SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not watched the Season 8 premiere of “The Walking Dead,” titled “Mercy”
“The Walking Dead” Season 8 premiere, also the show’s 100th episode, promised a war and it delivered — eventually.
Despite consistent criticism that the hit AMC series has a tendency to go nowhere fast, and promises from series executive producer Greg Nicotero that this would be “the most propulsive season premiere we’ve ever done,” the hour-long episode consists mostly of the build up to the first strike Rick and the Alexandria-Hilltop-Kingdom coalition make against Negan and the Saviors. That said, once the bullets and bombs start flying, things get real crazy real quick.
Let’s backtrack. The episode begins with a close up of Rick (Andrew Lincoln) looking worse for wear, and then to a dreamy shot of a cane, flowers, and a watch face. These brief interludes pop up throughout the episode and eventually reveal a great deal, but more on that later.
At the Sanctuary, Dwight (Austin Amelio) is surprised when an arrow pierces the tire of his motorcycle. There is a note attached to the arrow, which simply says, “Tomorrow.” Dwight hastily scribbles a message back, firing it to Daryl (Norman Reedus) using the same arrow. Dwight’s message reveals the strength and locations of various Savior guard posts around the Sanctuary.
Near Hilltop, Rick begins a rousing speech to the assembled force, promising them that the world belongs to them. He also tells them that only one person needs to die in this conflict, clearly indicating Negan. King Ezekiel (Khary Payton), never one to pass up a chance to give a good speech, quotes Shakespeare as he tells Rick and the others that “he today that sheds his blood with me, shall be my brother.” He amends it to include the women of the group, much to the delight of Shiva, his pet tiger. Maggie (Lauren Cohan), now the leader of Hilltop, joins in as well and reminds everyone that their first strike will not be the end of this conflict, merely the beginning.
In another interlude, Rick lays in bed with his mighty beard restored, though now it is considerably grayer. It then cuts to Rick sans beard looking incredibly bleary eyed and worn out. Which, if any, of these two Ricks are real or a dream is unclear.
Prior to the outset of the battle, Rick and Carl (Chandler Riggs) go on a scavenging run. A man tries talking to Carl, begging him for food. Carl seems willing to help, but Rick arrives and fires several shots over the man’s head, scaring him off. Rick reminds Carl that they are at war and any new people they encounter could easily be Negan’s spies.
Rick, Morgan (Lennie James), and Daryl then begin systematically picking off Negan’s guards one by one, based on the information Dwight gave them. Rick is clearly back in “stone cold killer” mode as he allows a walker to devour a dying Savior after the man tells Rick he will beg before Negan once again before this is over.
On the road to the Sanctuary, Carol (Melissa McBride), Tara (Alanna Masterson), Daryl, and Morgan lie in wait as a walker herd approaches. They lure the herd in by setting off a bomb under an SUV. The explosion is cause enough for the Saviors to send out multiple cars to investigate. Little do the Saviors know that they are heading for a trap.
Shortly thereafter, Rick and the group arrive at the Sanctuary, driving cars outfitted with metal barricades to shield themselves.
In yet another interlude, Rick is standing beneath a piece of stained glass hanging suspended from a tree branch. In the dreamy state, old man Rick gets out of bed and jokingly chides Michonne for turning off the alarm clock. Carl walks by and tells Rick “We’re all playing hooky.” Rick replies, “All of us?”
Back at the Sanctuary, Negan and his top lieutenants step out to face Rick and the group. Negan immediately unloads his trademark swagger on Rick, but this time Rick has swagger of his own. Rick tells them he will let them live if they surrender, much to Negan’s delight.
Negan then has Simon (Steven Ogg) fetch Gregory (Xander Berkeley), the cowardly former leader of Hilltop, who tells the members of Hilltop standing with Rick that Hilltop belongs to the Saviors. Jesus (Tom Payne) shouts back that Hilltop now stands with Maggie. Simon, who has taken pleasure in tormenting Gregory many times before, is so disappointed in Gregory’s failure that he pushes him down a flight of stairs.
Just beyond the Sanctuary, the Saviors who went to investigate the explosion fall into Rick’s trap as they are blown to pieces after driving into a trip wire.
Negan remains defiant, so Rick begins counting down from 10 to give his people one last chance to stand down. But once he gets to seven, he starts firing. With that, the whole of Rick’s army begins firing at the Sanctuary, shooting out the windows and riddling the building with bullet.
While it makes sense for Rick to put on a large display of force to let Negan know this is serious, you would think they would want to conserve a few of those bullets for later on in the war, but no matter.
Near the site of the trip wire trap, Daryl hops on his motorcycle and coaxes the approaching walker herd to follow him. As he rides along the road, he shoots at improvised explosives placed in strategic spots along the way to keep the walkers following him. Of course, one has to imagine that shooting at bombs while riding a motorcyle is an average day in the life of Norman Reedus.
Father Gabriel (Seth Gilliam) drives an armored RV through the Sanctuary’s gates, escaping through a back window. As it continues rolling forward, Rick waits for it to get closer to the building before triggering a bomb inside. Negan, who was wounded in the leg in the opening spray of gunfire, takes cover in the wreckage of the RV.
Rick spots Negan and everything else falls away as he single-mindedly tries to kill his tormentor. Father Gabriel grabs Rick and tells him it is time for them to go.
Rick eventually realizes he is right, especially when he sees the walker herd that Daryl had been leading approaching. Rick makes sure to snap a Polaroid photo of Negan cowering for cover as the bullets fly. No doubt, he will be sharing that photo on the zombie apocalypse version of Instagram to shame Negan down the road.
Gabriel hops into his own car to leave, but spots an injured Gregory running from the walkers. Gabriel decides he must help him and runs out into the fray. But Gregory quickly betrays Gabriel, making a run for the car that Gabriel left waiting. Gregory jumps in and guns it, leaving Gabriel stranded amidst a sea of gunfire and the undead.
With the battle over, Carl returns to the spot where he saw the man earlier in the episode and leaves two cans of food with a note saying, “Sorry.” The man watches unseen from the nearby bushes.
As the episode ends, Rick and the others lead an assault on a Savior outpost. Carol and Ezekiel lead another, but a Savior blows up a grenade, filling the air with dust and unleashing walkers from a nearby building.
Gabriel tries to run as the walker herd invades the Sanctuary. He takes refuge in a trailer, but Negan emerges from the shadows. The moment would have had real shock value had it not been the opening moments of the show’s Comic-Con trailer back in July.
In the final dreamlike sequence, Judith–who now looks to be five or six–runs towards Rick and tells him about preparations for a festival going on outside. They go to investigate, revealing perhaps a future Alexandria that is even more well established and built up.
The episode concludes with a tribute to “Walking Dead” stuntman John Bernecker, who died in after an on-set accident in July, as well as a tribute to legendary horror filmmaker George A. Romero, who also died in July.