Full disclosure here. Negan is, and has always been, my favorite character in The Walking Dead comics, and so, I’m not one of the critics who dumped on the show and its writing last season. Sure, the pace in season 7 could have definitely been better, and perhaps they didn’t need an entire season to transition to All Out War, but selecting Jeffrey Dean-Morgan as the comics’ biggest baddie was perfect casting, and it was a joy watching the character develop. This all being said, when I screened tomorrow’s season 8 premiere — and the show’s pivotal 100th episode — selecting a rating became easy. The episode has a perfect balance of action and character moments, and for those who have complained that a series about zombies now has very little zombies, well, there’s **plenty** of walkers. Oh, and yes, there’s some good Negan moments, and so, my rating is easily a strong “A”.
3 WORLDS UNITE AGAINST A COMMON FOE
The episode begins a few weeks — or at most a few months — from the events of the season 7 finale, and we know this given that Rosita (Christian Serratos) is still wearing a bandage from being shot in the season-ender. The three communities — Alexandria, the Hilltop, and the Kingdom — are planning an attack on Negan and the Saviors and a real attack, unlike the shitshow on the single outpost in season 6 which ultimately led to Glenn and Abraham’s deaths. Or, even worse yet, that half-ass attempt on Negan’s life that Sasha and Rosita pulled at the end of last season. It’s very well-coordinated, and the best part is virtually everyone has a part to play, which provided the rare opportunity of incorporating nearly every character in a single episode. Even some characters that we haven’t seen in a while like Francine (Dahlia Legault) and Tobin (Jason Douglas) play a role on the team, and heck, Shiva even makes an appearance, if only for a moment. The atmosphere is of hope and of a future without dictators like Negan, and it’s really great seeing everyone working together, instead of being broken and fractured.
As I had mentioned, virtually every character plays a role in both the planning and execution of the attack, and to pull off something of this magnitude, some characters split up into specialized groups. One group I playfully call the “Troy Otto Horders” as a callback to a particular character from Fear The Walking Dead this past season. After being exiled from the ranch where he grew up, Troy gets his revenge by leading a massive horde to the ranch and getting almost everyone killed. Well, it seems someone took a page from Troy’s playback because one of the big components of the plan of attack on the Sanctuary is leading the highway horde from last season right to Negan’s front door, and the characters responsible for pulling this off are Carol (Melissa McBride), Tara (Alanna Masterson), Morgan (Lennie James) and Daryl (Norman Reedus). As it turns out, this is a fairly critical part of the overall plan, and as a result, a great deal of thought is put into it down to the last detail. Carol, Tara, and Morgan spend no telling how many days following the horde, timing it, and thus, obtaining a rough estimate of the pace in which it is travelling. Then, once the time comes for the actual attack, Daryl is the boom-boom pyrotechnic guy who sets off a series of explosions thus causing the horde to change direction and leading it, one explosion at a time, right to the gates of the Sanctuary. Pretty damn genius, don’t you think?
Another team is what I call the “Outlook Assassination Group.” We learn in the opening scenes of the episode that Daryl and Dwight have been communicating via secret messages sent in arrows. Among other things, I suspect one of the details Dwight provided is the locations of each of the Savior lookout posts. If you want an attack to be successful, you need to have the element of surprise, and in order to get that, you can’t have any of these lookouts warning Negan. So, between Daryl, Morgan, and Rick, they pick off each of these Saviors one-by-one, and with Negan now flying in the dark, all the pieces are finally in place for an attack.
With everyone and everything all ready to go, all that is left now is a big battle-cry speech from the group’s fearless leader.
