The Walking Dead wrapped up its generally excellent fifth season with an extra-long, 90-minute special finale last night. But not only did it not feel bloated, but it culminated in one of the show's greatest final acts ever — but did Rick save Alexandria, or destroy it?

"Conquer" is an exceptionally busy episode, so forgive me in advance for this recap going all over the place. We begin with Morgan as he has the first official encounter with the wolves. The Wolf who approaches his camp, gun in hand, is kind of crazy, and Morgan is also still pretty crazy, so they have a fascinatingly weird conversation while a second Wolf tries to sneak up on Morgan. What they don't know is that Morgan has been training with Donatello of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and hands them their asses with nothing but a bo staff.

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In Alexandria, Rick wakes up to learn that Deanna is planning a town forum to discuss his fate. He is shockingly fine with pulling his gun on the townspeople and waving it crazily about last episode, and along with Glenn and Carol, immediately makes plans to grab Deanna and a few other townspeople at the forum, in order to take control. (Carol, still in full Harmless Housewife deception mode, tells Rick to make up an elaborate story involving his extra gun.) After they leave, Michonne tells Rick that perhaps taking the town by force isn't necessary.

Deanna, for her part, is ready to send Rick packing. However, her husband not only knows Rick's importance to Alexandria's future, but also recognizes that exiling somebody is its own problem. "Civilization is when we stop sending people away," he says, but Deanna is unmoved.

Outside the walls, Sasha is still on her one-woman zombie-killing spree, and reveals her craziness when she makes a mass grave of zombies, and lies down in it with them. She clearly wants to be dead. But so does Father Gabriel, who takes a walk outside Alexandria without a weapon, looking for a zombie to kill him. But when he finds one, he can't quite let himself be bitten, and tearfully tears the zombie's head off with help from a conveniently placed noose. Glenn also ventures outside, hunting after Nicholas, who he sees sneak outside. But it's a trap — Nicholas shoots Glenn in the shoulder, but even then Glenn kicks Nicholas' ass.

Also outside the walls: Daryl and Aaron follow a survivor in a red poncho, but accidentally lose sight of him, instead coming across a canned food factory. Both of them are super-excited about the idea of bringing home a truck full of food — until Aaron opens one of the trucks, and all the other trucks fly open, revealing they're all full of zombies, and they've stumbled upon an elaborate and exceptionally deadly trap. Daryl and Aaron scramble around until they both manage to get inside a random car, which then is completely surrounded by zombies. They're both dead, and they both know it. However, a miracle arrive in the form on Morgan, who spies the two strangers trapped in the car, and uses his staff to clear a path for them to escape. When Daryl realizes Morgan is looking for Rick, they immediately head back to Alexandria…

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…where Gabriel has returned, and, wallowing in his depression and self-pity, accidentally left the gate open. Between that and Carol stopping by Pete's new house — he's been exiled from Jessie's house — in order to bring him a casserole and threaten and belittle him, which Pete takes exactly as well as you'd expect, which is to say not at all. It's a recipe for disaster. There's only one hopeful note; when Michonne comes to tell Rick the town meeting is about to start, Rick confesses about the guns, tries to hand it to Michonne, and explains he didn't tell her about his plans because he was afraid she'd talk him out of it. But Michonne always has Rick's back — and in fact, bludgeoning him during his rant was more for his benefit than the Alexandrians. She tells Rick to keep the gun.

And that's when The Trial of Rick Grimes begins. Because although Deanna is framing it as a forum, it's really just a chance for people to argue whether Rick should stay or go, after he stole a gun, pointed it at pretty much everybody in town, and screamed crazily at them while covered in blood. But Rick's group gets to testify about all the times he's saved them, and what a good man he is. Abraham somehow puts it the most eloquently:

"There is a vast ocean of shit out there you people don't know shit about. Rick knows every fine grain of said shit. And then some."

But while Rick's fate is being decided, Rick himself has seen the open gate, and the blood and gore that shows zombies have gotten inside — at the exact same time as Glenn has managed to get the drop on Nicholas, and has a gun to his head, and Sasha tries to talk about her depression to Father Gabriel, who responds only by insulting Tyreese and Bob.

Rick frantically searches Alexandria for them, and manages to find them just as Glenn has a gun to Nicholas' head, and Sasha has her gun trained on Gabriel, who is clearly trying to commit suicide by Sasha. The editing here is incredible well done, all three scenarios building off each other to maximize tension. But in the end, Glenn can't bring himself to murder Nicholas, and Sasha hesitates long enough for Maggie to find her and save Gabriel's life. And Rick dispatches the zombies before they hurt anyone, although he's forced to blow one's head off right above him, so he again gets covered in blood and gore.

