Image: Jackson Lee Davis/AMC.

Season eight of The Walking Dead is here, and war has begun. Rick and the Alexandrians, Maggie and Hilltop, and Ezekiel and the Kingdom have banded together to strike the first blow against Negan and Saviors, but it’s no spoiler to say something goes very, very wrong. This is The Walking Dead, after all.

“Mercy” is a pretty solid start to the new season, which is heartening after a painfully slow season six and seven (although let’s not count our zombies before they decompose). It takes its time, but builds up well to its climactic battle, and best of all, the episode has not been needlessly stretched to fill 90 minutes. It does resort to The Walking Dead’s increasingly common use of time jumps and visions of happy endings that will never happen (probably), which is getting annoying, but is still annoyingly effective, too. But more on that in a bit.

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The episode is almost totally about Rick leading the first—and he hopes final—battle against the Saviors. There’s a ton of prep work involving secret notes and intel from Dwight, welding steel construction walls to cars, Rick’s crew killing Savior lookouts one by one and checking them off a list, drawing out one of Negan’s squads and blowing them up with a tripwire, and finally, the standard procedure of leading a giant zombie horde right to the enemy’s front gate.

It is, to be fair, pretty effective. Rick and gang pulling up with their caravan and creating their own barricade (thanks to the walls welded to cars) is pretty cool, and all Negan can do, although he’s cocky as ever, is have Simon bring out Gregory, who announces that everyone in Hilltop stands with the Saviors, and those who don’t will be thrown out of the colony to fend for themselves. Unfortunately for Negan, he hasn’t accounted for the fact that Gregory is a weasel who everybody hates, so no one from Hilltop chooses to switch sides or leave the fight.

Image: Gene Page/AMC.

The fight itself, though, is a bit weird, not least because Negan has the moral high ground. The leader of the Saviors announces he doesn’t want to needlessly get his people killed in Rick’s war to play “my dick is bigger than yours.” Negan asserts he does have the larger genitalia, but: “I’m also comfortable enough to accept the fact if it wasn’t, I’m certainly not going to let my people die over that shit. Like you’re about to.”

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That of course doesn’t stop Rick, who, after offering Negan’s lieutenants the chance to surrender (this does not extend to Negan, of course), starts counting down from 10, and then opens fire after seven. But since the vast majority of the Saviors are still totally safe inside the Sanctuary compound, all Rick’s troops can do is waste an incredible, if not worrisome, amount of gunfire at the windows. They shatter, sure, but no one seems to actually get shot on either side. And then they blow up Dale’s RV—one of the series’ longest surviving characters, rest in peace!—to take out the gate, and Daryl leads the horde right inside.

It seems to go swimmingly, although Rick has to leave before he has the chance to shoot Negan directly. Everyone in the coalition flees and starts taking out Savior outposts, which also seems to go well. And Sanctuary is, as we can see from an aerial shot, absolutely flooded with zombies.

So what’s the problem? Mainly it’s Rick’s hubris, which is back in full force. You’d think getting his ass totally handed to him in season six after he thought he could wipe out the Saviors on a Wednesday afternoon jaunt would have taught him a lesson. If it did, he’s forgotten it; he’s so incredibly confident this attack will completely defeat Negan once and for all that you know he’s failed before he starts. It’s aggravating in the extreme, because if Rick isn’t going to learn any moral lessons over the course of this show, you’d think he’d at least learn not to get cocky.

However, it’s a lesson he may finally learn this season (although I wouldn’t count on it). Because the show flashes-forward to some point in the future, where Rick is standing over two graves, and has clearly been bawling. The way these shots are interspersed with the battle and its prep imply these deaths are a result, somewhere down the line, of Rick’s attack. When Rick brokenly mutters, “Had mercy prevailed over my wrath,” over the graves, it seals the deal. Two people are dead, and directly or indirectly, Rick got them killed in his quest to murder Negan.

