One of the first things we see in “Conquer,” the astonishing and consistently thrilling finale of The Walking Dead’s fifth season, is a rabbit’s foot, hanging from the rearview mirror where Morgan (Lennie James) is making camp, not far from the Alexandria Safe-Zone. In the context of the series, this symbol of luck, of an animal’s limb being affixed to a ring to someone can put it on their keychain, feels especially gruesome. A measure of barbarism is essential to survival in the world where Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and his clan live, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that the acts that Rick’s group commit are brutal and often final. This conflictive notion of how violence both undermines and keeps order in society feels embedded into the episode’s every exchange and set piece, all the way up to its maddening ending.
Indeed, when Morgan decides to leave the zombies to the “wolves” he’s knocked out, he essentially spares himself from having to kill living people, no matter how psychotic, opportunistic, and homicidal they may be. His decision has deadly consequences, attested by the horrible fate of the man in the poncho, and the final shot of the “wolves” suggests that they’ll be making a visit to Alexandria sooner rather than later. It’s reflective of how The Walking Dead has proven consistently attentive to how even ugly acts deemed good for society will have their ultimate backlash. (Morgan puts it better: “Everything gets a return.”) This is especially true inside the Safe-Zone, considering the fact that Carol’s (Melissa McBride) wicked yet justifiable taunting of Pete (Corey Brill) more than likely leads to the two deaths that end the episode.
Carol, of course, is ready to take Alexandria on her own if need be, but the group comes together to plan a possible mutiny at a mock-trial of Rick, seen over by Deanna (Tovah Feldshuh) and Reg (Steve Coulter). The entire episode leads up to the trial, and the writers take the time to tie up some loose storylines. As Glenn (Steven Yeun) faces off against Nicholas (Michael Traynor) outside the wall, Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) and Eugene (Josh McDermitt) make up at Tara’s (Alanna Masterson) bedside. In fleeting moments, there’s a sense that the writers are rushing to tie up interpersonal grudges, but the scenes all feel significant and natural, thanks partially to the exquisite, expressive camerawork. There’s a beautiful pull-out of Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green) lying on top of a mass grave of dead zombies, not only marrying her death wish with her growing propensity for zombie slaughter, but also echoing the last time we saw Tyreese, being placed in his grave in “What Happened and What’s Going On.”
At another point, the camera stays on a shot of Jessie (Alexandra Breckenridge) with only Rick’s reflection in the part of the window that wasn’t smashed during his fight with Pete. He can quiet literally see himself next to her now, but it’s only because of a terrible, vicious act of violence that almost ended in death(s). Symbols, like the broken window on Jessie’s home, continue to be an integral part of the the show’s storytelling, as in the map that Morgan hands Darryl (Norman Reedus) after saving him and Aaron (Ross Marquand) from the elaborate trap at the back of the Del Arno Foods warehouse.
Ultimately, the more sour, even misguided sequences of season five, such as the depiction of Noah’s death, give the acts of forgiveness at the end of the episode all the more remarkable emotional weight. It’s so easy to root for Glenn to dish out some Old Testament-style, eye-for-an-eye justice on Nicholas, but the coward’s evident guilt is enough to make Glenn favor a chance at real peace. Similarly, one would likely take at least some measure of joy out of watching Gabriel meet an ugly end at the hands of Sasha after all his doom-speak, but he’s spared, in the end, by Maggie’s (Lauren Cohan) intervention. Maggie’s ability to quell Sasha and speak kindly with Gabriel accentuates the show’s roots in trust, humanism, and faith in others, and it’s what finally makes Rick’s decision to put a bullet in Pete’s head all the more ghastly, even under the circumstances. The shot is framed so that we don’t see Pete die, but understand him to be dead, which dulls the catharsis of his death without completely denying it. It’s true, Pete probably had to die, but as Rick looks up at Morgan, the entire tonnage of what he may have lost in that moment can be felt fully.
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