Spoiler Warning for the Season 8 Premiere of “The Walking Dead,” as well as all episodes of the previous seasons. Some minor spoilers from the graphic novel series will also be discussed.┬á
“The Walking Dead” is finally back, kicking off its Eighth Season with a massive episode of explosions, walkers and gunfire as the “All Out War” story arc officially begins. This premiere marks a major milestone for the series as it reaches 100 episodes, something that very few shows manage to hit in today’s age; the episode takes time to pay homage to the previous 100 episodes in subtle tributes, parallels and shot-for-shot recreations of iconic scenes. While Season 7 may have been about beating the characters and the audience into submission, its clear right out of the gate that this season is all about hope, unity and the future. While not perfect, this episode feels more like classic “TWD,” while still managing to remain fresh and thrilling; issues do exist and the structure of the episode is somewhat clunky. That being said, this jam-packed episode launches the series into its new era and delivers countless epic moments. Get your “shittin’ pants” on, because “The Walking Dead” is about to make you “shit your pants.”
To be honest, the most glaring issue that I have with this episode is the structure. The series has toyed around with non-linear storytelling plenty of times, with “First Time Again” (The Season 6 Premiere) being a prime example of flawless blending of timelines. This premiere is difficult to follow at times and while that may be intentional, the non-linear narrative and multiple timelines takes away from some of the scenes; if you pay close attention, you will definitely be able to piece together when events are occurring, but some of the scenes seem to be impossible to place (again, this is likely the intention). The opening scene is a blending of these multiple timelines and serves as a preview of what is to come from the episode (an possibly the season); Rick gives a rallying speech to the many soldiers, Carol and Tara appear to be leading a herd of walkers, the various fighters prepare for battle at the Hilltop as Rick visits the graves of Glenn and Abraham. There’s also a game-changing exchange between Daryl and Dwight as they swap information; Daryl gives Dwight a heads up of their impending attack and Dwight provides the location of nearby Savior guards. There’s also a mystifying series of flashes to a “future” that I’ll touch on later in this review. As these opening scenes are being shown, there is a growing sense of urgency and tension as it becomes clear that the characters are about to head into battle.
A major highlight of the episode is a shot-for-shot recreation of the opening scene from the Pilot episode where Rick exits his police cruiser and walks up to a gas station, finding the first walker in the series. This episode finds Carl driving down a road, exiting the bird van with a gas container and making his way to a gas station; rather than finding a walker, Carl is stunned to hear a living survivor (Avi Nash) rambling about his difficult time in the apocalypse. Carl follows his voice and ultimately finds him, but Rick appears and fires his gun to scare the survivor away; Rick believes that they shouldn’t trust strangers as they may be Saviors, but Carl clearly views the situation differently. Another callback to the Pilot episode comes in the form of a walker that is shown to be approaching the gas station; this walker is played by Addy Miller, who portrayed the aforementioned little girl walker in “Days Gone Bye.” Later, Carl is shown returning to the gas station to leave the survivor some cans of food and a note; the man watches from some bushes with a look of content on his face, realizing that Carl is likely a good person. While it isn’t confirmed in the episode, this may be the character of Siddiq from the graphic novels, although it is entirely possible that this is an original character that is unique to the television series. Whatever the case may be, we will likely see more from this mysterious survivor; I’m guessing there will be a back-and-forth between him and Carl before he is brought back to Alexandria, maybe even joining the war efforts.
Life in Alexandria is relatively calm following the epic battle that took place in the Season 7 Finale, which left both Michonne and Rosita severely injured, both of which have a reduced role in this episode. Rick checks in on Judith, who has grown significantly since her last appearance; he also shares in a passionate kiss with Michonne before hugging Carl and leaving him in charge of Alexandria’s defense. Michonne makes it clear that she is following Carl’s lead and that he is in charge; I have always loved scenes between Carl and Michonne, because there are so many layers to their relationship. Michonne is definitely a mother-figure to Carl, but she also respects his independence and isn’t overprotective of him. Outside of Alexandria, the group uses the information gained from Dwight to take out a several Savior lookouts that are posted at various locations; this is an extremely smart move as it prevents these guards from warning Negan of Rick and the gang’s movements. It’s worth noting that Morgan is front and center when it comes to eliminating these Savior guards; his “all life is precious” attitude is absent here as he murders a Savior with his staff, which originally represented the peaceful ideals taught to him by Eastman in “Here’s Not Here.” Rick’s team is so far past the days of working with their oppressors and bowing down to Negan that they are literally slaughtering any Savior that they cross paths with…and it is awesome.
