First, let’s share a moment of silence for that time I thought I knew how the season was going to end, and was stupid enough to mention my prediction in a review. It’s a mistake I’ve made in the past, but one which I seem incapable of learning from. This season did not end with a massive fight between Rick and the town, nor was Alexandria destroyed by a wave of walkers; and while we now know roughly what those “W” symbols mean, it turns out to be more of a tease than anything else, setting up what’s presumably going to be a big conflict next fall.

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Instead of all my dumb ideas, we got Rick making a rhetorical point via corpse; Father Gabriel attempting suicide, first by zombie, then by Sasha; Aaron and Daryl getting caught in a trap; and Glenn and Nicholas sorting out their differences in the woods. These storylines were varying degrees of effective, but cumulatively, they added up to—well, not a whole hell of a lot. For a season finale, especially one that should be the climax of a series of gratifyingly tense hours, “Conquer” just sort of sits there. It gets some pieces moved to where they need to be, and it had a hell of a lot of style (if nothing else, this show has gotten very good at looking and sounding like great TV, even if the script and the acting don’t always hold up), but the ending was disappointingly flat.

Let’s see if we can cut through some of the subplots first. Father Gabriel remains as nonsensical as ever, and Sasha’s behavior, while visually fascinating (the scene of her lying down on a bed of dead zombies was gorgeous), remains dramatically flat. The show’s grasp on psychology is the definition of hit or miss, and a lot of what’s happened these past few episodes has depended on a sometimes shaky depiction of PTSD. With Sasha, it doesn’t really work because she’s so thinly drawn that there’s no tension between the person she should be and the person she is, and with Gabriel, the trauma he’s struggling to get over should justify his arc, but it doesn’t. It’s just too sloppy and contrived, and his transitions over the course of the season have never seemed like the behavior of man dealing with survivor’s guilt (and manslaughter guilt I guess). Individual scenes with him make sense, but on the whole, he’s too muddled to be convincingly tragic. The final scene of him, Sasha, and Maggie holding hands and praying made for a nice image, but wasn’t particularly satisfying, especially considering how much time we spent getting there.

Far more interesting were the ongoing adventures of Daryl and Aaron, looking for potential recruits and supplies. They get to the edges of the “Wolves” thing, but really only deal with the group in the abstract, stumbling into a (really well made) trap and nearly dying in it. That gives Daryl some time to talk about how he only feels like himself when he’s out in the woods, and then he and Aaron argue about how to escape the trap (Daryl wanted to sacrifice himself, and you can practically hear a a nation of Norman Reedus fans holding their breath), and then Morgan arrives to save them. It’s an intense sequence, and I’m interested to see how the show incorporates Lennie James into the main ensemble (he got a terrifically bad-ass cold open), but like a lot of “Conquer” it wasn’t conclusive enough to feel like it truly belonged in a finale.

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Glenn and Nicholas’ fight in the woods put an end to their fight—at least, I hope it does, unless Nicholas decides he’s still pissed off about everything. But after a season that cut down a surprising number of regular characters, it’s weird to have it end without seeing a body drop. (Okay, Rick shot Pete in the head, but I doubt he’ll be missed.) All that foreboding and doom and gloom, and everything pretty much worked out okay for now. Glenn avoided the Dark Side, Abraham and Eugene patched up their feud, and even Tara woke up. I realize I often mock this show for its nihilism, and I stand by that mockery, but that doesn’t mean you can tell a story with stakes like this and then cap off the season without really following through on anything. All those creepy suggestions and implications just sort of fizzled out, and the resulting deflation makes for disappointing television.

Then there’s Rick’s community outreach program. Last week, I was heartened to see his behavior treated the way it ought to be treated; namely, Michonne punched him in the face. But here, all of the regular cast is still on board the Grimes-mobile, and even Michonne is on his side, especially after he trusts her with the truth about where he got the gun. Ostensibly, this was all about the struggle between the “civilized” citizens of Alexandria and Rick’s more intensive approach to neighborhood watch, but the debate ended up so one-sided that it drained any tension away.

Instead of giving us an ambiguous situation in which Rick’s time outside made it hard for him to adjust to “normal” life again, we get a bunch of soft idiots who need to be taught a lesson in how to stay alive. Any pretense otherwise from earlier in the season is gone. Pete is a joke, and Jessie flat out tells Rick he was right. We can pretend the shocked look on Morgan’s face when he arrives just in time to see Rick shoot Pete will mean something, and maybe it will; but deep down, this show will always go back to the only answer it ever has. If that’s the case, we’d be better off watching our heroes struggling against enemies even worse than they are, instead of dabbling in philosophical debate that no one has any intention of ever taking seriously.

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Stray observations:

  • Seriously, the only interesting thing about Pete was that he kind of looked like Jeff Daniels. Also, it was fun to watch Carol threaten him. And it was great fun seeing him die, which sort of makes a hash out of any ethical issues the show was trying to raise. (Also? Not very good with a sword. Yeesh.)
  • Andrew Lincoln isn’t my favorite actor, but I sometimes feel like he’s trying to make Rick creepier than the writers will actually allow the character to be. His rant last week was deeply fucked up, and having that rant essentially proven correct in “Conquer” doesn’t make the desperate, crazed way Lincoln delivered it any more comforting.
  • So, the Wolves are probably a group started by the people Aaron said were kicked out of Alexandria in the early days, right? Lead by a guy named Davidson. And now they have pictures of the town, and of Rick and Carl.
  • Goodbye, red poncho man. You knew how to fight mosquitoes, but not how to not get murdered.
  • That town meeting felt weirdly like the characters were trying to sell us on Rick. Don’t you get it, Dumbo? You don’t need the ex-sheriff with trust issues; the magic was in you all along!
  • “You don’t want to leave this place, and you don’t want to lie? Oh sunshine, you don’t get both.” Your weekly reminder that Carol is awesome.
  • “Why? Because all life is precious, Daryl.” Morgan is also awesome.

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