Feature Article

The Walking Dead Season 8 Episode 1 Review: A Premiere, But Not A 100th Episode

"My mercy prevails over my wrath."

Ever since the seemingly endless search for Sophia back in its second season, The Walking Dead has been happy to drag events out over a frustrating number of episodes. For many fans, Season 7 was one long, tiresome tease for the inevitable showdown between the Saviors and Rick's people at Alexandria. This was not helped by the decision to separate many of the characters and spend entire episodes away from certain storylines, leading to a pace that felt glacial at times.

Showrunner Scott Gimple has been open about his decision to make Season 8 faster-paced and more focused, and if nothing else, "Mercy" delivers on that promise. It's also the 100th episode, but unlike Season's 7 controversial premiere, this wasn't about headlines, cliffhangers, or unexpected shocks. No one of consequence dies, and there's not really anything happening that we haven't seen before.

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Now Playing: The Walking Dead Season 8 Episode 1 Breakdown!

War against the Saviors has begun, and Rick and his people launch their assault on Negan's base. The episode opens with a series of inspirational speeches--the sort only ever spoken in movies and TV shows by people about to face impossible odds against an unstoppable enemy. Rick has a go, then Maggie, then Ezekiel. Carl looks cross that he can't join in, and instead has to stay behind and look after Judith. Sound like something we've seen before?

Thankfully, once the speeches are out of the way, the characters actually get on with it rather than just talking about it. We are spared the details of Rick's plan; instead simply seeing it in action. Daryl is communicating with Dwight, who has swapped sides and is working undercover amongst the Saviors. Explosives are set, walkers are herded up, and Rick and crew roll up and demand Negan's surrender.

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This brings a level of urgent immediacy to "Mercy", and viewers who felt a little starved of action will certainly be happy with much of episode's second half. There are no juicy walker kills, but zombies do play a crucial role in Rick's plan, as Daryl leads them towards Negan's base. There isn't much room for character moments either, beyond what we've seen many times before--Rick and Daryl are gruff and manly with each other, Gabriel offers Rick some moral quandaries, and Michonne continues in her dual role as Carl's older sister/stepmom. And Gregory remains a far more interesting bad guy than cartoonish Negan, Xander Berkeley playing him with just the right balance of cowardice, deviousness, and knowing villainy.

That's part of the problem. A hundred episodes in, and we're still watching the good guys run around shooting at a group of similar-feeling bad guys, while trying to avoid being eaten by zombies. This is what The Walking Dead does, and a radical reinvention is perhaps never going to happen. But it's hard to see the show maintaining much momentum past the end of this particular conflict. In the comic book, the whole story jumped forward two years for this very reason.

A potential time-jump is teased in this episode, although it's hard to know whether the scenes seemingly set in the future are a dream or a glimpse of actual events. The unfolding action is interspersed with two sets of strange interludes, one an extreme close-up of Rick looking upset, the other a shot of Judith as a little girl, Rick living a happy life with Michonne, and a big grey beard. Perhaps we are seeing two potential futures. Or perhaps both will come to fruition; security and happiness followed by yet more sadness and loss.

The Walking Dead has used this technique before, teasing events by dropping non-chronological inserts into the main narrative--think Sasha's journey in the coffin at the end of Season 7, or Abraham's reappearance earlier in the same season. The ones in "Mercy" are even more oblique than usual, but in this case they work. The timeline of the main story is already jumbled, with the preparations for war intercut with the action itself, and these fleeting moments add mystery without interrupting the episode's flow.

On the whole, this was a solid episode. There was a cliffhanger of sorts--Gabriel trapped in a cabin with Negan, surrounded by dozens of walkers, and that does suggest that we'll hopefully get to see Jeffrey Dean Morgan do some of the proper acting he is more than capable of, instead of just smirking and swaggering. VFX whiz and Walking Dead veteran Greg Nicotero directs with plenty of energy, but on the whole it felt like a placeholder episode, something to remind fans of why they like the show in the first place, while hinting at some more interesting developments to come--but not a 100th episode.

Best kill

"Mercy" was short on zombie-splatter, and the best kill actually happened off-screen. Rick ambushes one of the Savior's men and is about to leave him to die until he starts taunting him about Carl. Rick cuts a walker that was tethered nearby free, and the man is devoured by the hungry zombie. Sure, he was going to die anyway, but this death sounded A LOT more painful.

ProsCons

Exciting action

Gets straight to the point

Intriguing flash-forward inserts

Clunky dialogue

No zombie kills

There's nothing here we haven't seen before

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mondodan

Dan Auty

Firmly of the opinion that there is no film that isn't improved by the addition of an exploding head or kung-fu zombie.

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