Review: The Walking Dead – Season 8 – Episode 1: “Mercy”

The Walking Dead is back with an explosive start to its eighth season. Whilst the usual problems still crop up there are signs the show is improving.

The Walking Dead returns, and it’s decidedly more to-the-point in a momentum shifting opening episode.

Season 7 ended on the dissatisfying cliffhanger of Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and the gang’s failure to usurp Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), testing many a fan’s patience in the process. The season was compiled of plenty of slow-burning episodes that teased a payoff that fizzled out to not much more than a minor twist and a quick shot of a tiger mauling a dude.

So it is fair to say, after a series of mediocre seasons, that it is about time one of the biggest shows on television got its act together.

The opening episode to the show’s eighth season certainly demonstrates the show-runner’s intent to get to the point a bit quicker. We open the episode with the Hilltop, Alexandria and Kingdom crews coming together in preparation for all out war. Weapons and Mad Max-style vehicular modifications are being manufactured whilst Rick, Maggie (Lauren Cohen) and Ezekiel (Khary Payton), the three appointed leaders of the alliance, rally the troops. It all gets a bit hammy but after a season of whimpering and kneeling to an increasingly irritating Negan, it’s nice to see everyone fired up to kick some ass.

Some brief moments of reflection (the show’s aggravating trademark at this point), a few discreet murders of Negan’s lookouts – including a return to straight-up killing fellas from Morgan (Lenny James) – and a brief encounter with a stranger (in a scene that cleverly mirrors the opening scene from the pilot) and we’re off to war with only 15 minutes of runtime passed.

It’s a welcome treat from a show which seems to think a pulpy program about zombies should try to emulate the kind of pacing you’d see showcased in a Béla Tarr movie. There are still lingering shots aplenty and a whole load of unnecessary conversations along the way – “One more fight,” Maggie tells Rick, “after this, I’m following you”… someone’s going to die… but ultimately the gang, and the show, seem more determined to get on with the mission at hand.

Dwight (Austin Amelio) and Daryl (Norman Reedus) pass messages through a nifty exchange of arrows detailing when the fight will begin, whilst Carol (Melissa McBride), Tara (Alanna Masterson), Morgan and some nameless extras from the other communities set up a parade of booby traps for Negan’s reinforcements. And with that it’s time to execute the mission, as Rick and the collective forces of Hilltop, Alexandria and The Kingdom (Hilldomdria? or maybe Kingandritop?), park up outside Negan’s gaff equipped with the makeshift barriers connected to their cars in the opening scenes.

In a nice touch, each person wears a colour-coded ribbon around their arm to signify what community they represent – red for The Kingdom, green for Hilltop, and white for Alexandria. It’s a fun detail that helps not only make it clear who’s who, but furthers the world building that serves as one of the show’s more compelling aspects.

With the gang all set and ready to attack, out comes the man himself, Negan, accompanied by his top men – which oddly includes Eugene (Josh McDermitt) – and his trademark swagger. It is at this point that a question arises which can also be asked for a large part of last season: how in the hell is Negan still alive? Seriously, the guy is careless and rarely even carries a gun let alone any kind of body armour. Standing in front of 20 or 30 armed killers, who are all well protected, it is perplexing why they even let him speak and don’t just open fire and end it there and then. There is no way Negan, according to the rules and laws of the series, should survive when he is paraded on an open balcony in front of several thoroughly pissed off, experienced killers. Truly baffling.

Anyway, they let him speak and he reveals that Gregory (Xander Berkeley) has sworn allegiance to Negan and is demanding that all Hilltop residents stand down or they will no longer be welcome in his community – a brief spanner in the works that scared no one, characters nor audience. “The Hilltop stands with Maggie,” Jesus (Tom Payne) proclaims in one of the biggest “no shit” moments the show has offered.

So, without any further ado, the battle commences with Rick counting down (giving Negan a taste of his own medicine), only to stop at seven and open fire anyway… FINALLY. Carol, Morgan, Tara and Daryl successfully set off the booby traps destroying all of Negan’s reinforcements and lead a giant herd of walkers towards Negan’s compound.

With the compound compromised thanks to a barrage of bullets and the giant herd of walkers breaking through the defences, the gang up and leave en route to take down Negan’s other compounds. However, Gabriel (Seth Gilliam), still holding on to what faith he has left, attempts to save Gregory, who promptly abandons Gabriel to the herd. Seeking shelter in a nearby RV, Gabriel discovers Negan is also hiding out from the zombies; leading us to again ask: HOW IS NEGAN STILL ALIVE?! Gabriel is literally facing him with a loaded weapon… this is getting beyond ridiculous now.

So there it is, finally a victory for the good guys as Negan’s empire slowly begins to crumble, but with the actual size of his army unknown at this point it is probably fair to say the war has only just begun.

It is a relief to see the show finally shifting gear and the ending, with the gang heading straight off to the next fight, leaves us excited for more. At this point in its lifespan, due to its overwhelming popularity, the showrunners have been able to do what they want. And this has lead to a lot of filler, overindulgence in terms of pacing, odd narrative choices and every now and again a burst of brilliance. So, for the show to finally up the momentum and begin to give audiences what they want to see, whilst fully embracing the post-apocalypse format, it serves as encouragement that it can move away from some of the more disappointing seasons and reach its full potential.

However, that being said, the show still carries many of the flaws that have frustrated its dedicated fan base. There is still the inclusion of lingering shots – sometimes just repeated shots from earlier in the episode – cheesy dialogue and a main conflict that just shouldn’t be an issue anymore. Jeffery Dean Morgan’s portrayal of Negan has been fun but considering he has always been teased as the big bad for The Walking Dead the realisation of the character on screen has been a bit disappointing, even bordering on annoying. It is simply no longer logical for him to be this petrifying and seemingly untouchable anymore.

Finally, perhaps most welcome of all the improvements demonstrated in this episode is the injection of something a little more hopeful. Season 7 proved a tough watch because it offered little to no hope or happiness. The whole season was full of doom and gloom and when hope was presented it would be quickly torn away – something which has become customary for the show to do. However, season 8’s opener, which opens with Carl explaining to his dad that they need to have more hope, offers 47 minutes of everything working out as planned. There was no sinister twist where it is revealed that Negan was one step ahead at all times, no one was randomly and brutally murdered and we were even shown a glimpse of what might come – Rick and Michonne living an idyllic life with their family in the not too distant future. It’s weird to see the show so optimistic… oh well, we’re sure it won’t last long.

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