When I first met him, Jesus said my world was going to get a whole lot bigger. Well, we found that world, we found each other. That bigger world is ours by right. We’ve come together for it, all of us. It’s that much more true. It’s ours 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 1 person who has to die, and I will kill him myself, I will. I will. But, if it’s the others, the others who prop him up, those who stand by his side, even those who look the other way, so be it. Then, we keep making the world bigger. Together. — Rick
Together. Bound forever. For he today who sheds his blood with me shall be my brother. For she today, my sister — Ezekiel
I don’t want to wait for it anymore. You don’t either. Yeah, I know. We don’t have to wait for it. If we start tomorrow right now, with everything we’ve endured, with everything we’ve risen above, with everything we’ve become, if we start tomorrow right now, no matter what comes next, we’ve won. We’ve already won! — Rick
Now, isn’t that just amazing? Nobody wants to fight in a war, but Rick (as well as Ezekiel and Maggie) does an amazing job at providing inspiration and hope. Andrew Lincoln really seems to have recaptured the character’s spark, which was all but dwindled throughout last season. This was done intentionally to serve his story, of course, but let’s face it – watching Rick grovel and shake under Negan’s filthy boot was a serious bummer. The show has revolved around Rick since its inception, and the fact that Lincoln finds new layers of richness within the character each season is remarkable. There are dozens of incredibly talented actors on the show putting on brilliant performances, and Lincoln never ever gets outclassed or overshadowed. Kudos and plaudits to you, Mr. Lincoln!
A PERFECT ATTACK, WITH ONLY A LITTLE SNAFU…OR TWO
Well, as you might have guessed, the intricately-planned attack on Negan and the Sanctuary doesn’t go 100% as planned. But, hey, if it had, All Out War would be over before it started, and season 8 would be done, right? The good news is when Rick and Co. initially arrive at the Sanctuary, everything is right on track. Their presence is made known by firing multiple shots in the air, and then, the guest-of-honor, Negan, finally emerges, along with Dwight, Simon, Eugene, Gavin, and a new Savior, Regina. Of course, this is a complete surprise to Negan, but he keeps his cool and assures Rick that he has no idea of the hell he’s about to pay for pulling this stunt. Well, until Negan sees some explosions in the distance, and Rick gives him the bad news that those are his lieutenants going up in smoke after walking into one of their many traps. The expression on Negan’s face completely changes, and you can tell he’s definitely not pleased.
Then, Gregory (Xander Berkeley) emerges from the Sanctuary, and honestly, this asshole is the root cause of the entire plan blowing to hell. At the direction of Negan and Simon (Steven Ogg), he makes an elaborate speech about how the Hilltop is with Negan, and anyone who fights against him will be banished forever. Well, if that was supposed to scare the Hilltoppers into submission, it fails miserably, and the point is driven home by Jesus.
The Hilltop stands behind Maggie! — Jesus
The entire thing royally pisses off Simon, and in response, he pushes Gregory down the stairs. At this point, the battle officially begins.
Everyone opens fire onto the Sanctuary, and all of the Saviors except for Negan rush inside. We see Negan limping away (could he have been shot?), but he is finally able to find refuge behind a huge piece of metal. At about the same time, Father Gabriel (Seth Gilliam) moves the RV into the courtyard of the Sanctuary, and upon exiting, Rick detonates explosives designed to attract the horde right through the main gate. Rick is emptying the barrel of his shotgun towards Negan, but because he’s shielded behind the metal plate, he can’t get a clear shot. In a desperate plea by Father Gabriel, Rick finally agrees to leave before the horde reaches the Sanctuary. Oh, and before Rick leaves, he takes a Polaroid of Negan hunkering down and hiding. Very cool. Negan may not be dead, but we do get the point.
At this point, if Father Gabriel had just left with Rick, this first attack would have gone almost perfectly. Sure, Rick wasn’t able to take Negan out, but with the Sanctuary being overrun by the horde, he definitely put a gigantic dent in Negan’s empire. But, then, Gregory happens. That son of a bitch. Father Gabriel sees Gregory just hunkering down in the courtyard, and out of mercy, he decides to go back and help him. Big mistake. HUGE. While Gregory does thank Gabe for his help, as soon as he sees a clear way to a vehicle, Gregory takes it, leaving Father Gabriel all by himself in the middle of the incoming horde. What. An. Effin’. Prick. Gregory has now shot to the top of my shit list, and he can’t die soon enough.