This brings us to the idea of mercy, the episode’s title. Mercy has gotten a bad rap on The Walking Dead; usually when someone tries to be merciful on this show, something awful happens that could have been prevented had that someone murdered the offender instead. It’s something Rick’s seen repeatedly, which is why he stopped giving any mercy way back in season five.

Image: Gene Page/AMC.

The Walking Dead’s biggest problem has, for me, always been that when Rick is content to murder whatever problems lie in his way, he’s scarcely better than the psychopaths he’s pitted against. Sure, Rick hasn’t tried to eat people like Gareth in Terminus, but he’s certainly led attacks he didn’t need to because of his own hubris—which have gotten his people killed, just like the Governor. He may not have beaten anyone to death with a baseball bat like Negan, but he did free a zombie so it could eat a dude he’d stabbed and rendered immobile in this very episode. That’s absolutely something Negan would do.

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I hesitate to even say this, because the show has burned me so many times on this exact subject before, but it seems like The Walking Dead may actually be positioning itself such that morality is no longer a deadly flaw in its world. There’s Rick’s wretched line above, which implies he wishes he’d been merciful instead of wrathful, because somebody would still be alive. But then there’s also Gabriel, who, when the zombie horde is shambling in, sees Gregory Q. Weasel stumbling around and runs back into the compound save him, at which point Gregory runs away and steals his car. Gabriel is surrounded by zombies and hides in a trailer, only to find Negan is also in there. Showing mercy has screwed Gabriel completely.

But then there are the bookends of the show, where Carl encounters a sole survivor in the woods, begging for food. Before Carl can approach him in the episode’s opening, Rick runs up, shooting his gun in the air and scaring the guy off. Carl is perturbed that his dad has run off someone who may be innocent and in need, but Rick clearly considers himself a prince of a man for firing his gun over the guy’s head instead of just killing him. At the episode’s end, Carl returns to the spot where he saw the guy, leaving a few cans of food and a note that reads “Sorry.”

Of course, since this is The Walking Dead, we see the dude ominously staring a bit wild-eyed at Carl, while hiding in some nearby bushes. It remains to be seen whether Carl’s compassion for a fellow human being ends up being another huge mistake, but man, I hope not. Even beyond it being increasingly hard to root for Rick as the years have gone by, for some reason I’m getting less and less interested nowadays in following the adventures of people who are only concerned with their own well-being and don’t care whether others live or die.

Image: Gene Page/AMC.

Assorted Musings:

  • So let’s talk about the “far future” scenes, where a gray-haired, giant-bearded Rick is living in idyllic peace with Michonne, Carl, and Judith. There had been some speculation that this was supposed to be after a time jump that also occurred in the comics, especially since Rick seems to be walking with a cane in both scenarios. However, given the bright, Vaseline-fuzzy filter, I think we can safely say this is one of those happy visions of the future people have after they’re rendered impossible, e.g. Thanksgiving with Glenn and Abraham.
  • The show really wants us to guess that the graves belong to Carl and Michonne, but I think we all know that both of them dying is unlikely. Carl, in fact, is almost certainly fine; Michonne I’m less sure of, as Danai Gurira may be more interested in pursuing her movie options after starring in Black Panther. I’m also not totally convinced this isn’t a vision Rick is seeing as he dies, Jacob’s Ladder-style. Eight years is a hell of a long time to star in a TV series, guys, even one as mega-popular as The Walking Dead. That would be some epic trolling on the show’s part, but we all know the show is 100 percent not above this.
  • Like Rick and everyone else, we should probably ignore the fact that there are hundreds of innocent, miserable people trapped under Negan’s heel inside Sanctuary which Rick knows because Dwight brought them up in the season seven finale, who are now also surrounded by a million zombies thanks to the assault. Certainly The Walking Dead doesn’t want anyone to worry about them, despite the episode’s title.
  • Am I wrong, or did Rick have like 30 minutes or so to shoot Negan from his spot behind the barricade in the lead-up to the gunfight? Seems like he should have done that.
  • I don’t know how “realistic” it is that the shambling speed of a zombie horde is so constant that you could time its arrival somewhere to the minute, but I very much like the idea.