by Thom Yee
Conventional wisdom would suggest that, as a genre show, there’s a ceiling in terms of how good a show like The Walking Dead could ever be. Even though The Walking Dead explores elements of the human condition like most all art and fiction, a show with zombies in its central premise is, rightly or not, almost always going to be pigeon holed. It could be considered a great horror show or a great action show, it can be recognized for its makeup or effects, but the fact is that, regardless of its quality, most would never include it in the same conversation as its upper-class AMC brethren like Breaking Bad or Mad Men. I’m not going to put The Walking Dead in that same class either, but I will say, unlike those shows, that I didn’t give up on it in the middle, and after this season’s conclusion, I’m glad I didn’t.
One of the most complimentary things I can say about The Walking Dead, and it speaks volumes of how far the show has come, is that it’s no longer a dumb show. The arcs built for the characters this season felt natural and realistic rather than forced and suspect, characters, for the most part, weren’t doing dumb things just to further the plot, the show was genuinely suspenseful, and there were several intriguing moments sprinkled all throughout. Somehow, this year’s writers cracked the code on how to build a show out much more organically rather than blustering their way through forcing connections between disparate plot points, and most of what happened this year flowed with an unprecedented self-assurance.
You could easily make the argument that the show’s increased quality lies in this year’s showrunners’ intentionally following the comic much more than they have in previous seasons, an argument borne out by how much more time has been spent on central plots and how much less time has been wasted on one-off distraction episodes like last year’s “Still” or “The Grove”. What may be more interesting, however, is that in some significant ways, the show has actually a bit better than the comic. By which I mostly mean Morgan.
The thrust of this week’s season-concluding “Conquer” is spent on resolving the problems in Alexandria that grew out of Rick going sickhouse on everyone in town. This week, the events inside the Alexandria Safe Zone err much more on the side of sanity as Rick acknowledges his mistakes, Michonne reaffirms her place in Rick’s group, and the town convenes to cluck their tongues, stroke their beards and talk about what’s to be done with this Rick Grimes? The conversations generated by Rick’s actions are surprisingly rational, especially for this show, although the conclusion of the people of Alexandria vs. Rick eventually reaches an overly convenient conclusion that allows Rick to come off as survivalist-leader hero and Pete as clumsy alcoholic creep who would’ve been thrown out long ago if he wasn’t a doctor. Either way, what’s important is that #PorchDick is dead and Rick has, once again, emerged as the rightful leader. Meanwhile, Sasha’s still depressed, Carol keeps covertly freaking people out, and Glenn confronts the coward Nicholas in a sequence that further illuminates Glenn’s unrelenting heroic resolve.
That’s all well and good, but this week’s MVP has to be Morgan, instantly my new favourite character, just ahead of Aaron. The episode’s opening, which also finally introduces us to the oncoming threat of the Wolves, deals with Morgan’s continuing adventures in the woods and perpetually behind our heroes as he’s confronted by a ‘W’-forehead-tagged, gun-wielding man who reveals a bit about the nature of the Wolves before Morgan, back to the wall and trying to offer a peaceful resolution, kicks everyone’s Wolf ass. Beyond nostalgia for times past, I’ve never been the biggest fan of Morgan, who had long-ago arrived in crazy town the last time we saw him, but by now we’ve got new-age, Zen Morgan (who I won’t refer to as walking the Earth for lack of respect for David Carradine’s Kung Fu), and even beyond his obviously practiced staff-wielding, it’s refreshing to see his outlook on life. His mere presence is a natural call-back to more innocent times in the show’s history, but more importantly, I honestly felt all warm and fuzzy inside hearing him say “all life is precious.” It’s such a complete contrast to the show’s core and especially everything we’ve seen this season, and it’s a sudden, massive, and important injection of hope to the proceedings.
The final instalment in this year’s continuing adventures of Crossbow and the Pistol led us to a food-canning facility, and if you didn’t get an “It’s a trap!” vibe right from the outset, I don’t know what’s wrong with you. The sheer amount of walkers spilling out of the food trucks was impressive, and the volume of zombie grunts surrounding our trapped heroes was off-putting in just the right way. It’s a well-crafted scene and a necessary one given that our first direct exposure to the Wolves was a small, peaceful man beating them to the ground. Finding that the Wolves are capable of and given to this sort of trap, one that obviously ties in to all the weird walker stuff we’ve been watching all season, amplifies their apparent threat immensely. And just when it looks like all is lost, there’s Morgan to save the day!
The only real disappointment I felt with the episode was the continuing awful saga of Father Gabriel. As much as he’s railed against our heroes, it’s obvious that his major malfunction has more to do with his own failings than them. But it’s been obvious for a long time. Leaving his story to begin resolution this late in the season isn’t a revelation, it’s just dragging in a season that’s had much better luck with rushing.
When I first heard of this episode’s extended run time, I was a little annoyed in the same way we’re all skeptical of the last book in a series being adapted into two pieces for the movies, but “Conquer” benefitted from every minute it had with the amount of plates the show still had spinning in the air. Every major and minor story point felt served in an episode that even found time to bring Abraham and Eugene back together, and the last ten minutes of the show especially were incredibly tense as Rick stalked the Alexandria grounds for loose walkers. It was a kinetic and exciting scene as it both clearly showed the necessity of Rick’s protection and contrasted it against a town council meeting that wouldn’t even be possible without (and because of) him.
Now more than ever it’s clear that the Alexandria Safe Zone needs Rick to be anywhere near as safe as it wants to be, especially with Wolves circling, and that means a world with knives, guns, swords and all. We may still need an answer as to what kind of a world Rick ultimately wants to build and whether or not people would be better off not ever meeting our heroes, we may still have unfortunately plodding episodes like Tyreese’s death, and we may still have extraneous characters that the writers don’t know what to do with, but for the first time The Walking Dead is a show I’m actually looking forward to rather than one I’m considering dropping.
The Walking Dead — “Conquer” final score: 9
Items of Note:
- Damn, Tara’s still alive. At least they wrote her out of the last bunch of episodes.