TV Review: The Walking Dead Season 8, Episode 1 “Mercy”

The Walking Dead hasn’t lost sight of its impressive history nor it’s central cast, and “Mercy”, the landmark 100th episode of the juggernaut survival-horror drama, is a well-rounded declaration of that. The start to what will hopefully be a return to form following a haphazard seventh season, it’s an episode imbued with the kind of optimism and leadership (both literal and figurative) that threw last year’s string of episodes into turmoil and forced the show to bend around Negan’s cartoon-supervillain shtick. From previous errors it’s clear that just because one things works well in the comics, doesn’t mean it’ll work on the small screen; it seems the writers are beginning to realise that.

Disparate scenes that initially make no sense and begin to shape into an elaborate plan is the frame of “Mercy”, and although it’s nothing new for the show, it does bring a sense of excitement. There’s a grand sense of achievement and actual progress sizzling underneath all that careful, precise work that’s done throughout the episode right up until that moment a rigged RV rams through the gates of The Sanctuary and rains all hell down on Negan and his men.

The episode starts with showing Rick from three different perspectives. First, a flash-forward to what seems like an inevitable future with Rick waking up in bed, caked with a flowing white beard to suggest that the show’s numero uno is sticking around for a very long time. Then we get a glimpse of Rick the leader, a position he has launched back into with King Ezekiel and Maggie by his side, before we wrap up with Rick the broken, red-eyed mess mourning over Glenn’s grave. “This isn’t about you” are the words Father Gabriel speaks to Rick shortly after, echoing what will likely be a theme moving forward with leadership split between many, and the Rick-tator-ship transforming into a democracy. But for this episode at least, the show is most certainly all about Rick

Rick’s big speech alongside King Ezekiel and Maggie is re-visited in parts throughout “Mercy”, cut with the group meticulously making their way towards The Sanctuary and carefully picking through Negan’s known points of interest. The most notable part of this, aside from the main cohort led by Rick right to the gates of The Sanctuary, is the fan-favourite foursome of Tara, Daryl, Carol and Morgan who are micro-managing an insanely large horde of walkers with designs on pushing them towards The Sanctuary via a series of explosions.

It’s exciting stuff, although ultimately it fizzles a bit as the episode buckles under time constraints, essentially skipping the brunt of carnage and landing right on a visibly shocked Negan limping to try get away from Rick’s brutal assault. With all Rick’s talk of just one person having to die, there are moments through the plan’s execution where Rick has clear scope to take out Negan right then and there, but he obviously doesn’t. A suspension of disbelief is required here for the sake of network TV being network TV, although it is quite frustrating to have Rick talk all that talk and not go all the way.

But perhaps mercy is more than just the title of this episode, and more than Carl’s interaction with a hungry stranger. Could Rick show Negan mercy in the end? “May your mercy prevail over your wrath”, says a starving survivor whom Carl comes across at a petrol station. It may seem off-hand, but Carl coming back later in the episode to bring him some food may be a tip to this season’s motif: mercy versus wrath, a more focused version of what The Walking Dead has been about for a very long time – that being, how far is one willing to go to survive; how this landscape changes human nature and human psychology. Though resting on those themes can be repetitive at times, the show is arguably at its strongest when it addresses these questions in a deep and stylish way. The dynamic between Morgan and Carol being a great example, along with what remains the show’s finest episode to date, “The Grove”.

While there are no notable deaths this episode, things aren’t looking too good for Father Gabriel who was left behind after foolishly trying to help series coward #1 Gregory. As such, he unwittingly ends up hiding from the horde in the same trailer as Negan, who most certainly will kill Gabriel. With Father Gabriel, I feel they’ve only started teasing out the true purpose of his character and to kill him off so quickly would be an unfortunate waste. There are very few Walking Dead characters left who are viable vessels for the type of big, worldly questions this show asks, Gabriel is one of them (Morgan and Carol are two others; conversely, there’s little more on offer from Daryl, Michonne and Rosita) and if he goes then the show may lose a bit of it’s depth (assuming Gabriel’s arc was going places).

Now there’s also the question of those flash-forwards, which take place at a time where Judith is old enough to care that there’s some kind of festival going on. There’s a sense that these curious scenes will be continue to take place throughout the season, so for now it’s a bit premature to judge whether or not they add to the show in any meaningful way. What they do tell us though is that – assuming these are actual flash-forwards and not Rick’s fantasy – Carl, Judith, Michonne and Rick are still standing as a family unit, in a community that’s vibrant enough to host a festival. That doesn’t necessarily bode well for how this show is going to end (a happy-ever-after would be excessively cheesy for a show so bleak) but at least there’s some optimism floating around now.

Review Score: THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Highlights

  • Daryl blowing stuff up
  • The overall plan (aside from, you know, not killing Negan)
  • No one listening to Gregory

Lowlights

  • Not clear where those flash-forwards are going
  • Skipping the assault

The Walking Dead Season 8 screens in Australia on FX/Foxtel every Monday at 1:30pm and again at 7:30pm.

Image: Gene Page/AMC.