zombie, dumped right in the center of their polite debate. Because in the end, Rick won’t have to take this place.
In the end, they’re going to give it to him.
“They’ll hunt us, they’ll use us, they’ll try to kill us,” he raves, through blood-streaked lips. “But we’ll kill them. We’ll survive. I’ll show you how. I was thinking, how many of you do I have to kill to save your life? …But I’m not gonna do that. You’re gonna change.”
In fact, they’re going to change right now—because this is when Pete, drunk and raging, crashes into the party with Michonne’s katana in his hands, crashes into Reg Monroe, and accidentally but irrevocably slits the poor man’s throat. And in this moment, drenched in the still-warm blood of her beloved husband, Deanna finally understands that exile just isn’t enough.
“Rick? Do it,” Deanna says.
Rick does it.
And Morgan, arriving with Aaron and Daryl at the precise moment that the gun goes off, suddenly looks like he’s not so sure that reuniting with the Grimes gang was a good idea.
But whatever he and Rick have to say to each other, it will have to wait. And whatever lies in store for the civilized people now that Rick Grimes has been elected executioner, that’ll have to wait, too. The last moments of this episode belong to someone else: The man in the red poncho, who met the Wolves instead of Alexandria’s Welcoming Committee, and who ended up a zombie instead of a new resident of the safe zone. Behind the walls of the trap that nearly claimed Daryl and Aaron’s lives, he stumbles aimlessly past a car emblazoned with a warning.
It says, WOLVES NOT FAR.
Of course, it’s a warning Rick Grimes won’t need. Because he knows: In this world, they never are.