[Spoiler alert: This article discusses spoilers from the Season 8 premiere of The Walking Dead.]
Welcome to the beginning of the promised All Out War, Walking Dead fans. Curiously, the AMC juggernaut’s Season 8 premiered tonight with an episode titled “Mercy” (and dedicated to fallen TWD stuntman John Bernecker) — which was epic in scope and a bit puzzling in timeline and message.
Though he is now the leader of the AHK rank—for Alexandria/Hilltop/Kingdom is now one—Rick seems only partially aboard his own plan to decimate Negan's rule and liberate the Saviors, all of whom he seems to think are really just kumbaya peaceniks in the grip of a tyrant. It's an odd perspective, given how much practice he has had in how much B.S. that is, what with the Governor, the Wolves and Jadis and all. But it's his.
Several times throughout the episode we also encounter him—timeline unestablished—staring at a pair of graves with majorly rheumy eyes. At first I defaulted to Glenn and Abe’s graves but we have a lot of graves lately and by the end of the episode I wasn't so sure. Are the apparent tears for whomever is newly buried? The loss of yet another battle and/or set of ideals? The idea this is never, not ever going to end?
That puzzlement is exacerbated by the fact that he's also starring in some sort of vision of future domesticity—one in which he limps and sports a long, gray beard; Michonne snuggles her coffee with two hands at the dining room table; and a school-age Judith wants to show him a giant manmade owl out front. An owl he’s willing to go look at in his bathrobe, he’s feeling so darn homey. Also, Carl (who didn't age a bit) is cheery and Weird Al’s “Another One Rides the Bus” is playing. Dream? Daydream? Hallucination, given how wacked out he looks at the graves?
Will there be 'All Out War' this season on 'The Walking Dead'? It sure looks like it.
In the episode's present tense, the AHK rank and file is divide-and-conquering on what will prove a sophisticated plan, indicating that at least a few weeks have passed since the potboiler stuff that went down in the Season 7 finale. At the moment, they’re turning large chunks of corrugated metal into camouflage-slash-armor for their vehicles, no doubt with the intent of paying Negan and the Saviors a little camouflage-slash-armored visit to launch the … well, you know.
Meantime, Dwight and Daryl have worked out a way to exchange secret messages that is quite literally to the point. They just wrap those bad boys around an arrow and fire ’em in each other’s general direction. Daryl’s message? “Tomorrow.” Dwight sends something back. (Er, Spencer-Walker? That you watching Dwight’s arrow fly, dead and duplicitous pal? I thought you got your guts knifed out, so what’s with the melty face?)
Also Tara’s got a tasty Red Vine. Good plan. Those things will last for multiple apocalypses, as evident by the fact that she gnaws the same one through the whole episode.
Then Rick — Maggie and Ezekiel beside him — delivers the AHK pep talk we've seen in the Season 8 teasers, in his most earnest, “I’m phlegmy, so I mean it” growl. He says Jesus (the doe-eyed guy from Hilltop, not the Bible one) told him his world would get much bigger and, by gosh, here everyone is. And because of that, the collective world is theirs if they commit to living in peace and fairness and to finding common ground.
But there's a footnote to that peace part: Those "who use and take and kill" to make the world their own — those guys and gals get ended, effective tomorrow. AHK won’t celebrate it, but they won’t feel bad about it either (even if they, too, are killing to make the world their own). He calls dibs on Negan. Ezekiel, using his best “I’m still pretending to be a real king” voice, declares the assembled masses together, bound forever, ceasing never, birds of a fevver, made of shoe levver, what the hell ever, so there. Maggie throws in that they’ve all been practicing and they know the drill and the drill is not a short one, but the end result will be worth it. Go team.
Then there is Carl, who seems most changed by his brush with Lucille and other traumatic events of the Season 7 finale. On a gas run for the souped up vehicles, he hears a desperate soul asking someone—Carl? Someone else?—for help, using his mother’s wisdom to little avail. The someone else is Rick and Rick is in no mood—no matter what the Koran and Mama say—to give his best stuff to the traveler. To let his mercy prevail over his wrath, other than to fire his gun over the guys head and tell him to beat it. Carl asks about said mercy and Rick just gives him the business for being late with the gas. If the guy isn't a Savior spy, then he hopes he makes it.
“It’s not going to be enough, dad,” says Carl. Enough what, son? “Hope,” says son. Ooooooh.
Daryl, meanwhile has a cig … and a list. A list Dwight fired back that catalogs the whereabouts of Negan's watchmen. Field trip! But not just for him, because Daryl’s a good sharer. Morgan spears one with his staff. Rick gets one, too, but more about that later.
With T-minus 30 to go before Operation All Out War gets underway, Father Gabriel checks in on Rick. Everyone is ready. Er, Rick? You ready? Rick is having a crisis of conscience, because he still thinks only Negan is responsible for all of this. Gabe reminds him that everything starts with one person, good (RICK REBUILDING THE WOOOOORLD!) and bad (Negan).
Time to go. Rick kisses a long-haired, toddler-Zen Judith good-bye. Rick kisses an infuriatingly underutilized Michonne goodbye (seriously, Scott Gimple, if you don’t uphold your promise, man, I swear). Carl just gets a hug and a promise that “this is the end of it.” Righty-o, dad. For sure. After the man of the house pulls away, Michonne tells Carl she’ll help him defend the Alexandritopdom, because it’s your show now, Junior. I'm never more certain that Carl’s tapped into the part where’s its nobody’s show, no matter how phlegmy his dad gets (or rhyme-y Ezekiel gets).
'Everyone may end up dead, but there's something empowering about taking matters into our own hands,' says Andrew Lincoln.