This is notable, because when Rick finally comes to the town meeting, carrying a zombie corpse he lays at their feet, he looks as terrifying as he did yesterday, and he's saying much the same things as he screamed about yesterday, but he doesn't sound like a raving lunatic, and he's not waving a gun around. He doesn't apologize for basically losing his mind the day before, and he especially doesn't apologize for what he said — in fact, his only regret is that he didn't say it sooner. "You know what I was thinking? I was thinking, how many of you people am I going to have to kill to save your lives?"

The Alexandrians are lucky to be alive, and the fact that there were zombies inside the town is obvious proof how much they need Rick. Rick can teach them to be survive, he can make them properly afraid — so that they can protect themselves when the time inevitably comes when they need to. The fact that Rick is able to throw a zombie down on the ground before them seems to justify everything Rick's saying. But there's something weirdly discomforting about Rick being able to profit off this accident, and scaring the Alexandrians into submission.

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And just in case the townsfolk had any doubts that they need Rick, Pete stumbles to the meeting, belligerent, drunk, and waving Michonne's katana around. Deanna's husband tries to calm him down, and gets his throat slashed open for his troubles. After he dies in Deanna's arms, she hisses to Rick: "Do it." And Rick shoots Pete in the head, without a second's hesitation.

I'm still processing this ending, because the show's morality is so clouded at this point, even though I know this is at least somewhat intentional. The show is an examination of the constant balance between what people need to do to survive versus what they need to do to live, and the way season five had been constructed — as everyone worried about being outside "too long" — it seemed that Rick and the others were going to find a place where they could act human again.

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While being in Alexandria seems to have helped Michonne, Carl, and many others, Rick is still seemingly in Outside Mode. He's worried about survival, and if that means killing all the native Alexandrians and taking their town, he's been willing to do it. In fact, he's willing to do almost anything to survive — and he's teetered on the edge of committing some horrible acts, simply for his own pleasure (like when he grabbed his gun and contemplated killing Pete to get to Jessie, well before he knew that Pete was an asshole).

A lot of you praised Rick's crazy rant last week, saying that he was correct. Unfortunately, being "correct" is not the issue here. Yes, Alexandria needs infinitely better protection, but just because Rick is correct doesn't mean he's right. Rick is willing to make some pretty brutal decisions to ensure his people survive — but they're the same sort of decisions Carol made when she burned those two sick people to death back in the prison, in hopes of keeping the illness from spreading. Carol wasn't wrong to do, but she was inhuman, and Rick felt he had to exile Carol for it. Now, Rick and Carol are BFFs, and Carol is threatening children and antagonizing assholes.

I don't think the show wants us to think Carol is doing the right thing, and neither is Rick. Otherwise, the show wouldn't undercut Rick's merciless put-down of Pete with the compassion of Glenn, who chooses to let Nicholas live. Maybe Glenn will regret this, but Glenn isn't dumb — he knows the risk he's taking, but can't murder someone in cold blood, even someone as objectively horrible as Nicholas. Sasha can't quite bring herself to murder Gabriel, even though Gabriel is begging for death. Rick has no such mercy for Pete, and the look on Morgan's face when he sees Rick shoot an unarmed, helpless man the look of disappointment on Morgan's face is crushing. Rick is no longer that man that tried to help Morgan in "Clear." He has been outside for too long. And while Rick will help the Alexandrians survive, he's also taking away that veneer of civilization that had made Alexandria so seemingly tranquil.

However, it's obvious that as idyllic as Alexandria first seemed — remember, when Rick approached he heard the sound of children laughing — it was doomed. Pete was beating Jessie and no one was doing anything; Aidan and Nicholas were getting people eaten left and right; and the fact that there hadn't been a zombie invasion or evil people attack was pure luck. Even if Rick had come in with an open mind and compassion in his heart, it's clear that he would have been forced to save the town from itself at some point, and by forcing them to admit their problems and some hard truths.

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So which is it? What is the better choice? Glenn's moral decision, or Rick's brutal pragmatism? It appears that Deanna and Alexandria have come around to Rick's way of thinking. But what will that do to the town? They'll be safer, but will they really be better off? Of all the things Rick chooses to think of during the lead-up to the town meeting, he remembers his conversation with Bob. "This is the real world," he told Bob. "No," Bob replied. "This is a nightmare. And nightmares end." For Rick, the nightmare isn't over, and for Alexandria, it may have just begun.

Either way, when the Wolves come next season, Alexandria is going to be very, very glad they have Rick Grimes.


Contact the author at rob@io9.com.