Fortunately, Gabe is able to find a single building unlocked and takes refuge from the horde by going inside. Whew! This is all great until he hears a familiar voice, turns around and Negan emerges from the darkness.
You have your shittin’ pants on? I sure hope so, because you’re about to shit your pants! — Negan
Well, this is seriously f*cked up, and it’s definitely going to be a nail-biter to see if/how Gabe wiggles his way out of this horrific situation!
A LITTLE BIT OF THE PAST AND A GLIMPSE INTO THE FUTURE
Being that it’s the 100th episode and as you may have already heard, there’s also some great tiebacks to past episodes, most notably the Pilot. In a brilliant shot-for-shot scene, we see Carl following in his father’s footsteps from the first season. It’s a throwback to the moment in The Walking Dead premiere where Rick meets the zombie little girl at the gas station. In a similar scene in tonight’s season 8 premiere, Carl (Chandler Riggs) also visits a gas station but instead of running into a little girl walker, he encounters another survivor. Although we have yet to get the character’s name (but we do know he’s portrayed by actor Avi Nash), given that he mentions the Koran, we can probably assume he’s Muslim. That being said, a safe bet is this new character is the television counterpart of Siddiq from the comics. He begins to rattle off what appears to be nonsense, at least until Rick (Andrew Lincoln) shows up and runs him off. As he explains to Carl, you can’t be too careful, and that guy could be a spy for the Saviors.
However, make no mistake, Carl is definitely not pleased with his father’s actions. Carl’s especially upset that his Dad fired at the stranger, but as Rick points out, he made the point of shooting over his head, thus making sure the man wouldn’t be harmed and only scared off. Carl doesn’t seem impressed with that answer.
It’s not going to be enough, Dad — Carl
Enough what? — Rick
Hope — Carl
At first, I didn’t quite understand this little exchange, at least not until I realized that Rick repeated towards the end of the episode something our new Muslim friend had said.
May my mercy prevail over my wrath
When the character makes this statement (which is actually from the Quran), you are led to believe that Rick isn’t listening. However, given the fact that Rick repeats the quote, obviously it stuck with him. While we know that everyone is fighting for a better future and one free from Negan and his goons, we also know that Rick is on a personal mission to take out Negan. He even says this outright and doesn’t even bother trying to hide it. However, given how emotional Rick is throughout the episode and the fact that this quote stayed with him, that tells me that Rick is very conflicted, and what I think Carl is trying to say is hope for a better future isn’t going to be enough for Rick to take Negan’s life, regardless of the horrible things the man has done.
This was very telling, and in my opinion, one of the most important parts of the episode. There’s been lots of speculation about Negan’s fate once this season and All Out War have concluded. Some fans just want Negan dead and I definitely see their point, but if the writers follow through on the hints from this episode, I think it’s more likely that Negan’s life will be spared. If that’s the case, who will spare him or who will influence Rick to spare him in the end? Many have believed for quite some time it will be Morgan because he built that jail cell in Alexandria, and in the comics, Rick does choose imprisoning Negan over killing him. However, given the events in this episode, I now believe it may end up being Carl instead of Morgan.
As a sidenote, Carl does end up returning to the gas station with some food (in the infamous orange backpack, no less!) for the mysterious new stranger. High-five to you, Carl, for remembering what humanity and compassion are all about. Also, if this is, in fact, the television version of “Siddiq” from the comics, you can bet this won’t be the last time we see this character.
Besides having callbacks to the past, some big hints are also dropped of what the future may bring. There’s a conversation between Carl and Michonne right before Rick leaves for the big battle that indicate Rick may not be the future leader of Alexandria.
