In The Walking Dead Season 8 premiere, “Mercy,” war has come. Alexandria is no longer on the defense, but has joined with the Hilltop and the Kingdom to take the fight to the Saviors. The quote, “May my mercy prevail over my wrath,” shared first by a stranger then repeated by a red-eyed version of Rick at the end of the episode establishes the struggle of whether mercy or wrath will drive the characters’ actions. The Walking Dead continues to explore how shifting morality influences conceptions of hope and freedom while forging a new society.
The World is Ours
It may have taken all of Season 7, but pretty much everyone has come on board with the idea that some kind of violence is necessary if you want to be the ones shaping the new world. The only conscientious objectors who remain are those at Oceanside, but their survival was imperiled after Rick took their weapons and handed them over to the double agent Scavengers. Maggie has recruited the Hilltop with the help of Jesus, while King Ezekiel has brought the Kingdom into the fight as well. Even those who sought the way of peace, Carol and Morgan, are now willing to kill for this future ideal. At their pre-attack rally, Rick tells the crowd that this world is theirs by right:
“Any person who would live in peace and fairness, who would find common ground – it’s their right too. But those who use and take and kill to carve out the world and make it theirs alone? We end them. We don’t celebrate it. We don’t have shame about it either. There’s only one person who has to die. I will kill him myself. I will. But if it’s the others, the others who prop him up, stand by his side, even just the ones who look the other way- so be it. Then, we keep making the world bigger together.”
A Merciful Future
When talk of a doctor for the expectant Maggie comes up, Ezekiel pronounces, “And on this day we begin to reshape this world, for your child and the children to come.” There is hope about the future to come.
We see slices of Rick in another setting that involves an old-man beard, sleeping in late, and listening to Weird Al Yankovic. It’s not clear if it’s a flash-forward or Rick imagining a peaceful future. In this new world, he has a bum leg, which may be representative of the sacrifices necessary for peace. Will Judith ever live in a future where building owls for the harvest festival will be more important than building an army?
“Mercy” was the 100th episode of The Walking Dead. To celebrate 100 episodes director Greg Nicotero and showrunner Scott Gimple gave viewers a variety of easter eggs that make reference moments throughout the series. Rick’s future vision had him wake to bedside flowers similar to those at the hospital in the first episode and his use of a cane recalled Hershel Greene. The overhead shot of Gabriel trapped in the trailer with Negan also echoed Rick being stuck in a tank surrounded by walkers. Too bad there’s no Glenn to rescue them.
The ultimate easter egg was the recreation of Rick Grimes’ walk to a gas station after finding himself in the zombie apocalypse. Carl walked in his father’s footsteps, but instead of running into a little walker girl, he comes upon a stranger who needs his help. The man tells Carl, “My mother always said, ‘Whatever you have of good, spend on the traveler.’ My mom said that helping the traveler, the person without a home, that’s everything,” He also shares the Quran verse about mercy prevailing over wrath. Before Carl gets a chance to show the man any mercy, Rick shoots at the man to scare him off. After scolding his father that hoping the man survives is not enough, Carl later comes back with canned food and an apology note.
The whole gang is involved in the plan. Even secret mole Dwight is helping out. When Father Gabriel tells Rick everyone is ready, Rick expresses a moment of doubt about going to war because of one person. Gabriel, who has become Rick’s most ardent cheerleader, gives him a pep talk.
Gabriel: “It always starts with one person. This did. What we’re doing here now.”
Rick: “This. This isn’t about me.”
Gabriel: “Yes, it isn’t. You made it like that.”
With Dwight’s info, they take out all the Savior lookouts with precision shooting. To remind us that these are the bad guys, one of the Savior’s guns has a body count on it, breaking the “don’t celebrate” tenant from Rick’s speech. Savior soldiers are lured out of the Sanctuary with some explosions, where they are later ambushed. Again, The Walking Dead reinforces the righteousness of Rick’s attack, when one of the female Saviors shows her cruel streak, radioing to Dwight, “I want some bang bang. I want some scream scream, I want some blood.”
After the Savior teams leave, more Sanctuary lookouts are shot with sniper level accuracy. When Rick and his forces arrive, the plan gets a little confusing. Rick gives up the element of surprise, so he can have a confrontation with Negan and his lieutenants. It’s not clear what Rick was hoping for, but none of the snipers took a shot at Negan as he mocked Rick from the landing, nor did any of Negan’s lieutenants take the opportunity to kill their boss. Nobody was mercied from what we could see.
When Rick finally begins to shoot, the resulting firefight appears to mainly take out all the windows of the Sanctuary. Eventually Negan comes out of the building once more, but Rick can’t get a shot. Gabriel pulls Rick away before the arrival of the Daryl-led zombie horde. Gabriel, who has overcome his own cowardice and self-serving behavior, ends up showing mercy to the awful Gregory. It doesn’t go well, and Gabriel finds himself trapped in a trailer with Negan surrounded by walkers. Later we see Rick and Daryl attacking a satellite installation, while Carol and Ezekiel attempt to invade a research facility. Maggie’s words from her earlier speech ring true:
“We’re practiced. We’ve been through it over and over again. We all know the plan doesn’t end this morning and we may have to live in uncertainly for days, maybe more. We have to keep our faith in each other.”
Nicotero, always one to try new stylistic directions, interspersed the present with visions of Rick’s future peaceful world, along with a series of shots of a red-eyed exhausted Rick from a third time period. In these scenes, Rick seems on the precipice of making a big decision. Let’s hope he reaches this precipice by the mid-season finale.
The Season 8 premiere was full of sound and fury, but it’s still not clear what was being signified. It was fun to see glimpses of all the characters as the plan came together. Yet, it’s hard to get past the missed opportunity to kill Negan with one sniper shot. Despite Rick’s rule about celebrating death, how satisfying it would have been to see Negan killed in the midst of his over the top commentary. With Negan surviving, we’re not sure if the attack on the Sanctuary is considered a win or not? They did fill the yard with a walker horde and break all the windows. So, a success, then???
“Mercy” takes The Walking Dead in a somewhat different direction, as they revisit the role of offense after being under the oppressive thumb of Negan and the Saviors for a season. We’ll be eager to see Rick and his crew finish what they started. The Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9/8c on AMC.
Final note: At the end of “Mercy,” the final card noted that the episode was dedicated to the memory of John Bernecker (1984–2017) and George Romero (1940-1917), Bernecker was a stunt performer who tragically died in an accident involving a 22-foot fall during the Season 8 filming of The Walking Dead. Bernecker had been working as a stunt performer since 2009 and his other work included Blank Panther (2018), Logan (2017), and The Fantastic Four (2015). George Romero was not directly involved with The Walking Dead, but was an important influence on the show. Romero introduced the modern film-going audience to zombies through his film Night of the Living Dead (1968), which was followed by Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Day of the Dead (1985). Romero passed away after a battle with lung cancer, but he will be remembered as a pioneer in horror films and the father of the zombie genre.