Since last October, The Walking Dead's Rick Grimes and his battered band of human survivors have escaped a cannibal camp, made it out of a hospital run by dictatorial cops, learned that their hope of a zombie cure was based on a lie, and have tentatively begun to settle into a seemingly idyllic new community called the "Alexandria Safe Zone." Last night's season finale wrapped up a 16-episode batch that was the series' most popular run to date, both with the audience — which has routinely numbered over 14 million viewers per episode — and with critics, many of whom weren't fans (Walking Dead-heads?) before.
So what actually happened on the show over the last half of Season Five? And what are fans going to be talking about for the next few months, before Season Six debuts this fall? Here are our five takeaways from last night's nerve-jangling, nail-biting, brains-chomping adieu.
1. Things are about to get a lot worse for our heroes.
In the second half of the season, Rick led his people to the fortified, upscale suburb of Alexandria, Virginia, where he took a job as the community's constable. Almost as soon as they arrived, the gang started noticing beaucoup strangeness in the area, including zombies with the letter "W" carved into their foreheads, and lights in the distance that could indicate a rival band of survivors. In last night's finale, "Conquer," a handful of human raiders who may be from that other group — real vicious types, sporting those same telltale "W" marks — made their presence known and lured Aaron and Daryl into an abandoned cannery, where they unleashed literal truckloads of the undead.
All signs point to a serious confrontation next year between these self-styled gang of "Wolves" and the dangerously tame residents of the Safe Zone. Alexandria's best hope looks to be Rick, who at the end of "Conquer" abandoned his secret coup plans and stood before the tribunal that was debating whether or not to kick him out, where he announced his intention to turn them all into the cold-blooded warriors. Which they're all going to need to be: Judging from what little we've seen of these barbarians that will literally be at their gates soon, these new enemies look like they could put the Terminus cannibals and the Woodbury thugs to shame.
2. The survivors are stronger together than alone.
One the show's best stretches happened in the second half of the fourth season, when Rick and his friends were separated and suffering. But while those episodes were terrific in their own right, they were much bleaker than usual — both for the characters and for those who tuned in every week hoping to see their favorite humans carve out a little peaceful space for themselves. Season Five seems to have been designed to satisfy fans of the show's core: Rick, Daryl, Michonne, Carol, Glenn, Maggie, and Carl. Aside from a few short missions, the main group of survivors has stayed together from week to week, and it's made a difference in what they've been able to accomplish. They began the season by fighting their way out of a compound run by people who use humans as their primary food supply, and in the half-season finale, Rick and co. very nearly rescued Maggie's sister Beth from an Atlanta hospital where she'd been forced into slave labor.
It was because of their resourcefulness and camaraderie that the group was recruited to live in the Alexandria Safe Zone in the first place. At the finale's town meeting, Rick's friends stoop for him one by one, telling their new neighbors that, "Who he is is who you're going to be…if you're lucky." There's strength in numbers, people, especially if you're fighting human scum, postapocalyptic healthcare cops run amuck and a strict no-tolerance power structure in the one place that resembles civilization — never mind those damned cerebrum-craving creatures lurking around every corner.
3. It's hard to be a leader in a post-zombie world.
That would seem obvious, right? But this season seriously put Rick through the ringer. The Walking Dead originally kept its focus on the thin line that separates an increasingly desperate humankind from the remorseless zombie hordes roaming the countryside. But beginning with season three's introduction of the Governor, the series has increasingly been about how different groups of survivors have formed communities, and how they've lived or died based on who they've chosen to follow. The Governor's paranoia and streak of cruelty infected Woodbury, and ultimately led to its downfall. Then Rick's group squared off against Terminus' demented ruler Gareth, who'd taught his people a literal eat-or-be-eaten lesson: They had to become "hunters" lest they end up as meat.
Most of the second half of the fifth season has been about life in the Safe Zone, which has one of the most seemingly level-headed leaders the show has yet introduced: Deanna Monroe, a former U.S. Congresswoman who carefully vets new townsfolk with an eye toward building a safe, civil society. But it's Deanna's trusting attitude that led her to allow a wife-beater to go unpunished (forcing Rick to take matters into his own hands, and reveal his intended takeover before he wanted to), and also what kept her from seeing that her own now-dead son Aiden was too cocky and sloppy to be leading patrols.
In the past, Rick has shirked the mantle of leadership, which is understandable, given what he's seen of the others who've tried to take charge since the plague began. But in Alexandria, he's found a well-stocked, well-fortified community that he can usurp. The big question for Season Six is not whether he can toughen-up the Safe Zone (if anyone could do it, it's the Sheriff), but whether he can avoid becoming another Governor or Gareth — or, perhaps even worse, something along the line of these mysterious new Wolves.
4. The producers don't seem to be paying attention to complaints about the show's tendency to kill off African-Americans.
Ever since Season Three — when one of The Walking Dead's most underused characters T-Dog was killed off nearly simultaneously with the introduction another African-American male, Tyreese — the show has weathered criticism that it's been too quick to dispose of any major player with darker skin. That outcry didn't stop the producers from killing Chad L. Coleman's character this year, along with another of the long-running black survivors, Bob Stookey. Nor did it save Noah, a sympathetic young fellow who was introduced during the first half of this season only to be eaten to death 10 episodes later.
In Dead's defense, Michonne continues to be one of the show's most valuable people, and over the past two seasons, she's gone from being closed-off and ruthlessly violent to a much more open-hearted heroine. (In the back half of this season, she's been the one who keeps standing up to Rick, and the person arguing the most for settling down.) Meanwhile, Tyreese's sister Sasha remains a fascinating case study in postapocalyptic PTSD — a soul-sick young woman who's seen everyone she loves die and seems determined to join them. And then there's the mentally unstable reverend Gabriel Stokes, who's emerged as one of the show's most unlikely villains, determined to keep anyone in Rick's crew from enjoying any happiness they don't "deserve."
Even better, last night also saw the long-awaited, much-teased return of Morgan Jones, who helped Rick way back in the show's first episode, then later appeared to have gone mad. Since then, he's apparently been walking across the south, looking for the sheriff. He arrived in Alexandria in the finale, sporting a newly optimistic outlook on life and some wicked ninja-worthy fighting skills with his wooden staff. But while the series does have an equal-opportunity attitude towards making its fan favorites and supporting characters zombie chow, the fact that its tendency to sacrifice its African-American heroes at a disproportionate rate hasn't abated remains a little worrisome.
5. Carol is a officially total badass.
After a fourth season in which Carol's nihilistic pragmatism led to her killing her own long before they could "turn" — and being exiled from the group because of it — the former abused spouse returned stronger and craftier than ever. She rode in like the cavalry at Terminus to free her friends, and joined Daryl on the Beth-saving mission in what was arguably this season's finest hour (see the episode "Consumed"). Since coming to Alexandria, she's been pretending to be a meek, happy homemaker, baking cookies and casseroles so that no one would notice when she snuck into the town's armory. (She even threatened to murder a little boy who saw too much, knowing that he wouldn't be able to get anyone to believe him — who'd think that sweet little Stepford Wife would have a dark side?)
In "Conquer," Carol explained her methods to her group, saying that she keeps things simple for the Alexandrians: "These people are children, and children like stories." With Rick dropping his own act at the end of the episode, one major issue for next season will be how long Carol will stay undercover, and what will happen when she finally reveals just how wonderfully sinister she can be. Will the Safe Zoners be shocked? Will they neglect to wash and return her casserole pans? Stay tuned.