I know you wanted to go with them. I did too — Carl
Everything hurts. But, I’ll help you defend this place — Michonne
Help me? — Carl
Oh, yes, this is your show. You’ll see — Michonne
And, even bigger than this is a discussion between Rick and Maggie where Rick says, “After this, I’m following you.” For those who are fans of the comics, both of these moments should be very familiar. Ever since Scott Gimple came on board back in season 4, the show has followed the comics more closely under his direction. As a result, these could be strong hints that the writing team intends on continuing this trend for season 8 and beyond.
OLD-MAN RICK AND HIS VISION OF THE FUTURE
Ever since the Comic-Con trailer was released back in July, perhaps the biggest buzz surrounding the season 8 premiere has been about the “old-man Rick” scenes. Are they visions? Are they a dream? Well, they are visions, but I will admit here that after I screened the episode for the first time, I was somewhat confused and wasn’t entirely sure what the visions meant. However, after I watched for the 2nd time, it all finally came together, and it was then that I realized that these visions were a genius piece of writing and one of the most beautiful parts of the premiere.
The visions are interlaced throughout the episode, starting right in the opening scene. It depicts an older Rick , probably about 6-7 years in the future, as we learn from the final vision at the end of the episode. With the music of “Another One Rides The Bus” by Weird Al playing in the background, we discover that Rick now walks with a cane, and he’s still living in the same house in Alexandria. Michonne is still alive, Carl’s still alive, and so is Judith (portrayed by Kinsley Isla Dillon), who is now a very cute young girl with beautiful, long brown hair. It’s a very happy time, and Judith is particularly excited because Alexandria is about to have a festival. The amazing thing is this looks like an ordinary family living an ordinary life, and no one would ever guess that there’s a zombie apocalypse happening right outside those walls. It’s a return to normalcy, or as close to it as we can possibly get.
But, what do these visions mean? Well, every time Rick has one of these visions in the episode, it’s a time when he’s getting emotional and appearing to be conflicted and having doubts. He visits Glenn and Abraham’s graves, gets teary-eyed, and then, he has one of these visions. To me, it’s like these visions serve as a kind of motivator for Rick. So many people have died and they still have a big war ahead of them, and for many, it would be easy to slump into a heap of despair. So, to prevent that from happening and to keep himself going, Rick has these visions of the future. It’s a future of hope. It’s a future where he can have a normal life with his family. They keep him focused, and they could be viewed as the one thing that’s keeping Rick going.
But, for those who have a keen eye and who are fans of the comics, these visions actually mean more — a lot more. The big point to make is in the comics and towards the end of All Out War, Negan injures Rick’s leg pretty badly and so much so that he has to walk with a cane. Also, after Negan is defeated, Rick began the tradition of having an annual festival in Alexandria. And, for the fan with an eye for the smallest details, the flowers on Rick’s nightstand could be a sign that Jesus is there in this future Alexandria (we have seen in past episodes how Jesus has a fondness for flowers). This being said, could this be a glimpse of the future after the Saviors are gone and peace has been restored? I certainly think so, and the writers — and everyone else involved in creating these wonderful scenes — did an impeccable job.
For those repulsed and deflated by the horrific deaths and methodical storytelling of the last season, “Mercy” is the perfect remedy – its brisk pacing, big action, and focus on the camaraderie between the Alexandria, Hilltop, and Kingdom survivors makes for super entertaining television which makes you feel good without trivializing the drama. It’s easy to forget that this show can actually be a lot of fun, and in most cases that means watching our favorite survivors work as a team to wreck shop and take out the baddies. That teamwork is what “Mercy” is all about, and it sets the stage for what I predict will be a phenomenal season.
The Walking Dead airs on Sundays at 9/8c on AMC.
Critic Grade — A
Geeky computer and math nerd by day and TV fanatic by night. My beats are The Walking Dead, The Strain, Person of Interest, Z Nation, and anything that most people would call freaky. Editor-In-Chief and Lead Writer of TVGeekTalk.com