Here we get the best walker of the episode (save, maybe, those three horseless headsmen at the end). This one looks like what happens when you try to toast your marshmallow just right and FLAAAAMES! It’s guarding another lookout guy, who gets it in the gut from Rick, talks smack anyway and ends up as Marshmallow’s lunch.
With all the watchmen done for, the convoy gathers in a field so we can have some touch-feely moments of unity that remind us that there is no Alexandria, Hilltop or Kingdom now. There is just a great and loving us. Also, duuuuuuuude, cover your sternum—ain’t that right, Jerry who I love most?
Rick wonders if Maggie is truly OK going to battle in her delicate condition. Reminding us that, even though she announced her pregnancy about 47 years ago in viewer time, it’s been mere weeks in Maggie time, she says she's been fighting since the farm and she’ll nest come her second trimester. In 2023. I kid. Can’t stop, won’t stop, right Maggie? (I’m suddenly worried for Maggie).
“You showed me how to be someone worth following,” she tells Rick. “After this, I’m following you,” he says back. Maggie looks worried for him. I’m even worse worried for Maggie.
Carol, Daryl and Tara get things rolling with Sub-Operation Red Vine. Seems walkers don’t shuffle at a consistent speed at all. They're late. Let’s see here: decaying shoes times decaying legs times no functioning brain to realize that we have some place to be equals … here they come!
A series of blown-up cars lure the dead, alarm the Saviors and signal the others that Red Vine is accomplished. And give Norman Reedus the opportunity for a classic action-movie, escape-the-explosion shot that I'm virtually certainly caused thousands of lady Daryl fans to pass out cold.
Back at the Sanctuary, Dwight (whose face is damn near twinkly with purpose) jaws on the walkie with a lady who says she wants her some bang-bang and scream-scream and blooooood as a group of Saviors exit the compound — probably to see what all that exploding is about. Dwight smirks and tells her that maybe she will get lucky. Dwight! I forgive you for stealing Daryl’s stuff. Mostly. And here comes the AHK. They form a blockade, hop out and, on Maggie’s signal, fire four group shots announcing their arrival. It takes a minute, but out pop an amused Negan, plus Simon, Dwight, Eugene, Gavin and a tough-looking dame.
Neegs says he cares about his people too much to march them out there for a firefight with the “Piss Patrol,” no matter how bad Rick wants to prove the size of his Little Rick. Even if Little Rick was bigger than Little Negan, he’s not about to let his people die for that. Rick tells Negan's minions they can come with him and be safe as kittens. But this is the last time he’s asking. Negan says Rick might think he knows what is going to happen, but uh-uh. Insufficient numbers in the Piss Patrol for it to be anything good. And here’s why. Heh. S’up, Gregory?
Doing his best to sound not-lame, Gregory declares that—despite the fact that most of Hilltop is here and armed—Hilltop stands with Negan. “Hilltop stands with Maggie,” hollers Jesus, and the fact that no Hilltoppers defect seals the deal. It gets Greg chucked down the stairs.
The mobile Saviors, meanwhile, drive themselves right into the booby trap Carol, Dwight and Co. set for them, clueing Negan into the fact that the Piss Patrol might mean a little more business than just what’s happening here. Back at the Sanctuary, Rick counts back from ten. At seven, they let loose with a massive firestorm that blows out most of the place's windows and, to my thinking anyway, wastes a crap ton of ammo for no fallen bodies — even though we learn soon enough it’s to let the walkers do some of the work. Blowing up the camper as a coda on the festivities, AHK starts to depart, save for Rick. He spots a limping Negan creeping through the rubble. Gabe stops Rick from hanging around to put Negan down, but not from snapping a souvenir Polaroid before he goes. Hashtag #TrashedYourDigs!
Polaroid pride comes before a fall, but it’s not Rick’s. And Gregory’s not dead. Gabe spots the howling moron and falls victim to his priestliness. He tells Greg to wait for the undead masses to give them a clear path to safety; Greg steals his getaway car, instead. Gabe finds shelter in a trailer, but he’s not alone. And his company hopes he has "his @#$%tin' pants on." Now would probably be a fine time to add Gabe to your next-to-die pool. And, though he's not a goner yet, could this be who occupies the grave Rick's crying over? His wrath ... Gabe's mercy ... the part where they aren't going back for the missing padre?
Speaking of that, back at Alexandritopdom, churchly music playing in the background as Carl delivers a few cans of food and a “Sorry” note for the dark-haired gas station man, who watches him from the bushes.
War or mercy? Mercy or war?
And it turns out Operation AOW isn't done for the day. Phase 3 is back at Paze industrial Research, which we need for I'm not sure why. Though Morgan took out the watchman, someone else throws a grenade at the gang, creating a cloud of smoke through which we hear the sound of an advancing zombie herd. Even though we know from earlier that the place is full of walkers, we don't know if it's coming through the haze, because we cut away to a pretty impressive mass of them descending on the Sanctuary.
Season 8 of 'The Walking Dead' premieres Oct. 22.
And then we’re back to Rick and his bathrobe and the not-scary owl. Seems there’s a festival a brewin’ out there — one the people are taking very seriously, Michonne beams, still cozying with her coffee. Weird Al sings on. And then we're back to Rick and the gravesite. His lips tremble as he whispers, “My mercy prevails over my wrath.” Well well. Someone was listening after all. Or perhaps had another opportunity to hear Gas Station’s mom’s advice?
The episode ends with the rest of his pre-ambush speech, a rousing battle cry about their resilience and evolution and this war for the sake of peace. They've already won, he roars.
Whether that's the case, I guess, depends on which vision of the future you believe.
The Walking Dead, Sundays, 9/8c, AMC