In “The Walking Dead,” the plans made by Rick and his fellow survivors don’t always work out the way that they intend, but in this episode, things go quite smoothly. Managing a herd of walkers and directing them to a location is a tough and danger mission, but Daryl, Carol, Tara and Morgan do an excellent job as they use explosions and other tactics to lead a herd to the Sanctuary. This storyline feels like an homage to the Season 6 Premiere, where the group tries to redirect a herd out of a quarry and away from Alexandria, almost destroying their home in the process. This go around, they have figured out what works and their plan is executed almost flawlessly. There is yet another throwback tribute as the foursome leads the herd down a highway, hearkening back to the Season 2 Premiere that gave viewers their first look at a walker herd (fun fact: these scenes were filmed on the same highway as the Season 2 opener). In the process of herding the walkers, Morgan and the others manage to blow up a group of Saviors that Dwight ordered to leave the Sanctuary; there is a real emphasis here on the inter-dynamics of the characters working together to assure that their plan works. Before splitting up, there is a touching moment between Daryl and Carol as they hug and wish each other well; Carol doesn’t think that their killing of the Saviors should be celebrated, but Daryl poses the alternative of suffering under Negan’s rule. I really hope we see more of this duo as scenes between Daryl and Carol were few and far between last season; Melissa McBride and Norman Reedus have impeccable chemistry and the bond between their characters is fascinating.
Season 7 was crucial in establishing Rick, Maggie and Ezekiel as leaders of their respective communities and eventually linking them up to fight in the war together. This episode shows this unity firsthand as the groups converge in a staging area to go over their attack plans one final time. This allows for some amazing interactions between characters who haven’t really gotten to know each other, being that they’re from different communities; Dianne from the Kingdom and Andy from the Hilltop affirm that they have one another’s backs even though they just met, while Jerry hands over part of his armor to Enid to use as covering, adding his humor to their exchange. We also see a brief moment between Aaron and Eric, who has taken up praying, stating that it’s “better late than never.” Rick, Ezekiel, and Jesus discuss their impending attack with Maggie, who lets everyone know that she will be present in the fighting even though she is pregnant; “I’ve been fighting since the farm, can’t stop now,” she triumphantly proclaims, solidifying Maggie as one of the most stoic and badass characters on the show. Ezekiel offers Maggie a spot in the Kingdom to be close to a doctor, but Jesus confidently states that they will reclaim Dr. Carson, who was taken to the Sanctuary last season. Before heading off, Rick tells Maggie that once the fighting is over, he will be following her; this solidifies the fact that Rick has full faith in Maggie to lead the Hilltop and the other communities to a better future. This episode is strong in the sense that Maggie really showcases her leadership skills, taking what she has learned from Hershel, Rick and Deanna and putting it into action.
The time has arrived and everyone is ready; using their armored cars as shields, the three communities roll into the Sanctuary yard and create a barrier before getting into position. Maggie uses hand signals to let everyone know to raise their guns and fire into the air; all of the soldiers epically shoot several rounds of gunfire as warning shots to let Negan and the Saviors know that they are there. Negan steps out of the Sanctuary and onto a platform, hilariously stating that he was in a meeting; Dwight, Simon, Gavin, Eugene and new character Regina (Traci Dinwiddie) also make their way out, looking in awe at what has arrived in their front yard. Rather than opening fire right there and then, Rick calls out all of the lieutenants by name and gives them the opportunity to surrender and survive; Negan laughs this off and warns that Rick has no idea what he has just started. The kicker comes when Gregory steps out of the Sanctuary and joins the Saviors, yelling at his people to stand down and declaring at the Hilltop stands with Negan; he tells the Hilltoppers that anyone who doesn’t surrender will no longer be welcome in the colony and that their family will be thrown out. Maggie calmly tells the Hilltop soldiers to do what they need to do, but none of them leave and she shouts back at Negan and Gregory; Jesus retorts Gregory’s cowardly proclamations by yelling “the Hilltop stands with Maggie!” Simon hysterically pushes Gregory down a flight of stairs as punishment for failing to command his people. Once again, Maggie proves that she is the perfect person to be leading the Hilltop as she is standing side-by-side with her people on the battlefield, not cowering away like Gregory.
Rick really gives Negan a taste of his own medicine as he gives him a final warning to stand down before beginning a countdown; he repeats verbatim what Negan said as he was waiting for Rick to chop off Carl’s hand in the Season 7 Premiere. Rick starts counting down from ten, but once he reaches seven, he takes his rifle and begins firing right at the Saviors on the platform. Seeing as how all of these characters have plot armor, none of them are hit and most are able to scurry back into the Sanctuary, but Negan falls off the platform and onto the ground. From behind the shielded cars, Rick and the others fire their guns at the Sanctuary windows, shattering them and sending broken glass into the factory. Maggie and Enid get into one of the cars and lead the rest of the army away from the Sanctuary as Father Gabriel drives the RV up to the walker fence area; a torrent of gunfire is unleashed in both directions as Gabriel and Rick take cover. Rick pulls out a detonator and presses the trigger, blowing up the RV and setting off a massive explosion that brings down the gate and sends debris everywhere; for some reason, the screen cut to black during the explosion and returned seconds later to show the destruction, a rather odd editing choice. All of this noise helps to draw in the herd of walkers, driving them right into the main yard of the Sanctuary. When I said that the group knows what they are doing this time, I meant it; they really had their plan thought out and their execution should definitely be commended.
In the aftermath of the explosion, Rick sees Negan laying on the ground and opens fire, but misses as the tyrant dives behind some debris; Gabriel desperately tries to get Rick to retreat, but in another turning of the tables, Rick snaps a Polaroid picture of Negan hiding, sweet justice for the Saviors taking a picture of Glenn’s mangled corpse. Having Negan in such a dire situation is something we haven’t really seen, but it is yet another reminder that he isn’t on top of the world this season. Rick gets away from the Sanctuary, but Gabriel stops to help a limping and panicked Gregory, who was caught in the chaos; Gabriel and Gregory are pinned down as the Saviors fire bullets down on them from the Sanctuary. In yet another act of cowardliness, Gregory rushes away from Gabriel and takes off in his escape vehicle. Gabriel desperately tries to gain entry into the Sanctuary as more and more walkers flood the yard; he locates a trailer and enters it, only to be greeted by Negan asking him if he has his “shittin’ pants” on. The camera pulls up from the top of the trailer, revealing it to be surrounded by walkers in another callback to the Pilot when Rick was trapped in the tank. When Gabriel was first introduced in Season 5, I never would have guessed that he would literally be putting his life on the line to rescue someone in the middle of a battle; this is the man who locked his own congregation out of his church, leaving them to be devoured by walkers. Gabriel’s character development and growth is stellar and I’m really interested to see how he handles this situation with Negan.
The last bit of the episode is basically a tease of what’s to come next in the war. Rick and the others seems to be starting to launch attacks on the Saviors outposts, beginning with the satellite station from “Not Tomorrow Yet.”┬áCarol, Ezekiel and some knights from the Kingdom come across a Savior at an outpost and open fire on him (they unnecessarily waste a shit ton of ammo on him), but they are stunned when he throws a grenade in their direction. It remains to be seen who survived the explosion, but some of the previews for the next episode hint that this will be a large part of the story. Dwight’s original plan for taking down the Saviors called for attacks on the outposts, but it isn’t exactly clear if the antagonists will be given the opportunity to surrender or if they will be slaughtered. These end scenes do feel slightly forced into an already packed episode, especially so soon after the Sanctuary siege; that being said, this will likely be yet another thrilling aspect of the war that may change the game drastically.
Sprinkled throughout the episode are flashes to a timeline that doesn’t have much context at the moment; a grayed and buzz-cut Rick wakes up in bed (another shot-for-shot tribute to the Pilot) and makes his way into the kitchen of his Alexandria house to greet Michonne and Carl. Rick looks old and is using a cane to get around, but neither Carl nor Michonne seem to have aged at all; a 6-7 year old version of Judith comes running up to Rick, excitedly telling him about an owl sculpture that some Alexandrians have made for a festival (this may be a callback to the Anderson family and the owl sculpture that they made together). Judith leads Rick out onto the porch, revealing a larger, greener and more developed version of Alexandria. Other flashes reveal present day Rick looking sickly and weak as he speaks to himself. What does this all mean? I don’t know, but it just might be a our first look at the post-war story arc, called “A New Beginning.” Not to give away too much from the comics, but there is a significant time jump that happens after “All Out War” and these flashes seem to hint to the show’s future. These flashes could also be hallucinations or a dream experienced by Rick, but it is just too early to tell; I’m assuming that more of these scenes will be shown throughout the season, giving more context to what the hell is happening.
“Mercy” is a thrilling and inspiring kick off of the “All Out War” story arc and really does an amazing job at establishing the tone and overall mission of Season 8. Rick Grimes, King Ezekiel and Maggie Rhee are back on top things as they join forces to secure their future; this episode features a major win for them as the Sanctuary is left partially destroyed and surrounded by a herd. The choppy structure does take away from some of the scenes, and Negan’s ridiculously convenient plot armor does highlight some issues with the writing; that being said, the story told in this episode really helps to make up for some of the shortfalls. 100 episodes in and the series still manages to stay fresh by introducing new characters, scenarios, locations, and tactics, while paying homage to its roots. The performances across the board are spectacular, but Andrew Lincoln, Lauren Cohan, Khary Payton, Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Seth Gilliam really knock it out of the park here as Rick, Maggie, Ezekiel, Negan and Gabriel, respectively. I also have to commend Bear McCreary for once again delivering a truly beautiful musical score for this episode. What will become of the survivors as they fight tooth and nail alongside each other this season? That’s hard to say, even with the comic origins; the show loves to shake things up and I’m sure we can expect more of that moving forward. The cast and crew have been stating for months that Episode 100 serves to set up the next 100 episodes; that is definitely apparent now that the episode has aired. Shit is about to get real.
Be sure to tune into “The Walking Dead” next Sunday at 9 p.m. on AMC.